You don’t have to search far or wide to find an affordable steak in New York. Just ask the people chowing down on salsa-verde-smothered churrasco at any number of neighborhood spots around the five boroughs, or try the folks who frequent Manhattan’s last remaining Tad’s Steaks, a decades-old budget chophouse in midtown. The city’s also rife with bistros peddling bar steaks in the $20 range, and home to a branch of French chain Les Relais de Venise L’Entrecôte, which only serves one menu: seven or so ounces of sliced sirloin doused in a sharp mustardy sauce thickened with chicken livers, eaten alongside salad and fries for a cool $30. If you can’t or won’t throw down big bucks for dry-aged beef, this town graciously provides an abundance of options — which is why I can’t fathom the appeal of Ikinari Steak, a Tokyo-based quick-service import with an open disdain for chairs.
Yes, Ikinari (which translates to “suddenly” or “all of a sudden”) aims to flip the stodgy world of steakhouses on its head by removing seats from the equation, all in the name of cost and convenience. The chain requires customers to stand while eating, which encourages faster turnover and in turn means the restaurant can offer their cuts of USDA Choice beef at marginally reduced prices. It’s a sensation in Japan, with more than 100 outlets, a rewards program, and an app that tracks personal meat consumption. It’s also, save for the steak itself, lackluster.
Septuagenarian chef and inventor Kunio Ichinose launched the juggernaut brand in 2013 as part of an effort to further streamline the act of feeding people beef, something he’s been striving to achieve for more than forty years. The focus on efficiency makes sense from a business perspective, but the pared-down proceedings at this East Village newcomer can leave you feeling sympathetic to cattle. From the way you’re herded to your communal eating kiosk, to the lines for the butcher’s station where patrons choose their steaks by weight, to the unsettling mouth guards worn by staff for hygiene reasons, it’s all like something from a dystopian novel — a steakhouse devoid of nearly all but the most base of steakhouse pleasures: the actual act of consuming meat.
Waits have died down with the opening buzz, so it won’t take long for a host to lead you to your very own tiny expanse of countertop outfitted with a number and a cubby for your belongings. The brightly lit subterranean dining room, thick with the perfume of sizzling beef fat, looks like your average fast-casual outfit, with exposed-brick walls and an upscale-cafeteria-like atmosphere. Soon a waiter will stop by to take your drink order — Japanese Sapporo beers and Beringer wines from California are the only booze selections — and inquire whether you’d like to pair your steak with an innocuous soup/salad combo for $4, or splurge on Ichinose’s signature $6 garlic-pepper rice. The latter shows promise, arriving on a sizzling iron skillet and strewn with crunchy fried garlic, diced beef scraps, and a ton of corn kernels. When mixed together, the D.I.Y. fried rice is pleasant enough, but because Ikinari serves corn with every steak, it winds up being a monotonous addition. Granted, you can’t expect an international chain to deviate too much from its corporate-approved menu, but a little effort (and a few extra choices beyond desperately unseasoned vegetables) would go a long way toward helping people forget they’re eating steak — a meal made for reclining in surrender from overindulgence — while standing up.
On the other hand, if all you need is a rapid meat fix minus any comfort whatsoever, Ikinari’s steaks hit the spot in a perfectly fine, workaday sort of way. Once you’ve settled on beverages and sides, head over to the meat counter. There you’ll present a laminated card with your table number to the masked butchers before picking one of three cuts — filet, sirloin, or ribeye — by weight, at eleven, nine, and eight cents per gram, respectively. Then they’ll carve your choice to order from the hulking slabs they store in the display cooler behind them. On average, you’ll wind up paying anywhere from $20 to $40 for your haul.
Follow the restaurant’s recommendation and order yours rare — one thing Ichinose has thankfully mastered is acing cooking temps in a mass-market setting. Every steak I tried boasted a rosy interior to match its nicely charred exterior crust. After about ten minutes, the flash-seared, grill-marked meats arrive sizzling and juicy on blazing hot iron plates, crowned with florets of melting garlic butter and scattered with fried garlic. Pour some “J” sauce, a garlicky soy-based marinade melding sweet apples and miso, over the top to send plumes of steam rising, or gussy up your beef with dollops of mustard, raw garlic, and squirts of the house sauce, a sweeter, chunkier number that packs a more concentrated flavor. There’s no side dish or condiment that can fix the kitchen’s assorted platter, however, which turns out to be a hodgepodge of different cuts mixed into an unappealing jumble.
In all, Ikinari’s few virtues are probably best experienced at lunch, when a ten-and-a-half-ounce chuck steak with sides fetches a flat $20. But unless you’re in a rush, absolutely must control your portions down to the gram, or have a strange, eternal love for cob-free corn, you really don’t need to go through all that hoopla the next time you’re craving bargain beef.
90 East 10th Street, 917-388-3546