Last year I was talking with a friend, bemoaning the lack of a good, authentic Robata-yaki in New York.
Having lived in Japan, I fondly remember these friendly, noisey places where the fish and vegetables are spread out on ice for all to see, and the food is often delivered to you on a long wooden paddle (so as to reach from the grilling area, over the food on ice, to where you are sitting).
This photo will give you a good idea (although it is from a Robata-yaki in Korea, it was the best photo I could find on Google)
Here is a review of a famous robatayaki in Japan:
I said to my friend "Wouldnt it be wonderful to have a real robatayaki in New York." It would be a welcome break from all the sushi joints, etc.
So I was very happy to hear about the new Robata place planned by the folks at Jewel Bako. I waited and waited till they opened, but then got busy and didnt make it there until last night.
It was empty on a Monday night at 9pm. They said they had been packed an hour before, and by the time we left a few others came in.
The menu looked promising enough. There was a very good selection of Sake and the knowledgeable waitress offered me a taste of a few different ones. She even knew about some of my favorites and could compare them to what was on the menu.
We ordered the seasonal appetizer plate, scallops grilled in the shell, grilled oysters with uni powder, and grilled Japanese barracuda.
A small amuse buche was served, herring roe, with a subtle sauce. Nice and crunchy.
The appetizer plate was very pretty, with 6 different bite sized treats. My favorite was the unagi wrapped around gobo with fresh sansho leaf.
The chef even brought over a tiny branch of sansho leaves, and slapped it between his palms to release the flavor. The other appetizers looked good, but none of them were very exciting.
The scallops came in a overpowering sauce, with enoki and shitake mushrooms. Like all the other food, the presentation was very pretty, plates balanced on piles of salt, and some unusual pottery. Even the sake glass was nice, from red cut glass.
My companion noticed that the oysters were already open before they were grilled. When we asked later, we were told that they are shucked across the street at Jack's oyster bar. Convenient for the chef, but the oysters get dried out and lost their briny taste. The uni powder was almost undetectable, more for color than taste.
Finally the barracuda, which was artfully grilled, came over cooked, dry and chewy.
These four dishes, which my companion and I shared, along with two glasses of reasonably priced sake, came to $77. I barely noticed that I had eaten anything.
But the really disappointing part was the place itself. Although it was very beautiful inside, with a long wooden counter, and cooking island in the middle, warm dark wood walls, and very nice small touches like the interesting rock to rest my chopsticks on, it was nothing at all like the robata-yaki's that I had visited in Japan. There was no food spread out on ice, no bustle, no warm boisterous feeling. Even with the few other couples there by the time we left, it still felt very "cool", and I doubt that a full house would have made a difference.
I left very hungry. We walked down the street to Momofuku and shared some freshly made pickles, a plate of sautéed asparagus with miso-butter and a poached egg on top, and some ginger-scallion noodles with a side of broth. Yummy !
After we left I said to my friend "Wouldnt it be nice if New York had a real robatayaki...."