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Mugi: old school izakaya on West 58th

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Mugi: old school izakaya on West 58th

squid-kun | Jul 8, 2004 12:07 AM

A couple from Sendai runs this traditional and slightly quirky izakaya on a quiet block of 58th Street. They’ve been there for 28 years, largely under the radar, which appears to be the way they like it.

The menu has its hits and misses, and some dishes seem pricey for this type of joint. But the best stuff is homey and robust, and the place has character -- mainly in the person of its owner, whom you may find charming, annoying or both.

Non-Japanese customers (“maybe 2 percent” of the clientele, the owner estimates) tend to get the “sorry, no sushi” greeting their first time here. If that doesn’t drive you off, take a seat at the counter in front or a table in back. Then see if the staff can scrounge up a menu (there are only a handful of copies, for some reason). Once over that hurdle, you’ll do better here if someone in your party reads Japanese, as much of the menu is not translated.

It may sound as if the owners are indifferent or even hostile to non-Japanese trade, but after a few visits I don’t think that’s so. It’s just that their reading of the American palate dates from closer to the ’70s, when they first opened, than 2004. So they underestimate New Yorkers’ appetite for less familiar Japanese foods -- which is too bad, since what they serve is actually straightforward and accessible.

Some standout dishes:

-- Omelettes ($6.95-$8.95): These come with nira (Chinese chives) or shimeji or enoki mushrooms, all superb. The egg is mixed with a little dashi, then cooked till barely set and seasoned with just enough shoyu. Light, moist and comforting.

-- Negimaki pork katsu ($9.85): Slices of pork wrapped around green onion, breaded and fried -– moist inside, crisp and light outside. Served with shredded cabbage, tonkatsu sauce and mustard. The Japanese weekly Japion calls this Mugi’s best dish, and they'll get no argument from me.

-- Same nankotsu ume-ae ($7.95): Crunchy shreds of shark fin and very thin slices of cucumber, in a delicate, well-balanced dressing with ume and tobiko. This is one of several cooling choices for summer. Another is yamaimo sengiri ($6.95), a stack of little white logs of Japanese yam, served with a dab of wasabi. Season it with shoyu (“Not too much, OK?” the owner warned). Cold, crisp, slightly slimy (in a nice way) -- great with grilled dishes and sake.

-- Kabu hakusai shiozuke: A sweet, mellow salted pickle of turnip -- both crunchy and soft, if that’s possible -- and Chinese cabbage. The tsukemono change often; ask what’s available. (We were comped this one, so I don’t know the price.)

Also worth trying:

-- Iwashi sashimi ($9.85): A terrifically fresh sardine, in a traditional and vaguely unsettling presentation: head at one end of the plate, eyes skyward, tail at the other end, bracketing thin slices of pale red, silver-skinned fillet draped over a bier of shredded daikon. Rich, minerally, kind of like mackerel but lighter in flavor. Sashimi choices change from day to day and can be quite good. But they can also be expensive for what you get. Ask what’s best -– and how much it’ll cost you.

-- Yakinasu ($6.95): A Japanese eggplant, halved lengthwise, grilled and laid out like a pair of pale green sardines. Pillowy soft, slightly sweet and smoky. Served with grated ginger and katsuobushi. Add a few drops of shoyu if you like.

-- Geso satsuma-age ($8.95): Big, meaty squid tentacles coated with ground fish (mostly cod) and fried to a turn. Served with grated ginger and shoyu for dipping. Also, geso kara-age ($8.95), a generous helping of tentacles, seasoned with ginger, garlic and white pepper, then fried. Toward the brown and crisp end of the fried squid scale.

-- Gindara kasuzuke ($9.50): An inch-thick slice of black cod, marinated in sake lees then grilled. Moist and sweet.

Not quite there:

-- Komatsuna oshitashi ($5.50): Leaves and stems of a variety of mustard, simmered and arrayed in a neat haystack, topped with katsuobushi. Fresh, crisp and faintly spicy, but also stemmy and fibrous in places. An oshitashi of shungiku (chrysanthemum greens), for $5.75, was marred by too much acid from ponzu sauce.

-- Pirikara pork ($6.95): Strips of pork side (not smoked), boiled and steeped in vinegar and shoyu with red chile. Topped with momiji oroshi (grated daikon with red chile) and chopped green onion. The sauce is a bracing counterpoint to the fatty meat, but it all turns out a little too vinegary and soggy.

There are maybe 15 kinds of sake, some that turn up all over town (Kurosawa, Hatsumago, Otokoyama), some that don’t (Hassen, Yuki honoka, Hananomai). They come in 300-ml bottles for $12 to $30, roughly in line with other restaurants, where a 180-ml masu might run $6 to $15 or more. Also shochu, beer and harder stuff.

Miki, the garrulous pop of this mom-and-pop operation, presides over the counter, which seats around eight. (His wife, Taeko, is there half the week, waiting tables.) If you’ve been chatting with him, he might cadge a small glass of your sake. Maybe two. Then he’ll probably send a free dish your way.

(If you want no part of this, bypass the counter and take a table. Just keep in mind, if it’s hot, that the air conditioning doesn’t work so well back there.)

Miki is not shy about telling you how to eat. I asked about sansho for a plate of grilled tongue (meaty, flavorful, mostly moist). “We have it,” he said, “but don’t use it!” Better, he added, to go with white pepper or shichimi togarashi, the spice mix with chile. Good advice, as it turned out. Another time, my wife and I hadn’t yet finished the cabbage that came with the pork rolls (we were going to, really). This brought a scolding: “You have to eat the vegetables! Vegetables, vegetables!” Strictly in jest, or at least I think so.

But if you’re worried that he’ll turn on an unsuspecting newbie and bark, “No sashimi for you!,” don’t be. He’s quite amiable, especially once you’ve talked with him a bit, and it’s certainly possible to ask him -- in English -- for recommendations. If he takes an unusually close interest in what you’re ordering, it seems he’s mainly intent on improving your meal.

Mugi
132 W. 58th St. (6th/7th Aves.), (212) 757-5842
Open 6 p.m.-midnight Sunday through Friday

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