Zenkichi, 77 N 6th St, 718-388-8985
Price range: $25-40
One crisp evening, walking through the post-industrially cool sameness
of Williamsburg, I came to an unadorned wooden wall with a single red
light. Either this was Zenkichi, the Japanese gastro-pub I’d come for,
or a postmodern brothel — basically a win-win. I pushed on the wall
below the light, and it effortlessly opened into a small river-stone
entryway, with bamboo growing through the ceiling, and velvet ropes
blocking access to the dining room. Actually, dining alcoves.
The hostess whisked us along a meandering stone path to our table,
partitioned from the rest of the three-story restaurant by dark slatted
wood and pull-down screens. A single spot hung from the ceiling,
illuminating the table. You would think getting the waitress’ attention
would be a problem, but in the grand tradition of hospitals and
airlines, tables are equipped with a call button.
The waitress came, and in adorably broken English explained the
modern Japanese tapas menu — nearly devoid of raw fish — and sake list.
We started with three plates and two sakes: mine, a rich, cloudy
nigori; hers, described as marshmallowy on the menu. Our first plate,
Monkfish with Foie Gras in Ponzu ($7), was rolled tightly and sliced
into disks. This was an eye-opener, as the delicate flavors of fish and
foie melded in the exuberant ponzu. Up next was Eel and Cream Cheese
Tempura ($8) — what I would imagine great Japanese food to be: sweet
and crunchy with the sparkle of the sea. Our third dish, humble Aged
Ashi Tofu ($9), was the best tofu I’ve ever eaten. Homemade daily, it
had the luscious texture of crème brulee, nutty undertones of sesame,
lightly fried, served in a sprightly dashi stock.
Then, another round of amazing sake that I’ll never be able to
find elsewhere, and two more plates. The first was the phenomenally
sweet and complex Pork Kakumi ($9), a large cube of pork belly simmered
for three days. Our waitress made sure we knew to eat the fat — the
bulk of the cube — and we complied, till the bowl was empty and grease
stained my chin. Our last dish of the night was another tofu dish, Warm
Tofu with Minced Chicken Sauce ($9). Served elsewhere, it may have been
great, but we knew we were missing the acidic dashi that brings out
tofu’s flavor (yes, it does have one) and the bits of chicken detracted
from the luxurious texture.
This was truly the most unique and satisfying dining experience
I’ve had in years, even though not every dish was a masterpiece. The
space is both dramatic and intimate, perfect for small groups or
romance, a piece of Tokyo right in Williamsburg.