My interest for this place was piqued by FRANK BRUNI's review in the NYT which gave due attention to one of my all time favorite dishes- tuna cheek, or in
Japanese, hon-maguro kama yaki. Could this be the holy grail of Japanese places to really capture authentic taste, variety, atmosphere and at a reasonable price? I have never been to Yakitori Totto either. But we booked at AK for Thanksgiving.
The place is laid out and designed like such a place in Tokyo. There's some group tables, a few screened off private areas, and an appealing low L shaped dining counter that can seat about 5-6 couples. We had booked ahead to sit at the counter and upon sitting, we were immediately presented with a warm, moist towel. Oh, why can't this be a standard custom in all restaurants of all cultures? We were then asked what we would like to drink, even as the menu was handed to us. I know this to be another subtle custom as it's not uncommon to have a cold beer or warm sake on your mind as you are sitting down. Well, I thought for a moment, but decided to check out the drink menu first. I'm happy to report, where Mr. Bruni did not, that AK has a very good Japanese alcohol selection. I'm not a fan of sake, though there seemed to be a reasonable selection. I skipped ahead to the excellent shochu selection. They've put together a good 15-20 shochus from all over Japan.
The menu has been done up very nicely with sommelier comments on each selection. A whole range of base ingredient is represented from sweet potato to wheat to brown sugar and even some Okinawan awamori selections. After a fresh grapefruit cocktail, I settled on a shochu called Jougo, which is brown sugar-based. Soft, with a rounded taste was I believe how it was described. A glass of shochu on the rocks is $7-9 and the second round was a little more generous than the first. Not sure if this was a subtle custom or just a different pourer though...
There's plenty of menu here and a lot to explore, though I think it should be made clear that this is fairly standard fare for this type of restaurant in Tokyo at least. But that's a good thing, right? It is definitely nice to see it here and in this environment. There were a few blackboard menus with specials (mostly seafood) and sake recommendations written in Japanese. I was a little confused though, as many of the food specials were also printed on the menu. So are these regular items or actual specials? The tuna bone takes a long time to cook, so we put that order in early. My wife quickly ordered a fish jerky called kawahagi which was 6 tough pieces of dried fish that we heated on a shichirin grill placed in front of us. No idea why she ordred this, as it's usually a drinking snack, but we enjoyed it. It really wasn't necessary to heat up, but was a nice touch. Though I find the whole shichirin thing to be fairly gimicky. Next up, we had a aona and yuba stir fry, which was cooked in green tea. Aona (which I don't know how to say in English) can be quite bitter but this was very pleasant. The yuba was a bit soggy though and was probably added a bit too early into the fry pan, as the whole point of yuba is the slight crunch in consistency, which was absent. But it was a decent enough dish. Our sashimi arrived next. We ordered the 3 point set which was chu-toro, hirame, and salmon. We asked to replace the salmon (salmon for sashim?), which they did with a fish I had never heard of nor cannot recall, but it was similar to snapper in color and consistency. All 3 of these were excellent and the Missus talked for hours afterwards about the chu-toro. I was expecting this to be $25, but was very happy at the end of the meal when I found that it was only $15. Considering selection, quality, and portion size I thought this was very very fair.
The next dish, boiled tofu was good as well. It was done in a little bowl in front of us, with a handful of green vegetables, and served with a light ponzu and some grated ginger. $7.... The tsukune (minced chicken patty) was very good as well and cooked in a bit of a unique style. At $9.50 it was big enough for two. A shrimp kaki-age, which is like a small lightly battered and fried patty with shrimp and vegetables was uninspiring. Not enough shrimp and tasted too American. My wife rounded out her meal with some umeboshi onigiri (rice ball with pickled plum) and I awaited my tuna. I was worried about what it was going to be. Things don't always translate well here in New York and this is the rip-off capital of the world. BUT, when that big bone was placed all sizzling and snapping in front of me, I knew I had hit gold. This is not a dish for everyone. You've got to love fish and it helps if your good with chopsticks too. As NYT described, there is all sorts of exploring to be done. There are at least 3, maybe 4 or 5, different types of meat to be had. Once you've gone through this a few times, you become skilled at uncovering the nooks and crannys, the false bone walls, and the hardened areas that reveal more chunks of meat. Some pieces are incredibly fatty and moist, others dry and salty. Some dark, some light.Only salt was used to cook it, but a little bit of soy sauce when you eat it goes a long way to accent the tuna oil. I've gone with friends on late night drinking binges in Tokyo and just ordered this with just a bowl of rice to eat donburi style and gotten nice and full. As I said, it's not for everyone. And I find it a difficult dish to share with other than my wife, including with intoxicated buddies. All things considered, for $15 it's worth it.
When they came to clear my plate, I noted to the server that a portion of the tuna meat was still raw. I had avoided it- ironic considering I had just eaten tuna sashimi- but the dish is meant to be cooked. I just pointed it out more than anything, as most of it was cooked thoroughly. When it came time for the bill, we were brought a warm cup of green tea, another warm towel, and the check- sans the tuna. The server apologized for the rawness and removed the item. It came to $90.00, $26 of which was drinks. Which is where things would end in Tokyo, but this is America, land of the free, home of the brave, land of the tip. So we have to tack on another $20. So the great service of warm towels, cold drinks, hot tea, and another hot towel does not come free I guess.
This is a good place though. There's a bit of a, for lack of a better word, learning curve. We conducted everything in Japanese and found the service excellent. Polite, attentive, and taking care of the little things. I would have said the same thing, even if we weren't comped the tuna bone. But for this type of authentic meal and environment, one should be patient with their level of English. They will, I suspect, get better at describing their dishes in English. This place is definitely not for the dragon roll and teriyaki crowd, nor for the break the bank Nobu crowd either. It's much closer to normal Tokyo fare and that's a good thing. The only thing I was a bit turned off about was the condition of the open kitchen area that the counter encloses. I found it to be a little disorganized. Containers all about and dishes leaning on each other on the shelves. I'm not saying you don't see this in Japan, but at this sort of place, it's a bit embarrassing. You would expect a higher level of pride for that area. I think the head chef there should be a little more diligent in how the ship is run. And let's keep that tuna kama yaki in the oven a bit longer. I'll have to be sure to emphasize that when I go next time.