Located underground in a fairly innocuous looking Tribeca building only the lantern out the front gives away the magic held therein.
The entire restaurant is decked out like a 19th century Japanese fishing village... or at least one that was built by Hollywood. The dining rooms are all private separate rooms in small "buildings" up stairs, behind shoji screens, through fluttering noren curtains and in sunken pits; from the outside they're designed to look like small shops and houses. The 'village' is pieced together by wooden walkways and jutting 'rock' walls and provide a quaint and bustling other world feel. The whole place is really like a family funtime restaurant for grown up otaku, it's Disneyland with better food and a fully stocked bar.
Americans are really into their situational roleplaying, you get this a lot at tourist sites and amusement parks; Ninja is no different. "Ninjas" dressed in black cotton uniforms whisk us away into a dark portal and through a 'secret passage' which is so dark I must feel my way along the corridor; we know that "something" is coming but it doesn't stop me from jumping and yelping when a ninja leaps out at me and thrusts a knife in my face.
Because we have not booked we are led to a small waiting room and given a menu to peruse. In the background we hear many parties laughing and "Hi-ya!"-ing through their meal and everyone's having a riotous time.
Eventually we are led to a private dining room and introduced to our own personal ninja. I am vaguely disappointed that he is not Asian but he is enthusiastic and very attentive so I try to ignore my woeful pro-Asian sentiments.
We're on holiday, so it's time for the most amount of food we can possibly fit into ourselves. I am a little surprised that being Americanised that it's not a full kaiseki as I was expecting but rather just a multicourse tasting menu. We go for the "Hanzou" set meal ($88USD) the largest there is and encompassing as much of the "Ninja Magic" special meals as we can. Most of the meals here are named after famous samurai; Hattori Hanzo was a vassal of the Matsudaira clan and served Tokugawa Ieyasu during his rise to Shogun he is not as many assume, a great sword maker ala Kill Bill.
Sake Tasting Set $20USD
We also opt for the Hanzo sake tasting set; featuring a number of junmai 'pure rice' nihonshu graded by age and rice grain polish. To be honest none of its really to my taste especially the aged sake that's worth the most; blugh, I'll stick with ume shu.
Ume shu $12USD
Ume shu is a sweet plum wine that I generally drink by the bucket load, this particular brand is lovely but they refuse to sell me a whole bottle (bastards!) so I have no idea what it is.
And of course it wouldn't be a Japanese meal without some beer; especially when it's $2.95 for Sapporo.
Our first dish is called battojutsu or "the art of drawing the sword" the name owed to a fast draw technique usually performed with a katana, where the sword is drawn, several cuts are made and then the sword is placed back in the scabbard - think . In our case instead it is used for a little "Ninja" magic, the sword is drawn and drops dry ice into a hidden vessal, we must give our largest battle cries as we do so and are rewarded with a snowy mist of smoke flowing over our dish.
Battojutsu - included with Hanzou Set $88USD course 1 of 5
The dish itself is a crudo of tuna and yellowtail served with beetroot and sprouts and a ginger dressing; along with a bowl of tuna confit. It's light and well done, the cold beets and sashimi go together very well, if a little odd in the middle of a New York winter! The smattering of gold on the confit adds to the magic.
Katon Bomb - included with Hanzou Set $88USD course 1 of 5
For my choice of first course I forgo the ninja magic because there's liver terrine to be had - however I should have paused when I remember that the word "katon" means 'fire' - we are surprised with flash powder and a unique serving technique. Liver, duck and foie gras terrine is infused with pistachios and served with a konbu salad. There's not much Japanese about it but the liver is good quality and the terrine is firm and well textured and goes well with the wasabi/mustard paste. I'd have preferred a bread product than salad with the terrine :o(
Nigiri Sushi - included with Hanzou Set $88USD course 2 of 5
Sadly there is no choice of second dish, it's sushi or nothing! This is a shame since one of my friends doesn't eat fish :o( A fairly generic selection this is Tuna, Salmon, Cod, Snapper, Skipjack and Salmon roe. We question the choice of Skipjack, I've never heard of it nor have any of my friends, we assume it to be a local fish and give it a try; we are ... not happy with the results. The flesh is very "fishy" and not well suited to being served raw, the quality seems good more that it is very overpowering compared to the other very light sashimi pieces. The other fish is fairly well done but not excellent, I think perhaps because I am spoilt by good food and high levels of Japanese immigration at home rather than because there is anything wrong with the restaurant.
