565 Vanderbilt Avenue, Prospect Heights
Since opening in 2011, Chuko Ramen has received a level of praise rare in its unanimity and fervor. Almost as legendary as the ramen, though, are the waits—routinely bypassing the hour mark, even after three years. Partly this is because Chuko is tiny; mostly, it’s because it’s deservedly popular. So it was with mild trepidation that I approached Bar Chuko, the new izakaya spinoff opened by Chuko’s owners last month, just down the street. It was a warm Thursday evening, around dinnertime: what would the crowd be like?
The answer: blessedly small, mostly because Bar Chuko is at least three times larger than its predecessor. It has a sort of unremarkable, pan-minimalistic feel: all clean lines, blond wood, and exposed beams. The narrow, shotgun space is semi-divided into two rooms: in the front, to the left, is the bar itself, cut long and beveled from some light-hued wood, and backed by a brick wall. Opposite it, to the right, runs a row of tables-for-two, with brushed metal chairs. Fading sunlight slants through the floor-to-ceiling front windows, which look west over Vanderbilt Avenue, across Atlantic Yards, to the Barclays Center, a spaceship rusting in a ditch. In the back room, two large, family-size tables take up most of the space, and a rectangular opening in the black brick walls looks into the kitchen, where a coterie of chefs prepare food amidst steam
An izakaya is a type of casual, after-work drinking establishment where small plates are served to accompany the drinks. Bar Chuko’s menu is divided into Snacks, Bites, Raw items (oysters, spicy tuna, mackerel, clam), Bowls (chilled fresh tofu, chicken ramen) and Skewers, in meat or vegetable varieties. The food is creatively simple, packed with flavor and surprise. Take the toasted rice congee, a rice gruel with mustard greens and a melting soft egg. It was rich, warming, and occasionally lit up by something… I want to say “pickled.” Or the miso cheese, a creamy spread served with little toasts and accoutrements of cucumber, scallions, and salmon roe. It’s like a wacky, izakaya version of bagels and cream cheese, one you might think was played for laughs, until you tried it.
But this is, first and foremost, a cocktail bar, and the drinks star. The expansive menu boasts a wide range of spirits, including Japanese whiskeys like Hibiki, Yamazaki, and Nikka Miyagikyo, as well as a small but discerning beer list heavy on craft beers from Bronx Brewery, 21st Amendment, Hop Nosh, and Ginga Kogen. The cocktail offerings include bespoke specialties like the Shush (shishito, shochu, lemon, honey) and the palate-desiccating Tokyo Drift (Rittenhouse rye, plum liqueur). There’s also a list of chu-hai cocktails, a traditional Japanese mixed drink that combines shochu, soda water, and flavored syrup. Think alcoholic Italian soda, and you’re on the right track. Bar Chuko offers them in lemon, lime, pineapple, orange-ginger, watermelon-black pepper, and aperol-grapefruit varieties, for $6-7. They’re all potent, and alone would be reason enough to return to Bar Chuko, especially in the summer. Thankfully, there are many more reasons.