House of the Shouting Waiter

05/13/2009 4:00 AM |

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