Jean-Georges Vongerichten has high hopes for soba, the humble Japanese buckwheat noodle that is the foundation of his new restaurant, Matsugen. “I think all New Yorkers will love soba,” he predicted last week. But will soba join sushi and ramen as culinary immigrant success stories? Or will it be excised to the Japanese-food ghetto with okonomiyaki and tempura? Below, a guide to those Japanese foods that can carry a restaurant, and those doomed to be modest menu items.
FULL FOOD CITIZENSHIP
Momofuku Ando invented instant noodles in 1958 (and inspired David Chang’s restaurant name), and his prepacked sodium-laced noodles made it to America in the seventies. Long-loved by college students, the dish with its meaty pork broth and tender noodles is now popular with New Yorkers who will wait up to an hour to slurp it down.
Sushi was described to New York readers in 1968 as "elegant Japanese 'sandwiches' of rice and seafood wrapped in seaweed" that could be found in only a few ethnic restaurants in the city. It's one of the only foods to successfully transverse low- and highbrow eating, which means you can pick up spicy-tuna rolls at a deli or spend hundreds of dollars in a temple-like restaurant environment.
The first Benihana opened here in 1964, bringing showmen chefs and "hibachi-style" grilling (known as teppanyaki in Asia) to New York. The big-box tourist spots here aren't as chic as their counterparts in the East, but even suburbanites know the name Benihana.
These Japanese meat skewers are a house specialty at Japanese pubs known as izakaya. The Times cited one in midtown as early as 1973, and now a handful are sprinkled near St. Marks Place. The kebab holds its own, with entire midtown restaurants devoted to only meat on a stick.
A cutlet served with rice in a sopping rich sauce is classic home-style Japanese cooking, and New Yorkers lined up to get the takeout version when Go!Go! Curry opened last year. The dish has since made the leap to eat-in establishments. Given how cheap it is, expect to see it on more menus.
When Shabu-Shabu 70 opened on the Upper East Side in 1979, a generation of New Yorkers learned to boil their own meat in water. But as interactive dining experiences go, shabu-shabu is a poor substitute for the colorful thrill of Korean barbecue or the gluttonous fun of cheese fondue.
Originally served to emperors, this elaborate, multicourse service made Adam Platt wonder if "frenetic New Yorkers will take to this obscure, Kabuki-like form of dining." They are, if slowly. Smaller restaurants are the best settings for the meal, modeled after intricate tea ceremonies. But you can also eat the delicate dishes in a much less intimidating way: à la carte.
Where to find: Kai, Sugiyama, Kyo Ya, Rosanjin
EATING ON A TEMPORARY VISA
Batter-fried meats and vegetables are found in nearly every Asian restaurant, but the greasy treats have trouble standing alone. As Josh DeChellis learned the hard way with his short-lived tempura outpost BarFry, not every menu staple can carry its own restaurant.
Where to find: Hatsuhana
Fried Japanese pancakes topped with mayonnaise and bonito flakes have earned Cheap Eats acclaim, but not fame. The savory snacks are still a rarity here.
Where to find: Otafuku
The fat discs of ice cream wrapped in a thin layer of glutinous rice were the only dessert available at Ssäm Bar last year. You can also buy them at Beard Papa or top your fro-yo with them at /eks/. But there's still room in this town for a mochi shop.
Where to find: Sushi restaurants, Sunrise Mart
Vongerichten calls soba the "healthiest noodle you can eat," but will diners find his coarse version of the buckwheat dish to be a little too much like health food? Honmura An in Soho was a successful soba spot from 1990 to 2007, but it was small and packed with a predominantly Asian clientele. Vongerichten, perhaps wisely, isn't betting his entire restaurant on noodles dishes like black cod and a Wagyu rib eye will draw a more diverse crowd.