There’s a powerhouse restaurant duo in Jackson Heights, stacked one atop the other: Beneath Zabb Elee, the Michelin-starred spot that serves the kind of fiery Isan Thai food that lights up your innards (in a good way), is the recently opened Zabb Sake Bar (71-28 Roosevelt Avenue, Queens; 347-781-7318), a Japanese izakaya with a bit of Thai flair. Though they share a name — “zabb” means delicious — the two spots do not share ownership, but there are some similarities in their ambiance. Like its upstairs brother, Zabb Sake Bar makes the most of its narrow space with friendly service and fresh, thoughtfully presented, affordable dishes.
Naturally, you’ll find sake here, reasonably priced (it’s a great place to experiment), as well as the cheapest Sapporo pitchers in town. The food, which ranges from classic izakaya fare to some truly out-there sushi rolls, is priced so that you’d expect small plates, but they turn out to be generously portioned.
A bowl of mentai pasta — noodles topped with slightly spicy cod roe — delivered the perfect balance of briny and creamy; I kept returning to it after other dishes began to pile up. An enigmatically named “sushi appetizer” turned out to be five fresh, sizable pieces, playfully presented on a miniature staircase, and included salmon topped with ikura and tuna with bright green strands of seaweed and black caviar. In Japan they’d be smaller, but this is Thai-ified America, where the extra bites are welcome.
If simplicity’s not your thing, try the sushi rolls here; one Frankenstein-like creation, which combined tempura shrimp with bell pepper and mozzarella, might be more appealing to the very drunk, but after only one Sapporo the flavor clash of Japanese and Italian was overwhelming.
Chicken gizzards, fried karaage-style with a squeeze of lime juice on top, were a much more manageable and tasty bar snack. So was a salad of seared salmon over shredded cabbage, lightly dressed and dotted with black sesame seeds, perfect for a sweltering night. When I saw a dessert of taiyaki, matcha ice cream, and sweet red beans arrive at another table, basically every major Japanese sweet on one plate, I wished I’d saved room.
The tiny restaurant plays jazz throughout the evening, infusing the space with Tokyo cool and interrupting the sounds of the 7 train as it thunders overhead. But whimsical inflections, like the sushi staircase and the wacky rolls, are reminders you’re in Jackson Heights, and there’s no need for the solemnity that can sometimes overtake more by-the-book Japanese spots. Zabb Sake Bar brings something new to this constantly changing strip of Queens, making the question of where to eat on Roosevelt Avenue even tougher.