Izakaya fans might want to wander downstairs to Hagi on West 49th Street. It's a cozy hangout below the ramen shop Sapporo and the sushi bar Iroha; same owner. Hagi has been in business for some time, but it was mainly a karaoke bar until December.
Grilled stuff has been a highlight. Yaki nasu ($3.75) was a standout, lightly browned chunks of Japanese eggplant with a deep smokiness from the grill, topped with katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes, waving gently in the rising steam) and served with grated ginger and a wedge of lemon. Katsuo tataki ($6.75) was a half dozen medallions of seared bonito, beefy and dark red, with ponzu sauce, chopped green onion, mild white onion and intense, caramel-sweet bits of fried garlic. Gyutan shioyaki (salt-grilled beef tongue) was moist and flavorful, though there wasn't much of it for the price ($7.50). Shiitake ($4.75) came in tender slices, with grated ginger and minced green onion alongside.
There are a handful of nabemono on the menu, and the one I tried made me curious about the others. Tori dango nabe ($10.50) was six delicious, marvelously light balls of minced chicken in mildly seasoned dashi with sliced shiitake; green onion; enoki mushroom; and nappa cabbage, sweet and done to a turn. Other nabe choices are tofu ($9.50); motsu, or innards ($12); and salmon in miso ($12).
Fried dishes are worth trying. Kaki fry ($4.50) was five small, flavorful oysters, breaded and cleanly fried, served with shredded cabbage and a sprightly, egg-enriched tartar sauce. Satsuma age ($3.75) was a well-browned patty of minced fish, tasty if maybe a bit too firm. Some promising-looking dishes I didn't order (what can I say? I was full): fried karei, a small flatfish ($11.50); squid tentacles ($5.50); and potato with mentaiko, or spicy cod roe ($6.50).
Garlic greens sauteed with pork and bean sprouts ($5.75) was hearty and substantial. The greens lent sweetness and just a hint of garlic flavor; the miso gravy had a sneaky chile heat. The pork was not the best, but it did enrich the sauce. Ebi saute ($6.50) was five large shrimp in a well-balanced sauce with a slight sourness from tomato, a modest chile kick and a creamy richness from egg.
The mugi toro "set" ($7.50) was refreshing and a bit unusual: Barley steamed with rice, tororo (grated yamaimo, or yam) and salt-pickled Chinese cabbage topped with katsuobushi. Other rice dishes are nigiri ($3-$3.50), wrapped in nori or grilled, with various fillings; and ochazuke in assorted flavors ($4.75-$5.25). There are also big plates of spaghetti with either natto or a mentaiko cream sauce (both $6.50).
A couple of misses: Aspara goma-ae (steamed asparagus in sesame dressing) ($4.25) was way too sweet. Shrimp "shumai" ($4.25), six small steamed dumplings, were bland and had a freezer-case quality.
The sake lineup won't make anyone forget Sakagura's with its breadth or quality, but at $7.50 for a masu and $7 for a glass, it's also more affordable. The rotating list of everyday choices has included Nihonkai, Tengumai, Tama no hikari, Suigei, Harushika, Otokoyama, Namahage, Mine no hakubai, Kamoizumi, Bishounen, Kira, Kahori, Madoka, Aramasa, Take no tsuyu and Kubota senju. Sometimes there are specials, which cost more. Shochu and beer (Kirin on tap, others in bottles) are also poured here. There's a full bar, too.
This is a casual, friendly and sometimes boisterous joint. One night a bunch of tables had been pushed together to accommodate a lively party of around 20. There's also a side room that seats 10 or 12. There are TVs here and there, showing sports or Japanese variety shows. But the heavily (and some nights exclusively) Japanese crowd doesn't seem to be paying much attention. They're absorbed by the food, drink and company, and who could blame them?
152 W. 49th St. (6th/7th Aves.)
Open 5:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. seven days a week