Inakaya, 231 W 40th St, 212-354-2195
Price range: $28-$45 Rating: 3 Ls
Prepare for a shock when you enter Inakaya, a new Tokyo import on the ground floor of the Times building. The cacophonous roar you hear? That's the staff, greeting you. But since you don't speak Japanese, it's indistinguishable from being screamed at. By a crowd. Who you are paying.
This disconcerting entré to the airy American branch of a Roppongi institution becomes fun after a drink or two — drinks, like the food, passed to you on 10-foot wooden paddles — or when it happens to someone else. As soon as you've settled into the impressive 30-foot wooden bar, the banging starts (which, of course, involves additional shouting). This noise is at least for a reason. The staff — and brave guests — are using giant mallets to break rice into mochi, the freshest I've ever tasted, served in simple lumps for free and in sheets with green tea ice cream for a great dessert.
Inakaya is somewhere between a Disney-fied take on a dream Fellini once had about a Japanese frat initiation and an excessive bull-market Japanese mega-restaurant of 2005 (En, Megu, Matsuri, etc.), populated by lunatics in toe-socks, manning those paddles, minding the robata grills. And it's not bad. Before sampling the grilled fare, we started with salmon ($14) and chu-toro (medium fatty) tuna ($15) sashimi, delightfully fresh and expertly cut, and a bargain for the chu-toro; rich, impossible-to-mess-up braised pork belly ($14); and flavorless , rubbery rolled omelet ($10).
A carafe of overpriced sake down, I joined my companions for some delightful Japanese black lager. The vegetables, which must be ordered individually, really add up, as each 3 oz. serving costs $7 to $9. So we only tried the shimeji mushroom, which had a good flavor but were wrinkly from being grilled too long, a few strands of perfectly singed asparagus and a dozen small, addictive ginko nuts. A roasted rice ball, coated with too much of a too-sweet miso, was filling, if not the textural adventure it should have been. Last up in this many course meal was a whole salt-grilled rockfish ($27), one of a few whole fish offerings — not to mention lobster, crabs, and even wagyu beef. The fish was the highlight of the meal, the salty singed skin a delightful contrast to the silky, delicately flavored snow-white flesh.
Inakaya — like my fourth grade report said of Japan itself — is a land of contrasts. The overly broad menu seems an anachronism, culled from a much larger restaurant, but an exquisite meal can be had, for a price, and delicacies we don't often see on these shores can be enjoyed. It's a place to impress and frighten out-of-town guests, somewhere to have some exquisite fish before a show, and, if you're missing your family, somewhere to get screamed at for no reason.
Photo Adam Au