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Introduction to Japanese

I've been meaning to learn about Japanese cuisine which I haven't tried except for a few random Benihana-type places upstate. What would be your top five recommendations? My budget is moderate, about $50 to $70 per person before drinks but including tax and tip. I'm considering:

- Ushiwakamaru (sushi)
- Ippudo (ramen)
- Cocoron (soba)
- Kajitsu (shojin)
- Sakagura (izakaya)

Perhaps Blue Ribbon Sushi? I like the broad menu but can't tell whether it's considered authentic. I think kaiseki is out of my price range, Thanks very much.

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Sakagura
211 East 43rd Street, New York, NY 10017

Blue Ribbon Sushi
119 Sullivan St, New York, NY 10012

Ushiwakamaru
136 W Houston St, New York, NY 10012

Ippudo
65 4th Ave, New York, NY 10003

Kajitsu
414 East 9th Street, New York, NY 10009

Cocoron
61 Delancey St, New York, NY 10002

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  1. Change Ushiwakamaru to 15 East and your list is good.

    -----
    15 East
    15 East 15th Street, New York, NY 10003

    3 Replies
    1. re: gutsofsteel

      I agree. I think you can get 10 pieces for around $50 at 15 East.

      Since you'll probably spend less than $30/pp at Cocoron and Ippudo, I would suggest adding to your list Katsu Hama for tonkatsu.

      -----
      15 East
      15 East 15th Street, New York, NY 10003

      Katsu-Hama
      11 E 47th St, New York, NY 10017

      Ippudo
      65 4th Ave, New York, NY 10003

      Cocoron
      61 Delancey St, New York, NY 10002

      1. re: Riverman500

        I did not recommend the change to 15 East because of price.

        -----
        15 East
        15 East 15th Street, New York, NY 10003

        1. re: gutsofsteel

          Right, I was assuming your recommended 15 East because it has better sushi and I agree. I was just pointing out that the OP could stay within his budget at 15 East though he has to order conservatively.

          -----
          15 East
          15 East 15th Street, New York, NY 10003

    2. Woah, loaded post.

      The budget speaks for itself, as probably the most difficult part of Japanese cuisine meeting your budget is sushi and kaiseki. Though that in no way should deter you as there are probably early bird or lunch specials at many kaiseki places. And while not top tier, there are a fair number of good sushi places that will fall under your budget.

      As for the rest, you should start experimenting with the best place that is either close to where you live or where you work. The type of cuisine is self explanatory, and if you feel like pasta/noodle, go to ramen, soba, or udon. If you feel like chicken, go for yakitori or chicken katsu. Or if you feel like something hearty, maybe shabu shabu.

      It's hard to layout what or where you should go without narrowing it down a little more than intro to Japanese food. If anything, if you feel like checking out ramen, for example, going to 2-3 places will probably inform you more than just hitting Ippudo.

      Most Japanese food will be more familiar than not to the average eater. The nuances are many, but that comes with repeated eating.

      -----
      Ippudo
      65 4th Ave, New York, NY 10003

      1 Reply
      1. re: villainx

        Thanks. I'd appreciate any recommendations for udon and shabu-shabu.

      2. Care to define
        shojin
        izakaya
        tonkatsu

        I am familiar witih Sushi, Ramen and Soba.

        1 Reply
        1. re: princeofpork

          Shojin = vegetarian/temple food, expect tofu
          Izakaya = tapas style bar food
          Tonkatsu = breaded deep fried pork cutlets

        2. For dinner, I would suggest Aburiya Kinnosuke, which is more or less an upscale izakaya. You can order a variety of different small seasonal dishes prepared different ways- i.e. raw, grilled, steamed, fried. They do many of the standards pretty well. And small dishes means you can dial in to a budget and still get a bit of variety....Specialized ramen, soba, udon places are good for lunch.... Sushi is really a category on it's own and better considered with a bigger budget... Shojin and kaiseki may be a little too precious for an introductory level to the cuisine.

          -----
          Aburiya Kinnosuke
          213 E 45th St, New York, NY 10017

          1. I'd follow Silverjay's advice. Aburiya Kinnosuke is a good place to get a variety of cooked dishes. With a larger budget and an interest in sake, Sakagura is the de facto choice.

