Sharpen your chopsticks: Many of the citys best Japanese eateries are offering prix fixe meals and signature dishes for Japanese Restaurant Week, which starts Sunday and runs through March 10. (Get the details here.) We asked Reika Yo, the owner of EN Japanese Brasserie, to give a primer, in her own words, for those who think Japanese cuisine begins and ends with sushi (and whats sashimi again?) and provide picks to go along with it. (The excellent EN Japanese Brasserie, by the way, is an elevated version of an izayaka, where you find many small, rustic dishes.)
When I came to New York, I was shocked that many New Yorkers think Japanese cuisine is only about sushi. Many traditional elements of Japanese cooking have been ignored outside of Japan.
If youre looking for fancy Japanese food, you might want to try Kaiseki. Its the most formal kind of Japanese meal, an intricately arranged series of eight to ten courses, generally of very light foods. Kaiseki is regarded as the most exquisite culinary refinement in Japan. Two I would make a point of trying are Kai and Sugiyama. Both are pristine, faithful versions.
Ramen is a complex and satisfying dish, made all over Japan with different regional approaches. I like the tonkatsu, or pork stock, used in southern Japan, which is very difficult to make here. Although finding a good bowl of traditional ramen is still relatively difficult in the city, Minca Ramen Factory, in the East Village, which makes their own tonkatsu stock, consistently serves up bowl after bowl. My cooks all go there, which is certainly a very good sign.
Another popular noodle-based dish in Japan is Soba. Compared to ramen, these fresh buckwheat noodles are a relatively austere affair; this austerity is normally applied to the design of the restaurants as well. Although the beloved Honmura An recently shut its doors, New York City is home to many high-quality soba restaurants, such as Soba Nippon, that make the noodles fresh every day in the restaurant.
Yakitori is another facet of Japanese cuisine that is relatively underappreciated in New York. There are so many tiny places in Japan where businessmen finish their work and go to have draft beer and odd chicken parts like skin, liver, or even backbone. They are funky, smoky little places for the most part, although of course you cant smoke in the New York versions. Tori Shin (1193 First Ave., nr. 65th St.; 212-988-8408) would be my pick for yakitori in New York; the atmosphere is very Japanese, and their organic chicken skewers are especially fine, even by Japanese standards.