Robataya NY: Why Yes, Do Come at Me with That Paddle!

September 12, 2012

For a quick recap of the meal, check out the slide show at the bottom of the post.

Lighting the way to robatayaki...

Rating: ◊◊◊ ½ 

Once in awhile, A. and I get the itch to blow all our money on fancy-schmancy Japanese food. We like to think that it transports us back to a better time – a time when we were studying abroad without adult responsibilities haunting our young, impressionable minds.

Our target this time was Robataya NY, another colony of Mr. Bon Yagi’s delicious empire. Like many of its sister restaurants (Sakagura, Cha-an, Decibel, etc.), Robataya serves small plates made from high-quality, traditional ingredients. The name “Robataya” is actually derived from the restaurant’s focus on one particular type of traditional cuisine: robatayaki.

Literally translated to “fire-side cooking,” robatayaki involves grilling fresh ingredients such as seafood, vegetables and meat over a hot charcoal fire with liberal amounts of salt.The idea is to let the natural flavor of each ingredient shine in its own right. Also, they serve your grilled dishes to you on giant paddles. Awesome, right?

A plethora of ingredients. Notice the giant paddle resting next to the chef... 
The menu at Robataya can be a little overwhelming. Not only is it quite extensive, many of the dishes have unusual ingredients even for traditional Japanese places. Dry-pressed fish fillets with a side of elephant garlic, anyone? We ended up picking about 8 dishes – a combination of everything that sounded interesting.

Some Highlights and Lowlights:

Ei-Hire - Re-grilled Dried Skate Fin with Kewpie Mayo

Look at that gorgeous dollop of Japanese mayo. 
On its own, the skate was very sweet with a flaky, jerky-like texture and just a hint of fishiness. The cartilage on the wings also added a nice textural crunch to the soft, yielding flesh. When combined with Kewpie mayo, the skate becomes much more full-bodied and loses its briny taste. It’s definitely a great bar snack to wash down with a few Sapporos.

Uni Tororo - Sea Urchin with Grated Nagaimo (Japanese Mountain Yam)

Horrifically slimy. 
I recently developed a fondness for uni, and seeing as A. and I are both pretty tolerant of weird textures, I ordered the Uni Tororo. However, it was impossible to anticipate the strange and slimy dish that came to us. The dish was obviously well-prepared but alas, it also happened to have the mouth feel of the congealed spit of a thousand camels. When I spooned it up, long strands of nagaimo would stretch all over the place. As for the taste, the uni was diluted by the blandness of the nagaimo and overpowered by abundant amounts of scallion.

Sweet Fish Robatayaki

So small, so sad and so NOT sweet. 
At small-plate focused restaurants, no matter how small the portion, I usually don't feel ripped off. That was not the case with the sweet fish. For $16, the chef presented us with a robatayaki'ed fish that was maybe 2 inches by 5 inches. Even a starving wild bear fresh out of hibernation probably would have let this fella go. In terms of flavor, the flesh of the fish had a very fine texture but the “sweet” taste was overpowered by the strong bloodline that lined the inside of its stomach. It was especially disappointing because it looks like a slightly larger version of one of my favorite small fishes: shishamo (willow-leaf smelt, usually with a lot of roe).

Kamameshi of Assorted Mushrooms - Slow Steamed Rice with Broth and Mushrooms

Luscious, sticky and definitely umami. 
For me, this kamameshi was the highlight of the meal. Made only with rice, mushrooms and vegetarian broth, it shocked me that so many flavors could be coaxed out of so few ingredients. The rice, glistening with broth, was incredibly luscious. Combined with the slippery texture of the mushrooms, the kamameshi took on a surprisingly light and ethereal quality. I would absolutely order this again.

Robataya NY is definitely a new and interesting play off of the "expensive Japanese restaurant" stereotype. That said, if you're not a fan of subtly seasoned food or small portions, this restaurant may not be for you. Many dishes amount to only a few bites and are plainly seasoned with just salt.

Robataya's dishes are not cheap either. In fact, when A. and I received our check, we were a little blind-sighted by how expensive it was. We had ordered so many small plates that we lost track of how much everything cost. It wasn't a big deal, but it did put a slight damper on our overall experience. Next time, we will definitely plan our meal more carefully before the waiter takes our order.

Waitresses in kimono. 
Other than these small critiques, Robataya is a wonderful balance of theatricality and elegance - perfect for entertaining (impressing) close friends, family, or a date. The serene ambiance, attentive service and lush greenery really allowed me to relax and taste the natural flavors of my meal. Plus, it was thrilling to watch the chefs, each kneeling in front of a small grill, create dish after dish and fly them out to patrons at the bar via their paddles.

Slide Show (Click the "i" for More Info on the Pictures):

Robataya NY 
231 East 9th Street
New York, NY 10003

Robataya NY: Why Yes, Do Come at Me with That Paddle!

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

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