            Ippudo is a fine idea for ramen, but beware of ridiculous wait times. An early lunch is probably best. For soba, either Cocoron or Soba Koh. Stick with plain cold soba for your first try.

            Sushi is a bit difficult. If you want good nigirizushi served piece-by-piece at a counter, a more realistic budget is $100-150+ (e.g. Sushi Yasuda, 15 East). But Lau's report of the $35 sushi dinner set at Sushi Azabu is promising: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/802349

            You're right about non-shojin kaiseki being beyond your budget. As for Kajitsu, I might save it for later; it could seem very spare without reference points.

            A couple of additional suggestions:
            Tori Shin for yakitori. Get the omakase or the 10 skewer set.
            Takashi for yakiniku. Rather pricey.

            -----
            15 East
            15 East 15th Street, New York, NY 10003

            SobaKoh
            309 E 5th St, New York, NY 10003

            Sushi Yasuda
            204 E 43rd St, New York, NY 10017

            Aburiya Kinnosuke
            213 E 45th St, New York, NY 10017

            Sakagura
            211 East 43rd Street, New York, NY 10017

            Ippudo
            65 4th Ave, New York, NY 10003

            Sushi Azabu
            428 Greenwich St (basement), New York, NY 10013

            Kajitsu
            414 East 9th Street, New York, NY 10009

            Takashi
            456 Hudson St, New York, NY 10011

            Cocoron
            61 Delancey St, New York, NY 10002

            23 Replies
            1. re: hcbk0702

              Thanks. Is there a difference between yakitori and yakiniku? I tried googling but got even more confused.

              1. re: Tommy D.

                Yakitori refers to grilled chicken skewers, though yakitori-yas will also feature some non-poultry skewers.

                Yakiniku is a beef-focused Japanese adaptation of Korean barbecue.

                1. re: Tommy D.

                  The general term for grilled things on skewers is "kushiyaki". Chicken is some of the most popular, so "yakitori" is sometimes used to described places that might have more than chicken available There is also "kushiage"; fried things on skewers.

                  I believe that "yaki" generally means grilled. But, I guess not always as yakisoba is not grilled (and not soba). ;-)

                  I admire your idea of seeking out the better places to start with. It's interesting that you are including low end items (like Ramen or izakaya) in addition to more refined cuisine. Before anyone starts, I'm a big fan of simple things.

                  1. re: jman1

                    Thanks for the clarification. I was originally looking for a Japanese restaurant that would provide a broad sampling of sushi, ramen, etc. but it seems that all the good ones specialize in one thing or another. Since this type of cuisine is wholly unfamiliar to me, my current plan to try the low end items first before jumping into sushi or kaiseki just so I'll have some reference. Shojin intrigues because of its Buddhist roots (I'm not Buddhist but am fascinated by eastern philosophy). As Silverjay and hcbk0702 advised, however, I'll save that for later.

                    I was wondering though: the Chinese food threads seem to classified according to regions (Szechuan v. Cantonese v. Shanghainese, etc.), but I haven't found such distinctions among the Japanese restaurants in New York. Should I assume that sushi or ramen would be essentially homogeneous throughout Japan? I'd love to hear about any regional specialties available in NYC, if there are any.

                    I had a great time at Ippudo. The ramen and broth were so deliciously rich and filling. The room also had such a great vibe, almost as if I stepped into another world. Is it customary for the staff to shout greetings as each patron enters and leaves the dining room, or is that peculiar to Ippudo (or ramen restaurants in general)? It's a disarming gesture though initially I was jumping out of my seat every minute or so.

                    The girl next to me told me about Spot, which I'll add to my dessert list along with Kyotofu. And apparently there's an exclusive restaurant called Bohemian? I can't find much information about it.

                    -----
                    Kyotofu
                    705 9th Ave, New York, NY 10019

                    Ippudo
                    65 4th Ave, New York, NY 10003

                    Spot Dessert Bar
                    13 St Marks Pl, New York, NY 10003

                    Bohemian
                    57 Great Jones St, New York, NY 10012

                    1. re: Tommy D.

