We happened into Yopparai on the LES recently, when we were looking for a second stop in the night after a light dinner elsewhere. Yopparai means “drunk” in Japanese. If written conventionally, as in the dictionary spelling, a restaurant with this name would be rather crass, downmarket, and downright unappealing. But the beauty of the Japanese language is that you can play with the phonetics and the symbolic pictography of kanji to evoke something more ethereal. So 夜波来 is pronounced “yopparai” but the three symbols combine to mean “night wave coming” or “wave comes at night”. It’s more like “wave goodbye to your hard earned money”. NO! I’m totally kidding. We surely considered it another wave (of fun) in the night, but it is definitely not cheap.
The NYT says the space is a converted railroad apartment. This, the buzzer at the front door, and a little bit of dark curtains at the top of the stairs give a bit of a speakeasiness to the place. But there is a window that overlooks the street from a low second floor, so you are not too cloistered away from the outside world. A bar counter runs the entire length of the right side of the space, with an open kitchen behind it. Seating along the counter is a series of pair benches. So I guess come here to cuddle or come here to commiserate or if you want to be really Japanese, come here to complain about your boss to your buddy. If you’re coming as a group (3 or more), there are only two small tables in the back on the left. There are a few more pair tables along the left side as well.
The main attraction is the menu of 50 sake, culled from all over Japan and spanning a range of styles. The menu provides brief descriptions and the staff is eager to offer advice and commentary. Most can be gotten at 6 oz. for north of $10. So it’s expensive to experiment around on the menu. Some of the daiginjo are coming in close to $20. Yipes. I haven’t been to Sakagura in a while, is this what they charge as well?...On the plus side, you are offered the opportunity to select your drinking vessel. There is also Sapporo on draft. No shochu though.
The food menu takes a big wide swing at homey izakaya standards. An oden trough gurgles toward one side of the counter with a small selection of items. We had a couple of eggs and a daikon. Both were good and the dashi was nice and bold. The grill for the robatayaki is down toward the other end. Chicken and beef tsukune are their proud homemade items, but we just ordered a grilled shiojake (salted salmon). It was perfect- though perhaps not $10 worth of perfect. The sashimi is also rather expensive. We did the $39 “take” set which provided hirame, madai (if I recall correctly), a bit of a leaky akami tuna, and some Chilean uni. Everything was fine. There are claypot and nabe dishes as well. Standards like kakuni (Zzzzz…) and sukiyaki ($30!), but more interesting offerings like chicken, shrimp, tofu, and unagi simmered dishes. We didn’t try any of these, but did try the decent homemade tofu and the yaki onigiri (crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside). As befits any sake bar, there is a selection of “chinmi”, the usually fermented and/ or funky rarified snacks that accompany good booze in Japan. These are either homemade or imported: in-house natto, wasabi zuke, & shiokara. Mentaiko from Fukuoka & Hoba miso from Gifu Precture. I ordered the mentaiko, which was warmed perfectly on the grill and served with a rather generous portion for $9.
Their menu is ambitiously broad. They make the requisite claims about fresh ingredients, but it seems they also try to make a lot in-house. There’s also an effort to pull regional specialties from around Japan. Mentaiko from Fukuoka, Hoba miso from Gifu, an eel dish from Yanagawa in Fukuoka, hanpen and Satsuma age from a Tsukiji vendor, and our favorite, “Sekigahara tamari” (Sekigahara was the location of Japan’s "Gettysburg". Neither my wife nor I had ever heard of tamari being a famous item from there…).
For mostly homey standards and a chance to drink some good chilled sake, Yopparai is a nice wave of Tokyo lapping up on to the LES. And for a speakeasy vibe, the hospitality is excellent, cheerful, and no one in suspenders or WB Mason mustaches.