At a Japanese-style pub, it's a challenge to connect.
I dragged a square of pork belly through a soft-poached egg, coating my tongue with thick, smooth fat. I inserted a chewy, fat-seeping strip of chicken skin into my mouth. I ate a plane of silvery hamachi, and with it, a nugget of congealed bone marrow.
I blamed myself when cold udon noodles (from the “noodles” portion of the menu) arrived with tempura-battered shrimp. I laughed when a third of the mushrooms (from the “roasted” portion of the menu) had been batter-dipped and oil-fried, too. It neared cruel that my favorite of the dishes was the only one actually from the “fried” category of the menu: light corn fritters I squeezed with lime.
This meal at Chizakaya, a small-plates Japanese-style spot from Sunda and Japonais alum Harold Jurado, was no longer about seeking pleasure. It no longer supplied that base indulgence one gleans from scooping marrow out of bones at Longman or spreading whipped pork on bread at the Purple Pig. Chizakaya had pushed over the pleasure precipice too soon, too aggressively and too ignorantly of balance. Eating became about seeking relief: I considered returning to the hamachi—the only thing on the table that didn’t seem gratuitously gluttonous—but settled into melted bone marrow that was now solidified into the texture of hardened candle wax, the fish lost its appeal. And so my companion and I competed for slivers of radishes tossed with the soba, for the itty bits of scallion scattered among slippery, oily foie-and-pork-belly stuffed gyoza.
When we shared moments with our desserts (spongy, taste-free yuzu cake; a chalky rectangle of chocolate), they were troubled ones. Minutes were spent noodling over what a scoop of sorbet was supposed to be (soy milk) vis-à-vis what it tasted like (Play-doh). In the insufficiently heated dining room, it was just my companion, me, the robotic servers (“do-you-have-any-food-allergies” was one’s version of hello) and Jay-Z on the stereo. I felt as if I’d eaten the salt and fat content of a supersized Extra Value Meal and should wash my face. I headed to the bathroom.
If this were a screenplay, what follows could be called “the reveal” or the “perception shift.” There was another room behind the bathrooms: two long (and empty) communal tables and a group of friendly chefs shooting the shit at an open kitchen, all glowing in a warm light. Since I already planned to return for a second visit, I allowed myself only the smallest pang of disappointment at what might have been that night.
Then I made my plan, and a week later, I executed it. The front space and service had felt impersonal and uncomfortable, so I requested seats in the back room. The food, much of which consisted of small plates from $3–$8, supplied the grease and salt best suited for soaking up alcohol, so I drank more: By sticking to the nice by-the-glass sake list—as opposed to the lackluster cocktail menu—this was not especially difficult. The richness of the food and the server’s recommendation that we order a dish from each category (amounting to nine plates, not counting two desserts) felt overwhelming for a party of two. I returned with a group of four. We would pass on dessert, and when it came to the meal, I would order better.
Corn fritters and crispy pork, the two unfettered successes of Visit One, served as insurances against the unpredictable expanses of untested Chizakaya menu terrain. And this time there was housemade tofu, its texture closer to a feather-light ricotta, refreshingly cool and light. Daikon salad seemed to me a joyless dish, but I came to love it for its crunch and brightness. Shisito pepper kushi-yaki (grilled skewers) teased me with heat; wasabi-topped beef tip cubes just about blew my face off with it.
But no matter if I grabbed a magnum of sake and poured it down my throat, I still wouldn’t have left Visit Two raving about the string beans, cooked to retain a perfect bite but drowning in teriyaki sauce. Nor could I ignore the fact that the moist, battered pieces of chicken badly needed salt. I liked the ramen, with its light, clean broth and its hints of chile oil, but it was a nuisance to share one runny egg and a strip of pork belly among four people. And though the back room had more life to it, its disjunct from the tables in front only reinforced my overall sense of disconnect: The split between the spaces physically represented the chasm between the Chizakaya I was trying so hard to will into existence and the imperfect Chizakaya of reality.