Inakaya New York

0 Love It
Midtown West

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.

Cheat sheet

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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Venue name: Inakaya New York
Address: 231 W 40th St
New York

Cross street: between Broadway and Eighth Ave
Opening hours: Mon–Fri 11:30am–2:30pm, 5–11pm; Sat, Sun 5–11pm
Transport: Subway: A, C, E to 42nd St–Port Authority; N, Q, R, W, 42nd St S, 1, 2, 3, 7 to 42nd St–Times Sq
Price: Average main course: $25. AmEx, DC, Disc, JCB, MC, V
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This is a very Times-Square appropriate restaurant, in the sense that it can be a little showboaty and at moments you may feel like you're part of an audience. We happened to be in the mood for that on the night we went, so the experience resonated with us in all the right ways. I have to say, the only thing I agree with on the TimeOut review is that the attempted "artful" display of raw ingredients in front of the kitchen is unnecessary. All of the ingredients displayed were plastic-wrapped, which completely defeated the intended purpose of adding an organic element to the decor. We were really pleased with the food and found the Six Course "Kyoto" Tasting Menu to be a great value and enjoyable to experience throughout its 2-hour duration. We strategized our approach and chose opposing dishes so that we could sample all of their offerings. In addition to their Masu sake (served in a wooden box), we had:

1. Seared Tuna salad and Seaweed salad - The seared tuna had an insanely delicious dressing. Seaweed salad featured multiple types of seaweed and was super fresh.

2. Carpaccio/Tartare and Tempura - Tempura was delicious...because, tempura. The carpaccio was dressed ever so lightly and melted on my tongue, it was definitely a highlight of the night.

3. Grilled Vegetables (eggplant, mushrooms, and asparagus) - You would wonder how amazing grilled vegetables can possibly be, but then you realize how amazing grilled vegetables can actually be.

4. Lobster/Kobe beef and Codfish/Kobe beef - The lobster was a challenge to remove enough meat to be satisfied, and perhaps not worth it in the end. But the codfish, oh, the codfish...I will compare it to every fish I order going forward. It was THAT good. Buttery and tender with a few stray bones, but I didn't even mind.

5. Steamed sticky rice w/mushrooms and Yellowtail/Scallion sushi - Sushi was very rice-heavy, as was expected, but the real winner was the steamed rice with mushrooms. Tender, sweet mushrooms were the perfect transition from dinner to dessert.

5 1/2. Homemade mochi - Ironically, just before we were served this dish there was a 5min ritualistic display in the front of the restaurant where a server took a huge wooden mallot and pounded their homemade mochi in a large stone basin.

6. Black Sesame and Green Tea ice cream - The Green Tea ice cream was no more or less delicious than any other  I've had, but the black sesame was a real palate-pleaser. It wasn't too sweet, it actually had an almost-savory flavor that lingered pleasantly on my tastebuds.

Before we received our check, we had the pleasure of being part of their closing ceremony where they thanked guests for dining, and then wished a guest happy birthday with a short series of claps which guests were encouraged to participate in.

In short, the Six-Course Kyoto tasting menu was deeply satisfying, and while the restaurant is not your typical night out I think it's a great option if you're craving a little entertainment, or would even be great to bring out-of-town friends/relatives.