                      There are definitely regional distinctions in Japanese cuisine, but they are not well represented in NYC as full-on restaurants. There used to be an Okinawan restaurant, but it closed. Owners of Rockmeisha in the West Village are from somewhere in Kyushu, the girl who runs Uminoie in East Village is from a small island in Nagasaki Prefecture, and while not regional, Saburi in Grammercy does Japanese style Chinese food. I may be missing some... Most restaurants- especially izakaya and the catch-all type places- serve individual dishes that often come from different regions. Japanese cuisine is still at a quite introductory stage here and also, regional style dining places have only recently caught on within Japan.

                      No, neither ramen nor sushi nor soba are homogeneous in Japan. There are regional variations. Ippudo is a chain from Hakata ward of Fukuoka City in Kyushu. Heavy pork broths are the signature style there. The full restaurant name- in the logo- is actually Hakata Ippudo.

                      As to the boisterous greetings, this is common at many casual Japanese eateries, not just ramen. It can definitely be disarming if you're not used to it. Takes a couple of cold beers to create internal white noise to counter it!

                      -----
                      Uminoie
                      86 E 3rd St, New York, NY 10003

                      Saburi
                      168 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10016

                      Rockmeisha
                      11 Barrow St, New York, NY 10014

                      Ippudo
                      65 4th Ave, New York, NY 10003

                      1. re: Silverjay

                        And I just remembered the place Hakata Tonton in WV which bills itself as "Authentic Kyushu Soul Food"!

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                        Hakata TonTon
                        61 Grove Street, New York, NY 10014

                      2. re: Tommy D.

                        Find a copy of Lucky Peach Magazine! It's put out by McSweeney's, David Chang/Momofuku, and Zero Point Zero Productions (who do No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain). There is only one issue so far but it is devoted to ramen (issue #2 will probably be devoted to something completely different).

                        I recommend it because there's a great regional ramens map in issue #1.

                        1. re: kathryn

                          Thanks for the tip Kathryn. I have ordered my copy!

                        2. re: Tommy D.

                          You've already got some good answers to your questions below.

                          I will add that Japanese friends have highly recommended Tori Shin for yakitori in NY.

                          As has been mentioned, there are regional variations in ramen. Although it is very popular (even more so, lately) both in and outside Japan, it is not considered a native Japanese food. Rather, it is thought of as a foreign food from China (although happily adopted). And, it's definitely been changed into something quite Japanese.

                          Sushi is difficult to qualify as high or low end. It can be very expensive and expertly prepared using high end ingredients. And, sushi bars do have their own etiquette. However, at one level, it's also informal. It's a finger food that you eat at a bar where one can have informal interactions with the sushi chef.

                          1. re: jman1

                            I actually went to Tori Shin the other day. I was met with the same chorus of greetings but in contrast with Ippudo, the restaurant was small and intimate, consisting of a U-shaped counter and just a few tables. The crowd was also more grown-up (30s+), mainly well dressed native Japanese including several men in business suits.

                            I got the omakase as suggested above and it was really great. Lots of chicken but also other interesting tidbits like codfish roe, grilled corn, grilled asparagus, and a dish of eel, ground chicken, and cucumber in a light vinegar dressing. My favorite skewers were the Wagyu beef (supplement), chicken "oysters" (round nuggets from the thigh), and the special grilled meatball which was served with a mixture of raw egg yolk and soy sauce.

                            The rice course was the special oyako don (chicken/egg/rice) served with clear chicken soup. Dessert was shiso sorbet, definitely unusual but it grew on me as it provided a light, herbacious balance to the saltiness of the meal.

                            As a clueless first-timer, the most interesting aspect of Tori Shin was the etiquette as explained by my server: how to pick up and eat the yakitori, where to place the used skewers, how to add condiments, and even the proper direction of chopsticks on the ceramic stand in between courses. I can only imagine that the etiquette involving sushi would be even more complex.

                            I also tried Soba Koh this weekend, which in contrast with the previous two restaurants was a very simple and unassuming space. I did brace myself for boisterous salutations but received none since the lone waiter in the room was preoccupied with orders. I had the plain cold soba with vegetable tempura. perfectly light and tasty for such a humid day, and then, on my waiter's suggestion, drank the remaining dipping sauce after mixing it with a bit of soba cooking broth.

                            Dessert was black sesame pudding. This time I was enamored from the first bite and now I can't wait to try other sesame-based desserts.

                            -----
                            SobaKoh
                            309 E 5th St, New York, NY 10003

                            Ippudo
                            65 4th Ave, New York, NY 10003

                            1. re: Tommy D.

