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Aug 13, 2008 11:56 AM

Tokubei 86 - UES (Quick Report)

After seeing two posters recommend this place on one of the UES threads, my husband and I ambled over early last evening (well, technically it may still have been afternoon). It's a funny cozy kind of place - looks to me like once upon a time it might have been a restaurant with a different cuisine, that now is a Japanese restaurant. We were warmly welcomed and seated, walking past the bar where there appeared to be a couple of regulars, and quickly ordered a large hot sake for my husband and a bottle of pinot grigio. The wine was fine, a little on the sweet side for me.

We started with a marinated squid dish with salmon roe and the squid was very tender. I had four oysters - two Kumamotos and two Hama Hamas. Both kinds were excellent, and had a little ponzu sauce sauce and sliced scallions on top. We then shared a sashimi deluxe, a soft shell crab roll, and then ordered a bit more - some nigiri - spanish mackeral, ikura, salmon, squid and yellow tail (six pieces). The fish was wonderful and the nigiri sushi had nice small pads of rice and well cut fish. There was quite a bit of lag between courses/orders, but we were enjoying ourselves, and grateful for the classical music, which was a nice change for the music at Ichiro, our "regular" place - they seem to have purchased a three CD set of best of the 60s, 70s and 80s and you're never quite sure which one you'll get! The service was friendly and the place filled up - again, there seemed to be quite a few regulars.

I look forward to going back - it's a little further afield than we usually go on a week night, but well worth it I think. It's not quite as good as Inase, but a lot less expensive - and a definitely a big step up from Ichiro, at about the same price. Our dinner without tip was about $110.

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  1. Thanks MMRuth for your usual well-done review. I live across the street from Tokubei, and have been tempted to try it, but it's always so empty. I've tried Inase and Poke and have liked both of them. Based on your review, I'll try Tokubei. Thanks again.

    12 Replies
    1. re: ellenost

      Thinking about it - I may have exaggerated (unintentionally!) about it filling up, but there were certainly diners there when we got there, and more when we left. We've eaten several times at Inase and been the only people in the restaurant most of the time! We did poke around a bit on that block - Tays, Rive Gauche (is it a chain?) and bought some coffee at M. Rohr. Do you recommend anything from those places next time we're in the area? How is the little Greek place - Ithaka?

      1. re: MMRuth

        I have to confess, I've been in the neighborhood for a year, and I've yet to try any of the restaurants on the south side of 86th Street. When my sister and I went to Inase, we were the only 2 people in the restaurant (it was Memorial Day). We had the omakase which was very good (we sat at the sushi bar), but there were some weird things (squid guts and a fish head that my sister tells me I ate an actual eyeball). Next time I'd try the sashimi deluxe. I've heard good things about Ithaka and M. Rohr. The seller of my apartment loved the Mexican restaurant (Maz Mezcal). I hope to try more of the neighborhood restaurants. I think my restaurant universe hasn't moved uptown with me yet.

        1. re: ellenost

          Ah yes - I saw that Mexican place as well. At least you are close to Little Red Hens and Schaller and Weber! Have you been to Itzocan? It's a bit further up from you obviously, but really wonderful food. You should also head over my way to Square Meal, which is by far one of my favorite places in the area. Also, Kurio and Zebu Grill, up on 92nd on the same block you are on.

          P.S. I actually liked the squid guts!

          1. re: MMRuth

            I have been to Little Red Hens for cake (very nice) and Heidelberg (surprisingly good, but I'll probably wait to go back until the construction is more complete). I've also enjoyed Cafe d'Alsace. Used to like Noodles on 28 (it was better when I lived in Murray Hill). Thanks for your recommendations. I can always count on you for great advice! (My sister and I thought the squid guts was kind of a joke since it was a holiday, and we thought they must have run out of the good food). We've also tried the sushi place on First between 86 & 87--it was okay, probably won't rush back.

            1. re: ellenost

              Oh - and there is Parlor too. We went once, and while it's not the be all and end all, it's worth trying. As far as I know, it's the only place in the area with a raw bar. And - Spigolo is worth trying as well.

              1. re: MMRuth

                Just tried Tokubei, and it's very good (thanks again for another good recommendation). We also had the sashimi deluxe, and everything was very fresh tasting. We added 3 rolls (yellowtail, eel & avocado, and shrimp tempura--all excellent). Service was attentive. Restaurant was about half full. Definitely plan to return. We also went to M. Rohr for coffee--great spot; loved the different coffees for self-serve. I even bought some ground coffee (caramel hazelnut) to brew at home. Thanks again.

                1. re: ellenost

                  So glad you enjoyed it. I wish they were a bit closer to us - not that it's really that far!

                  1. re: MMRuth

                    Tokubei has been in the same spot since the early '70's. It was the only place besides Robata that one could get sushi in this town at that time.
                    Ithaka is delicious. Very fresh fish, simply prepared.
                    Maz Mescal is totally inauthentic.
                    Zocolo used to be amazing until the chef, Julian Media left.

                    1. re: pups224

                      Thanks - I had read that Tokubei had been there for ages.

                      1. re: MMRuth

                        Yes, make me feel old. I used to eat at Tokeubei at least 15+ years ago. I returned recently and was well satisfied. I will return soon when in the area.

