New York City – “Welcome!” isn’t a bad thing to hear when you enter a restaurant. The Japanese form, Irashimase, is something we often hear on venturing into our local sushi parlor. It’s often called out by a sushi chef or two from the bar. At En, a relative newcomer to the West Village dining scene, it’s screamed out in chorus by a team of cooks from the open kitchen. Having first passed through a beautifully designed and serene lounge area to get to the cavernous, hard-surfaced, and cacophonous dining room, it’s jarring. It’s also repeatedly jarring if you sit at the bar around the kitchen, to the point where we cringed every time we saw someone walking into the room. It’s also the “impersonal” form greeting, versus konichiwa, or hello; but then, we don’t know these folks anymore than they know us.
The dining room, as I mentioned, is big. Really big. Okay, it’s not as big as Matsuri or Megu, two other relatively recent openings, but it’s got what appear to be three-story high ceilings that make it feel, well, really big. The room is dominated by two competing squares. The first is a massive stone pillar in the center of the main eating area, surrounded by a rippling pool, surrounded by a communal dining table. It’s very pretty if you like staring at a stone pillar with a moat throughout a two-hour dinner. A better option, despite being closer to the welcoming cries, is to sit at the kitchen table. Sort of a sushi bar without any display, this dining counter takes up three sides around the kitchen – not just sushi preparation, the entire kitchen. But it’s actually kind of fascinating watching these guys work. There is also an outer-ring of tables for 4-6 along the walls; dining solo or on a date will net you a communal spot.
En has gotten all sorts of write-ups for its humble beginnings. The nutshell version – a brother and sister team start a small, homey eatery in a third-floor walk-up in Tokyo. It becomes a raving success, they expand to multiple venues, all on the cozy side. New Yorkers aren’t going to climb to a third-floor walk-up for any food but their own mothers’. So hey, why not go the opposite route and open a whopping, overly-designed, food temple? To their credit, the owners maintained the homey style food, and there are dishes on the menu you aren’t likely to see at most other Japanese restaurants here. And while not an inexpensive place to eat, the pricing, given the setting, is remarkably reasonable, keeping in theme withe the “home-style” cooking.
You would think after all the press they’ve gotten (almost every major New York food critic wrote about the place within minutes of its opening), they might be paying attention. Repeated criticisms of the rubbery, nearly crunchy grilled giant squid, the superball texture of the shrimp fritters, or the tasteless and gooey mountain yams, would have sent most chefs back to the stove to try again. Even if it’s the way mom used to make it. Not here. They’re sticking by their guns, and with a room full of sake/beer/cocktail imbibing Wall-Street types, who’s to say they’re not right? Of course, most of what we saw go out of the kitchen was sushi, and relatively ordinary sushi at that, which isn’t what the restaurant purports to specialize in, but hey, it pays the bills.
There is one item on the menu that is truly sublime, and worth the trip and the noise. The “freshly-made scooped tofu” is amazing for anyone who thinks tofu is a block of tasteless filler out of a supermarket package. Throughout the evening, one of the cooks is busy whipping up fresh batches of this creamy soybean curd, and it becomes available, officially, at 6:00 and then every 90 minutes thereafter. Delicate, cloudlike, with a subtle, creamy, almost pudding like flavor and texture; this is tofu like you may never have had it before. It is served with a sauce called wari-joyu, which is a blend of a very light soy sauce and dashi (clear broth made with dried bonito flakes). We were admonished to just put a splash on the tofu, much like just a pinch of salt. It was heavenly. I’d go back again just for a bowl of that and a glass of sake (a well thought out and not overwhelming selection, not just the usual suspects, and most are available by the glass, carafe, or bottle).
Dinner will be eaten elsewhere.
En Japanese Brasserie, 435 Hudson Street, 212-647-9196.