Kirikabu - included with Hanzou Set $88USD course 3 of 5
This piece of ninja magic comes in the form of a kirikabu "log" which we must "Ninja chop!" to get open. Our dish is housed underneath a large hollow log made of filo pastry and painted with edible ink wood grain. The entire thing is quite fun, though... a little messy!
The dish is thinly sliced wagyu on a bed of rice, served in a sauced called "Michinobu" and covered with enoki mushrooms. I'm not sure what they were getting at with the Michinobu name since I cannot in my memory of shogunate Japan recall a particular case of this name - though there are a number of poets and artists who have this first name. The dish is fairly nice but the wagyu isn't as good quality as at home and the rice is too wet for my tastes - they are using a Chinese sticky long grain rather than a Japanese short grain rice.
Rib Eye Steak - included with Hanzou Set $88USD course 4 of 5
Everything's bigger in America right? Despite the fact that this is a tasting course it appears the main protein is the size of a standard dinner serve. Not much to tell here, this is a steak, served with some Asian inspired sauces.
Bonfire - included with Hanzou Set $88USD course 4 of 5
My main lamb dish however comes ON FIRE. Or at least they use a low heat flame gel to set my dish on fire and mix the sauce. It's good fun! The lamb itself is a little generic I think particularly if you're used to Australia where good lamb is plentiful and I wanted something a little more Japanese infused. The sauce is at least a yuzu dish, but really, it entirely overpowers the meat and I leave most of it behind.
How would you do Japanese lamb? Thoughts must be had! It would make the ultimate Aussie/Nippon fusion!
Before dessert (but not before another drink!) we are given a private magic show in our dining room. To be honest the guy is a little ... odd; like in his spare time he'd quote endless Monty Python at you and carry asthma medication. I like my nerds but this guy's... interesting. I think the secret though is a) plentiful alcohol and b) private rooms. It's easier to 'get into' the magic when there's no one else to see.
Spiced Pumpkin Bonsai - included with Hanzou Set $88USD course 5 of 5
The desserts are really fun. I choose a spiced pumpkin dessert which is a pumpkin cream 'pudding' in a bonsai dish, spread with cookie crumb 'dirt' and a bonsai tree made of pie crust all served with berry sorbet and fresh fruits. Light and fresh but still sweet and surprising this was a real highlight of the meal!
Rose Chocolate - included with Hanzou Set $88USD course 5 of 5
A chocolate layer biscuit, excellent rose infused chocolate mousse and fruit come with another smokey surprise!
Ninja Star - included with Hanzou Set $88USD course 5 of 5
A real live ninja star is transformed into a rich chocolate mousse cake before our very eyes!!
The only real downside to the experience is that every so often a ninja jumped into the room to 'attack' us, or a set off a flash bomb or other such fun. Unfortunately I am of an anxious disposition and have to swap seats with a friend so that I get attacked less. Similarly on the way to the bathroom I almost peed myself a little when I got "ninja-ed" 3 times on the walk down the corridor. On the other hand when I arrived at the bathrooms I found that they came equipt complete with Japanese Toto commodes - you know the type you revel at in Japanese hotels with the 18 contraptions, soundtrack and warmed seat? Kind of nice on a freezing New York night ;o)
All in all Ninja was great fun. The food was possibly a little over priced for the quality, but the quailty was still very good and the additional money I think goes with the 'flair.' Definitely worth a stop in if you're holidaying with kids, or y'know... just a Japanese obsessed goth chick.
25 Hudson St (Tribeca)
New York City, NY
Ph: +1 212 274 8500
Souvenir shirts and stickers available
Family fun for kids of all ages
Fully licenced bar