Yusho wants you to drink cocktails. You will have no problem with this. The vibrancy of the room, with its vintage furniture, mishmash of light fixtures and Pendletonesque fabrics, puts one in the upbeat mood for a drink. Just one thing: Don’t go for anything other than the cocktail on draft, a bubbly, lemony shochu drink that is a riff on the Japanese cocktail chu hai. Whereas some of the other cocktails are just fine (the fruity Cate’s Esters), and others are regrettable (the Alderman’s Hodo-Hodo tastes like sweetened, watered-down whiskey), the chu hai has an addictive sweet-tart profile that makes you want to eat. And you want to eat at Yusho. The eating here is much better than the drinking.
That isn’t to say you shouldn’t drink here, of course. You have to drink, because these dishes—many of which take cues from Japanese yakitori—are drinking foods. What are you going to do, eat a trio of earthy chicken meatballs with a glass of water? Take down juicy chicken wings—which you dunk in bonito salt (the more the better)—with a cup of coffee? Don’t be insane. Drink your drink. Slide the beef tongue off the skewer, drag it through some Sriracha, put it in your mouth with some massive pieces of (graciously tamed) elephant garlic. It’s earthy, fatty, tender, spicy and begs for a beer. Ditto the tart and tiny pickled quail eggs, and the steamed bun filled with short ribs and topped with crunchy peanuts. Yes, the bun is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, and elegant enough that you could eat it with red Burgundy. But you won’t. The beer, or that cocktail, will suffice.
Wine just doesn’t seem like the thing here. Wine is for three-course dining, or a wine bar where you’re going to eat a bunch of cheese and bread. There’s little of either on this menu, which may help explain how chef Matthias Merges, a veteran of Charlie Trotter’s, keeps the food so clean, so bright (will you think I’ve had too much shochu if I say “so shiny”?). After eight or ten of these dishes you may see patterns emerge: Fruits play a big role, as do nuts (and often they are used together, as in a very lovely, very sumptuous piece of tofu, topped with pineapple and walnuts). And yet still each dish tastes new. Merges tops onions with onions in his leek dish (they’re tossed with miso and sprinkled with fried shallots), and he wisely offsets the gumminess of mochi (one of two desserts) by stuffing it with a crisp, candy bar–like combination of hazelnuts and chocolate. These dishes are so successful, and instill such high expectations, that when a dish shows up that doesn’t perform as perfectly, it can be doubly disappointing. Twice-fried chicken is indeed crispy but ultimately nothing much more than chicken fingers. The tuna doesn’t reach beyond your average maki roll, deconstructed. And the croquette of pig’s tail that is set over the otherwise delicious “poser” ramen seems to fall into a trend trap that Yusho otherwise so adeptly avoids. Why would Merges bend to the public’s will, with its endless appetite for fried foods and pork? Doesn’t he know we need chefs like him, and restaurants like Yusho, if we’re ever going to move past this porkiness? The public will come to Yusho, and the public will not miss the cheese and the fat. Because Yusho leaves little to be desired.