Saturday, February 6, 2010

Review: Inakaya, Midtown, New York City, USA

I had been previously unimpressed with the very Westernised Asian food in the USA - though I admit I am very spoilt by living in Australia and with the sharpened palette of an otaku and sometime sinophile.

While flipping through a local tourist brochure I noticed a review that for Inakaya stated that the "fresh out of Tokyo tastes weren't suited to the American palette." Which meant it was just perfect for me! The Zagat guide wasn't particularly flattering, but their main complaint was that the fresh ingredients caused a higher than normal price tag - but really isn't that often the way with Japanese food?

Inakaya is a robatayaki - or grill in the Robata style. This is a more standard grill than the Korean or ishiyaki (stone grill) style I often eat at. Robata is on a wide spaced mesh over an open flame, a more 'rustic' grill often associated with home cooking or street vendors. During cooking the food fanned to get the correct temperature and smokiness in the food; a process well known to players of the Cooking Mama game series!

Most of the restaurant is seated around a large counter where the grill chefs shout orders and deliver the food on large wooden paddles direct to you in a very theatric way. It's all a bit showy and touristy really but a lot of fun and well... after a couple of weeks separation anxiety over Asiana I feel far more at home.

Shiso ume shu mojito $12USD

Well it wouldn't be a review of mine without a hefty dose of alcohol right? And my thirst for ume shu is fairly legendary. This cocktail twist with shiso (a Japanese herb of the basil family) is absolutely delicious; unfortunately we were only able to call in 2 rounds of drinks before their licence ran out and I was not able to get another. On the other hand I don't think this would be a hard drink to mix at home so expect some experimentation in the future.

'Premium' ume shu on the rocks $14USD

I am used to being served ume shu in whiskey glasses so the choice of this wine glass is odd to me. Still the aged amber ume shu from Mito-no-karakuen hits the spot, it's smooth and refined and the aging has taken off much of the sweetness of most ume shu.

I am very encouraged by both the staff and clientele as there are many Asians and all the staff seem to be fresh from Japan immigrants with thick Tokyo accents. The American couple next to me make me chuckle though as they've ordered Californian fusion sushi only and look very perplexed at the list of dishes I rattle off quickly and eagerly and then even more perplexed as each arrives.

Taro with sea salt and sesame $6USD

Fresh grilled taro is sticky and heavy and not to everyone's tastes but I love it, especially hot grilled with hefty salt like this. It could have done with a little oil but it's rich and sweet and recogniseable vegetable with no fat - which is a real treat in the US.

Sweet potato with butter $6USD

I don't recognise the type of yam being used here so please let me know if you do. It's lighter than the Australian Gold sweet potatoes (which are in turn very similar to the American yams used in traditional cooking). Hot and buttery this is pure simple comfort food, the type I love. This reminds me of a purple sweet potato ice cream that I ate in Kyoto once, if anyone knows the type that is used there.

Asparagus $6USD

Served with a sprinkling of salt and a wedge of lemon this is another simple, fresh dish that draws out the fine produce being used at this restaurant. Grilling asparagus is very unusual to me but the fresh crunch is heaven to my system.

Shishito Peppers $7USD

These long thin Japanese peppers aren't particularly spicey and not particurly of my palette; I guess I am mostly disappointed that the grilling hasn't pulled out a sweetness as you get with many peppers. I decide I am being particular however as my dining companion cleans the whole plate.

Atsuage $7USD

Once upon a time atsuage was quite difficult to find. As Japanese food has become more palatable to gaijin, especially in Australia where it has lost it's "exotic" edge, atsuage has taken a more prominent place on Japanese menus. Atsuage is marinated and fried tofu slices, which in this case have then been grilled. When sliced thinner and fried at high temperatures you are left with aburaage - the fried tofu 'pockets' that are then simmered with mirin, soy and sugar to produce the coverings for inarizushi.

As a tofu devotee atsuage is one of my favourite foods, the quality of the tofu here is excellent and I would suspect made on site or of a very high quality local supplier. Despite the marinade and the cooking process the internal bean curd is still creamy and thick. The entire dish is set off by the fresh sweet grated ginger served with it.

