Manhattan has become a vibrant bedrock for Japanese cuisine, and I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t paid more attention to the more understated shops around town. The hidden gems that pepper this island are as elemental and provoking, if not more so, than the Masas and Shukos that dominate the headlines.
Good thing I know some Japan enthusiasts to help me through the underground scene.
Mich, Kim and I recently went to Izakaya Mew, a charming Japanese oasis in the middle of Korea Town. Buried beneath a karaoke lounge, you’ll descend into a warmly lit basement with bulb string lights and rustic tables. Things get busy when 6:30 pm hits and you’ll notice the volume crescendo and will probably have to repeat what you say to the friendly staff at least a couple times.
Memories of the uni sushi linger — perhaps because I’m an uni lover, but bias aside, these are the perfect bit-sized pieces stuffed with buttery uni melting into a thin cloak of rice. More Japanese restaurants need to serve uni like this.
Also memorable: the raw octopus served with dry seaweed sheets. The seemingly innocuous dew-like chucks of octopus pack a tremendous punch. With every crunch comes a kick of jalapeno. You’ll want to get octopus two ways because the deep-fried octopus balls should also have a place on the table.
We also ordered the mochi gratin. That’s their way of giving an Americanized name to rice cakes swimming in a pool of thick creme sauce and covered with a gooey layer of slightly burnt cheese. With Arang in K-town sadly out of business, this dish is hard to find.
Then of course you’ll want some sashimi. Naturally they don’t tout top-quality fish like the upper crust of Japanese restaurants have to do, but Mew’s menu offers quite the variety. We went with the yellowtail carpaccio, marinated in a light, tangy sauce topped with baby roe and green onions.
Think of Mew as a fresh, modernized version of Kenka’s from St. Mark’s Street. The small-plates style means you get to try a variety of dishes, and you’ll want to try as many as you can.