Butai-A Great Find!
My chowhound girlfriend have eaten at most of NYC's nouvelle Japanese/tapas places (En, Megu, Maturi, Aburiya Kinnosuke, Japonais) and Butai is far away the best. Here is why:
1--The food. My girlfriend raves non-stop about the pork belly skewers (which she orders 3 or more at a pop). I am enamoured of the agedashi tofu (a tough dish to make stand out but they do) and the shrimp enoki...fresh, crispy and flavorful.
2-Ambience. Cosy, comfortable, and chic, without being pretentious (like Japponais and most of the others).
3-Service. Friendly and attentive but not solicitous.
4-Price. Really good value.
We have recommended this place to several of our friends (all discriminating about Japanese food) and they have all loved it and gone back.
I want to weigh in on Butai because we LOVED it last night (10/27/06). Interesting that it is next to Japonais, a place that may be serving tasty food, but I am just opposed to the whole concept of an Asian fusion import from Chicago. Butai is something else, they are cranking out REALLY good Japanese bar food with very few missteps in a big, pretty bilevel Park Ave South space. The food was unexpectedly great, but it doesn't seem to be getting the appreciation it deserves, maybe it's not westernized enough for that neighborhood, it was less than half full on a friday. They do have have sushi rolls, etc on the menu, but I want to go back and support the good stuff so they keep serving it.
The upstairs space is serene, downstairs is mainly the bar and the counter that looks into the kitchen. We were the only ones sitting there (10-12 seats) but I recommend it because you can watch the cooks grilling everything and they serve the yakitori directly off the grill to you on wooden paddles while it's still sizzling.
We ordered mostly off the specials menu.
--nice chawan mushi ($6), packed with good stuff including two big gingko nuts and a shrimp that had real flavor
--yakitori was universally delicious, rivals Totto, $2-3 a skewer:
squid tentacles with salt
skirt steak teriyaki (WOW)
chicken "hip", skin, wing, "inner thigh," all excellent, I will try liver, gizzard, etc next time
shishito pepper wrapped in bacon
pork belly with ponzu
--Japanese spring veg (goma-ae) with miso was nice but a tad oversauced, but a very big portion for I think $7
--tempura of chicken wrapped in shiso with green tea salt. this is one of my favorite dishes at Soba-ya, and here there were 4 big pieces with lots of crispy shiso leaf extending past the ends of the chicken, SO GOOD for only $7
--special whole grilled saurya from Japan ($15) this was delicious. Really good sized (11 inch) fish grilled so the skin is crispy, flesh succulent, you can eat all the bones except for the spine; the liver still in place, so good! I hope they keep getting more of these
--checked out some sashimi to see what kind of fish they get, and was so happy to be served fresh wasabi, I cant really deal with the powdered stuff anymore. Here was the only bad item we had: toro didn't taste fresh. However, "yellowtail toro" ($4) and mackerel ($2.5) were perfect, and the uni ($4) actually had flavor, the best I have had since Yasuda.
--Grilled meat can be had in "dinner" and "tapas" portions and we got kalbi (short rib) tapas ($13). Meaty bones were served alongside fantastically juicy rare slices, the portion was pretty big.
desserts were good: lily bulb soup (A bit too much red bean paste but the flavor was great); black sesame pudding with a drizzle of caramel on the plate (the pudding was not too sweet so the caramel complemented nicely)
Another caveat: the small sake selection was fairly priced but don't get a drink at the bar! My friend was late so I had a Manhattan, made with a premium bourbon, it was fine but $15! I guess Park Ave S is getting away with these drink prices but not from me again, especially when the food here is, I think, a really good value.
by the way all yakitori skewers 1/2 off on Mondays. This is quite a deal. Went there last night, just as happy as last week.
chicken gizzard: excellent
chicken liver: Totto is better, this was fine
chicken skin: crispier than Totto
duck with scallion: supermeaty and delicious
seaweed salad: seaweed was fine, weirdly served on lettuce, would skip
edamame: giant bowl
uni: still flavorful
i tried it a couple weeks ago and ate a few items at the bar...i liked it well enough to try it again sometime...the yellowtail collar was tasty, and in addition to the agedashi tofu, they serve a tofu which is first fried, then grilled...and i had some grilled asparagus...i agree that they are friendly and unpretentious...nothing blew me away, but i'll prob return sometime to explore other parts of the menu...is the upstairs vibe/seating different from downstairs? (because while my bar seat was fine, the downstairs tables looked a little sterile/uncomfortable - i.e. not cozy at all)...
What makes the tofu special for me is that the texture is not too mushy, not too crispy and the flavor is well-balanced, not too bland, not too salty, with a lot of scallions and shaved daikon. This dish is typically underflavored IMO. They get it just right.
The shrimp enoki is done in a kind of tempura/roll fashion. Not overly breaded or greasy. Light and crispy.