Tsukune $8USD

After my introduction to them in Japan I'm a little obsessed with tsukune and seek them out whenever I'm in Asian grill restaurants. The simple chicken meat balls are always a delicious snack with drinks and here they are basted in a sweet teriyaki style sauce that lingers slightly with a satisfying smile. There's a definite umame taste going on here so either they've used a mushroom concentrate in the basting sauce or there's MSG being added here.

Beef trio $45USD

Now this dish isn't much to look at, 3 skewers of grilled beef, but this will remain one of my most memorable meals for years to come. Much like the progressive nihonshu tasting at Ninja, this is a progressive beef tasting. Each meat is basted using the same spices and grilled to a moist medium temperature, the difference (and it is a key difference) is the quality of the beef.

The first beef is an American Black Angus; now, when you pay good prices for meat in America it's okay quality, nothing to write home about but nothing to complain about either. This is definitely high quality for America but when you've been raised on Aussie beef this is just mediocre. The second beef is an American Wagyu (that they arrogantly call US Kobe), wagyu of course is beef bred between Japanese Kobe beef cattle and Angus cattle, because of the quality of the US Angus cattle I find every encounter with wagyu in the US a little dissatisfying. Nonetheless compared to the pure Angus it is tender, sweet and juicy.

The third beef is a Japanese imported Wagyu and is pure heaven; I suspect it has a higher marbling content than its US counterpart (say Marbling 5+ for the US to 7+ for the JP). It melts on the toungue, the taste is purer and I suspect the animal happier. There is no better illustration for the variable quality of the meat and the influence that Japanese farming techniques have had on beef production; try this at home.

5 Sashimi plate $38USD

Of course it's very unusual to have Sashimi at the end of the meal, traditionally it is the second course in Japanese food, however we kept being presented with hot grilled food by excited Japanese chefs and so it got put to the side a little. Here we are given fresh as fresh yellowtail, salmon, fluke, akami tuna (standard tuna from the top of the fish) and chutoro tuna (medium fatty tuna from the belly).

Most Australians are over excited by salmon sashimi and tend to leap on this first, I am not this person and have always proferred the strong meatiness of tuna. Thankfully the Japanese feel the same way I do and high grades of tuna are prized above most other foods in Japan. There is a special on Otoro high fat tuna imported direct from Tsukiji market in Tokyo but we've already splurged on the beef and $25USD for a small serve of Otoro seems steep to me.

I let my companion eat all the salmon and he's happy enough as he isn't hugely keen on the tuna, later he realises his mistake! The chutoro was such amazing melt in your mouth quality that the taste lingered for hours in a satisfying and meaty way that left us commenting for the rest of the evening; I am incredibly glad that we have left this dish till last.

All in all we leave extremely satisfied. The meal is not cheap but the quality makes up for it and we're more than happy to pay for a good quality Japanese meal in a sea of tourist meals in midtown. It's exactly what we need and actually makes us look forward to going home to Australia where excellent Japanese food can be had as easily as walking out the door.

I am very interested to know how they get such good quality fish into New York, there can't be a good source of Tuna for quite some travelling time and yet the fish is fresh and lacks any of the tell tale textures of having been frozen. The original restaurant is in Roppongi, not really known for its tradition, and I guess this accounts for the slightly touristy service and its Midtown NYC location. Nonetheless I try not to think about it and let the taste of the tuna linger on.

It may not be a restaurant I'd travel out of my way for while elsewhere in the US, but it was definitely good enough quality to take a stop at if you're in New York itself particularly if the thought of fried food or cheese makes you turn green. Good quality, good service, excellent produce values so common to real Japanese restaurants and so lacking in many US restaurants shines on at Inakaya and gives us a breath of fresh air.

Inakaya NYC
New York Times Bldg
Ground Floor
231 West 40th St
New York, NY 10018

Traditional Japanese grill
Bookings advised
Fully licenced
Many vegetarian and vegan options available

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