Though an army of big-box Japanese restaurants rumbled across the Pacific like Godzillas and Mothras a few years back, by the time Inakaya—a late arrival to the monster mash—opened this year in the New York Times Building, these supersized eateries (Ninja and EN Japanese Brasserie, to name two) were about as novel as Iron Chef reruns. Which helps explain why this sprawling offshoot of a venerable robotayaki grill in Tokyo feels so inconsequential.
Like a cross between a Benihana and Megu, Inakaya features showmen cooks in colorful robes barking out orders like Kabuki performers. The ingredients of their robata cuisine—the ancient style of grilling over a charcoal-fired hearth—are laid out in bountiful baskets, in a moat separating diners from the crouching men preparing their dinner behind the bar. Despite the artful raw-material arrangement—a pile of okra here, whole fish on ice there—the overall impact isn’t much more exciting than a stroll through a Japanese grocery.
The playful cooks do what they can to bring fun to the sober, antiseptic space (it is, after all, in an office tower)—clownishly passing beer bottles to patrons on the same eight-foot-long wooden pallets that deliver the grilled items once they’re done. The menu covers vast territory. In addition to the robata selection—featuring 16 la carte veggies, 11 seafood options, and a half dozen choices of chicken and beef—there’s sushi, sashimi, and 28 other hot and cold dishes. The biggest challenge is figuring out where to start.
The first to arrive was a tiny bowl of tender thick-cut pork belly in a viscous star-anise broth, a familiar and comforting dish. Eating the grilled food that followed, I too often had a sense of gastronomic dj vu. From the peppery chicken meatballs (available dirt cheap and just as good up and down St. Marks Place), to the run-of-the-mill grilled shimeji mushrooms, to the overcooked Wagyu, I’d tasted this stuff before—often better executed and more reasonably priced—which may explain why so little of it made an impression. Even an oddball plate of seared dried stingray fin seemed strangely routine-—with the texture of beef jerky and the flavor of squid.
Inakaya is hardly the shrine to ingredients you might expect it to be. Apart from Japanese Wagyu (two modest skewers are $45), only one other grilled item stands out—a $65 Japanese snapper (kinki), imported from the Tsukiji market in Tokyo. Given the tenor of the times and the snapper’s humbler company—the other fish on the menu are half the price or less—I opted instead for the $30 whole grilled branzino. Piercing it onto metal skewers so that it appeared to be in midswim, the presentation had panache, but the fish, featuring flaccid skin and little grill flavor, was remarkably dull.
The meal ends as it begins: with predictable, muted flavors. The desserts—red-bean and green-tea ice creams (also available with red beans in a colorful parfait) and a sticky mochi napoleon with green-tea ice cream—are useful mostly as palate cleansers. Despite the splashy stage they’re served on, neither Inakaya’s sweet nor savory dishes will turn Times Square into a Japanese-food destination.
Drink this: Inakaya’s sake flights, offering your choice of three cold sakes in miniature glasses, are a remarkable value at $10.
Eat this: Braised pork belly, chicken meatballs (tsukune), grilled Wagyu.
Sit here: Though there’s plenty of table seating in front of the big picture windows, the best real estate is at the counter that wraps around the open kitchen-—the performing cooks being the restaurant’s main attraction.
Conversation piece: The original Tokyo Inakaya, a touristy draw serving dinner until 5am, opened in the Roppongi section of town in 1970. There are now three Tokyo branches, identical in concept to the New York offshoot.
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