Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Izakaya Brings Japanese Tapas to Brooklyn

I spent three weeks in Japan, sustaining myself on the cuisine of the land. I spent one hour in Izakaya on Smith Street in Brooklyn and rediscovered that authentic taste without having to endure that 13-hour flight again, thankfully. The newly opened Japanese tapas restaurant (from co-owners Charlie Tanjung and chef Tani Halim) combines my favorite style of eating (small tasting portions) with one of my favorite foods. And if you think Japanese is all sushi, think again (something this American heartbreakingly discovered in Japan). With only a fourth of the menu dedicated to raw fish on rice, Izakaya (the namesake referring to this communal and casual style of Japanese dining) offers an overabundance of tasting fare. From hot and cold appetizers and large plates, to salads, soup bowls, noodles, curry dishes and grilled yakitori skewers, it is difficult to pick your spread, especially with such reasonable prices. We grabbed a table by the window in this 44-seat modern space with sleek black tables and globe ceiling lanterns and began a diverse sampling.

Grilled Squid

My favorite by far was the grilled squid ($9), a substantial portion sliced into hearty rings. They were  simultaneously firm and tender and drizzled with a lovely salty and sweet sauce. Also from the grill was the salty fillet of Japanese mackerel ($9) which was flaky and buttery. Both were accompanied by grassy greens that provided fresh reprieve from the bold fish.

Grilled Mackerel

Kinpira Hijiki
Sticking with flavors of the sea, the "kinpira hijiki" ($5) boasted shreds of sauteed seaweed wrapped in a layer of tofu, that had a lovely balance of salty and sweet. And speaking of sweet, beware of the supple kabocha squash ($4), which could have easily been served for dessert. This vibrant Japanese pumpkin was cubed and simmered to perfect mashability. (Kabocha ice cream, anyone?)

Kabocha Squash

If you want a simple palate-pleaser, order the "tsukemono" pickled vegetable medley ($5), which included those familiar (beets, okra, carrots, daikon) and those not-so (I believe they were Japanese root vegetables), but all sumptuously vinegar-saturated.

Pickled Vegetables
















Yakitori
Probably the most fun to taste are the yakitori ($2-3 each), skewers of meats, seafood and vegetables. As we did, dare to try to tender beef tongue and whole miniature smelt fish - and by whole, yes, I mean head on. The pork morsels were also tasty and there is nothing like the earthy flavor of grilled shitake mushrooms.

Smelt Fish Yakitori

Of course, I had to order the largest platter of assorted sashimi ($28) which was thankfully fresh and thick-cut - no skimping here. But not before the only mistake arrived at our table: a quizzical Japanese seafood pizza pancake called "okonomi-yaki" ($9). I should have known. It was as mystifying in texture, consistency and flavor as it sounds. It was also unpleasantly heavy with a thick pancake base, slathered with an almost-as-thick layer of gooey cheese and a heavy-handed dressing of barbecue-mayo sauce. Certainly not for the faint of stomach. Luckily I seemed to have missed this in Japan.

Seafood Pancake "Pizza"
Sashimi Platter

But Izakaya gets high marks for consistency in quality and flavor profiles for such an expansive menu. One questionable dish out of a manifold of such well-executed diverse tapas is certainly forgivable, especially when it saves you the trip to Tokyo.