There are a lot of bars on the Lower East Side. Restaurants, too. It’s easy to meander all evening in search of a spot that feels just right. But it’s easier to make a reservation at Gugu Room on Orchard street and spend that time saved on sips and skewers.
Gugu Room opened in May with press materials promising “New York’s first Filipino-Japanese izakaya.” Previous occupant Tsismis hosted pop-ups in its final days, including what would become the space’s present iteration. The made-over interior’s once brighter hues are subdued with a new burgundy and black color scheme for more of a date-night ambiance. The old copper-topped bar fits in nicely with the refreshed look. Pop-in spots there seem a cinch to nab at press time, and booking availability is a breath of fresh air. It has real hero potential on those nights nobody knows where to go, or simply can’t get in.
Chef/Partner Aris Tuazon (previously of Ugly Kitchen) and Chef Markee Manaloto’s (Kissaki) long menu starts on the snackie side and expands to larger plates. The grilled skewers here are NYC’s new pierced meats to beat; available in pairs or by the hospitable grouping that speaks to a guest-focused operation and lately less-common care for value. A large sampler platter includes one each of Gugu Room’s six varieties ($22; choose four for $15).
Each skewer’s seasoning amplifies its best form. The buoyant shrimp’s teriyaki baste is restrained enough to amplify its ocean-fed freshness. The yielding pork intestine’s banana ketchup barbecue sauce makes great use of its tangy sweetness. The longanisa, formed into spheres, has a pleasant citrus pop, and the pork belly, grilled chicken in more teriyaki, and ribeye with house-made steak sauce skew faithfully to those proteins’ expected flavors. They’re each distinct all on one plate—a quality that some other preparations don’t achieve.
The agedashi tofu ($9) doesn’t approach its expected crispness, and its quickly softening bonito flakes further sap any snap, dissolving into sogginess. The truffled mushroom sisig’s ($20) listed trio of fungi—trumpet, shiitake and oyster—come out one note. Most of the preparations here seem designed to linger and chat over, but these lose a heap of appeal after about a bite.
Spicy yuzu adobo ribs ($24) and hamachi kama ($15) are among better bets. The former is prepared with an animated mix of Asian soy, vinegar, garlic, yuzu and pineapple, piled generously and served with garlic fried rice. The latter is notably moist (as a somewhat sweet yellowtail collar should be but often isn’t), and light.
Gugu Room’s cocktails are among few exceptions to the new rule that most places would be better off sticking to the classics. The yuzu gimlet combines its titular fruit with gin, orange liqueur and St-Germain to repeat round invitation, but other tipples like the Spicy Bingo ($15; mezcal, maraschino, plum bitters, apple cider, chili) are worth divergence.
Plenty of new restaurants are easy to identify as good, but fewer merit obvious returns. Gugu Room’s menus, atmosphere and essence of ease make it a great one for the shortlist.
The Vibe: Casual, fun and welcoming with date-night potential.
The Food: Great skewers and a wide variety of small to large plates with standouts like spicy yuzu adobo ribs and hamachi kama.
The Drinks: Terrific signature cocktails, sake, shochu, wine and beer.
Gugu Room is located at 143 Orchard Street. It’s open Tuesday-Thursday from 5pm-11pm, Friday-Saturday 5pm-1am and Sunday 5pm-10pm.