                              I love black sesame desserts! Try also the black sesame ice cream from either Sundaes & Cones or Chinatown Ice Cream Factory.

                              -----
                              Chinatown Ice Cream Factory
                              65 Bayard St, New York, NY 10013

                              Sundaes and Cones
                              95 E 10th St, New York, NY 10003

                                1. re: Tommy D.

                                  Kee's also has amazing black sesame chocolate truffles.

                                  Thanks for writing about Tori Shin. I wasn't aware of it until this thread.

                                  -----
                                  Kee's Chocolates
                                  80 Thompson St, New York, NY 10012

                              1. re: Tommy D.

                                Glad you enjoyed Soba Koh -- it's probably my favorite soba i've had outside of Japan...

                                1. re: Tommy D.

                                  One of the thing about Japanese places (sushi joints and Tori Shin you'll probably notice more) is that the place (and you) evolves as you return, based on what's in season, what's fresh that day, and your preferences.

                                  Once you get acquainted with a particular food, there's a lot of nuances as you return as well as when you visit other like restaurants.

                                  1. re: Tommy D.

                                    Nice to hear you enjoyed your experience at Tori Shin and Soba Koh. It's worth noting that usually yakitori is a pretty downmarket, casual, social drinking atmosphere with not much in the way of formal etiquette...Nice observation. Yeah, soba shops aren't usually practitioners of the boistrous greeting phenomenon...We've done sushi etiquette threads on the General board if you're interested.

                                    1. re: Tommy D.

                                      In addition to returning to Tori Shin, Yakitori Totto seems to be another representative place in Midtown. Never been, as Tori Shin is my main place.

                                      St Marks has a couple of yakitori places. Not at same level, but it's okay, and the fun/rowdy factor makes up for it.

                                      -----
                                      Yakitori Totto
                                      251 W 55th St, New York, NY 10019

                                      1. re: villainx

                                        Taisho is a good one on St marks, they even have bull penis there and it's very inexpensive. I didn't see Soba ya or Soba koh mentioned those are both good for soba .. Kajitsu and kyo ya are similar to what I know as Kyoto style food but $70 is too low,maybe $100 will do it.

                                        -----
                                        Soba-ya
                                        229 E 9th St, New York, NY 10003

                                        SobaKoh
                                        309 E 5th St, New York, NY 10003

                                        Yakitori Taisho
                                        5 St Marks Pl, New York, NY 10003

                                        Kyo Ya
                                        94 E 7th St, New York, NY 10009

                                        Kajitsu
                                        414 East 9th Street, New York, NY 10009

                                        1. re: foodwhisperer

                                          I really liked Soba Koh and wrote about it upthread. I'll keep Taisho in mind though bull penis might be too adventurous for me. I'll definitely go to Kajitsu and Kyo Ya eventually with a more realistic budget. Thanks!

                                          -----
                                          SobaKoh
                                          309 E 5th St, New York, NY 10003

                                          Yakitori Taisho
                                          5 St Marks Pl, New York, NY 10003

                                          Kyo Ya
                                          94 E 7th St, New York, NY 10009

                                          Kajitsu
                                          414 East 9th Street, New York, NY 10009

                                          1. re: Tommy D.

                                            As villianx says, the EV places are lower in quality.

                                            Taisho is not as good as Totto, so if you go to Totto first, you may be disappointed in the quality of cooking/meat at Taisho.

                                            -----
                                            Yakitori Totto
                                            251 W 55th St, New York, NY 10019

                                            Yakitori Taisho
                                            5 St Marks Pl, New York, NY 10003

                                            1. re: kathryn

                                              Yes I've been to Totto and Tori Shin a few times but it's good to know about options in EV. Thanks!

                                  2. re: Tommy D.

                                    i don't think there is anything particularly Japanese about Spot -- i went there once, w/ a date who was craving dessert: she had a slab of brownie-like chocolate cake, and our server was a Chinese-American girl from Queens...while i didn't peruse the menu very much, i didn't notice anything Japanese about the place...it may be okay and you may want to go sometime, but i'd strike it from your list "learning about Japanese food" places...

                                    1. re: Simon

                                      Got it. I may try it anyway since the desserts look interesting even if it's not really Japanese.