                  2. re: ellenost

                    I recommend Sushi Gari, and Sushi Seki both on UES

                    1. re: foodwhisperer

                      I like Gari v. much too - but one of nice things about Tokubei is that it is very reasonably priced - we can get ouf of there for about $120, including a hot sake and a bottle of wine, and eating whatever we feel like. Last time we went to Gari, the bill was almost $300, and we restrained ourselves. I just went to Gajyumaru for lunch today, for the first time - thought it was excellent, probably better than Tokubei. Will post more detailed report later.

      2. We went back again last night and it was just as good the second time. My husband had some hand rolls, we tried a cooked clam dish in a broth that was excellent, and had some of the same things we'd had before as well. I particularly like their hamachi.

        3 Replies
        1. re: MMRuth

          MMRuth, I don't know how I missed your original post, but must write to say I concur. My husband and I have been going to Tokubei for years and have always enjoyed it. Nothing earth-shattering or innovative, just good, solid Japanese food.

          We occasionally visit Tenzan (it's slightly closer and the walk home takes us past the Sedutto ice cream place on 1st & 89th). I like it for their cooked items, particularly the yosenabe - seafood in broth - but they cut their sushi and sashimi in bigger pieces than either of us care for. The salmon skin salad is interesting.

          Another nice choice for Japanese food in the neighborhood is Gajyumaru, on First between 86th & 87th. It's a quieter, calmer spot for weekend lunch.

          1. re: Deenso

            We tried Tenzan twice when it first opened, but quickly reverted to Ichi Ro. I agree with you about the size of the pieces of fish there, and we don't usually order much in the vein of cooked items generally.

            I think Tokubei will now become our "default" week night sushi place. I'll have to try Gajyumaru though.

            1. re: Deenso

              Adding the place, as I'm looking for the phone number!

              Tokubei 86
              314 E 86th St, New York, NY 10028

          2. We found this place by accident. It sure is a little funny-looking from outside. I started worrying when I went to the bathroom and spotted a stylized drawing of a Mariachi dude on the men's room door. At least there was a watercolor of Mt. Fuji on the wall opposite.

            We've had two lunches and two dinners here. The food's delicious! Unlike MMRuth (whose reviews and posts I read avidly) we focused on cooked foods mostly, although what sushi/sashimi we've had was very good.

            Seafood appetizers were outstanding. Clams and mussels were both cooked perfectly in well-balanced sauces.

            Teriyaki is a great experience in that it's all about the preparation here. I'd like to know how their chef manages to get the perfectly-seasoned sauce to cling to the food the way it does. It's a study in the art of grilling.

            The really nice things are the little things -- salad is accompanied by dressing served on the side (as it should be if there's only one dressing offered) from a little metal "pitcher." Vegetables are flavorful, well-prepared features, not after-thoughts. They put a couple of little bowls of accompaniments out for us at dinner; one contained oshinko, the other I think contained some kind of seaweed.

            I like dim lighting, but some might find this restaurant too dark. And what's with the crummy tablecloths?

            Hey, this is a place to go for a good meal. And the sweetener is the price: it seems as if they've kept behind the times with regard to menu pricing, everything's so darned reasonable. The sushi prices alone are out of 1990!

            4 Replies
            1. re: shaogo

              Thanks for your report! I've been meaning to return to Tokubei (almost went 2 weeks ago, but it was so cold we chose Heidelberg instead).

              1. re: shaogo

                So glad you've been enjoying it. We've actually not been for awhile, as these days we go to Gajyumaru, just around the corner on 1st. Do check it out sometime - it has a more traditional decor (i.e., missing the cheesy English pub motif - endearing though it is), but is also a bit more expensive.

                1. re: MMRuth

                  Thanks for the recommendation. I looked at Gajyumaru's menu on-line, and it appears that they're more serious about authentic Japanese than Tokubei 86.

                  To us, part of Tokubei's appeal is the low price point. But that decor -- you made me laugh. Aww, it's a trade-off.

                  Finally, to ellenost: one of our meals at Tokubei was "won" by my dining companion. We flipped a coin to see if we were going there -- or Heidelberg. We love Heidelberg!

                  1. re: shaogo

                    Yes, Gajyumaru is a bit more expensive, and it's also the kind of place where sometimes we spend $50 at lunch - no alcohol - and sometimes we spend $150 at dinner - it just depends on what/how much we order, and if we get a la carte pieces.

              2. Today we re-visited Tokubei on the request of my friends.

                The roast pork could've been a bit more tender (especially given the delightful cut of pork they used) -- but it was still full of porky-flavored deliciousness. Dipping sauce was very good.

                The corn and mushroom soup is just wonderful.

                What hit us like a ton of bricks today was that the service is very, very, very s-l-o-w. The reason it took us so many visits to notice is that this particular little handful of friends always has a lot to talk about when we meet up, so it wasn't until I realized I was starving *and* had placed the order a half hour before that I raised the point in conversation. My friends agreed that while the wait wasn't really a problem for us, it could be for other customers.

                And this is the last post I'm going to make on this restaurant for a long time. Because the *next time* my friends lure me all the way up to 86th Street East, I'm eating at the Heidelberg.

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