Inakaya

I have been wanting to go to Inakaya ever since they opened up in Manhattan in 2009. But, I heard that are kind of pricey, so I have not had made my way there… then, the Restaurant Week came and saved the day. It is always good to try these expensive restaurant during restaurant week. You get to try samples of their offering at an affordable price, without feeling like you have just been ripped off.

Inakaya is located in midtown, and you can see it is a really large space through their floor-to-ceiling window. A large restaurant in a prime location could be a sign of pricey menu, but also their popularity to keep such desirable location. Their original restaurant is in Japan, established more than 45 years ago in Tokyo. They have two locations there, and this is their first expansion into the US. A restaurant with such long history must mean that they serve good food…

Since the entire restaurant is open floor style, their entrance is set up in a way that can protect the inside against wind, noise, and any other outside interference. They have a main door, then a small foyer, and another door to the right that leads into the restaurant. But this method will only work if the customers follow the instruction on the door that says to please close the first door before opening the second door. The door handle on the second door was really cool, it had the long paddle that they use to serve food as the door handle.

The inside was large, open, bright, and really good space. The high ceiling made the space feel even bigger. Inakaya is a traditional Robata-yaki restaurant. Ever since I visited a robata-yaki restaurant called Robataya in Tokyo (you can read about it here: http://www.foodlovergirl.com/roppongi-robataya/), I have been a big fan of robata-yaki. No, they have no relation between Inakaya and Robataya, as far as I know, but they both offer robata-yaki cuisine. As soon as we walked in, a waitress with a big smile came over and took us to our seat at the counter (we requested to be seated at the counter).

In case you are not familiar with robata-yaki, the word “Robata” means “around a sunken hearth” and “yaki” means grilling. Once upon a time, families in Japan used to gather around the hearth for dinner, which evolved into “Robata-yaki” style. Interesting how a traditional, everyday life chore or style of food preparation become such high-end style today… So, basically, they have super fresh ingredients that are grilled to perfection (or to your preference) slowly over open-flame. With that, a huge counter surrounding the robaya is the center stage.

Since they offer more than just robata-yaki food here, they also have large tables for customers who is not interested in grilled food, or just want to sit at the table. But, if you want to have the whole robata-yaki experience, I recommend you sit at the counter seat. If you are tall enough, you can peek into the grilling section. The counter was quite large, more than enough space for a fancy Japanese decoration, and a huge, traditional sake barrel (containing a real sake that you can drink).

At the Robataya in Tokyo that I visited, they had loads of fresh ingredients between the grilling section and counter, but this place only had minimum amount of ingredients on display. It was a bit disappointing, but I guess you can’t have all the ingredients out and keep them fresh, unless you know for sure you are going to use up most of them on that evening. We started off with green tea ($3), which came with free refills. And the staffs made sure we had enough green tea at all time. We only had to ask for refill once, but most of the time, they were on top of it.

The menu for Restaurant Week consisted of items from sushi bar, robata, and kitchen. We get to have a choice of appetizer, entrée, and dessert ($42/dinner). For the appetizer, we chose Spicy Tuna on Crispy Rice and 3 Varieties of Sashimi. We love fresh seafood and sushi, so we could not resist getting some non-robata items… Speaking of which, they had sushi bar behind the robata section, and seemed like two Japanese sushi chefs were busy making sushi and sashimi items.

 

Spicy Tuna on Crispy Rice is made with Spicy Tuna on deep fried rice. The rice was really, really, REALLY crispy. It was hard to hold it with chopstick, as it didn’t budge at all with pressure. It was easier to eat this with hands. Even though the exterior was really crispy to the point it was hard, but the rice in the inside was still nice and soft.  The tuna was good, fresh, and tasty. Not so spicy, but I liked the added togarashi (Japanese chili pepper) powder.

 

3 Varieties of Sashimi came with Tuna, Salmon and Yellowtail. Even though they had only two pieces of each kind, they were nice, thick slices and super fresh. They were sliced with consistent thickness, with great care. Great amount of natural oil, juicy, and melt in your mouth. I liked the sushi chefs already.

For entrée, we chose Premium Sushi and Grilled Black Codfish & Vegetables w/ Roasted Rice Ball. I know, we are at robata-yaki place… but the sashimi was really good, and they have two veteran-looking Japanese sushi chefs! The second item was more of a sampling of robata-yaki items, so we got that covered, right?

The Premium Sushi came with Tuna, Med Fatty Tuna, White Fish, Ikura, Amaebi (shrimp), Aji, Two Chef Choices & Tuna Roll. It was quite a generous amount of sushi, especially for Restaurant Week item (comparing to other restaurant offering assorted sushi during Restaurant Week). Especially, ikura! And teh two chef choices were two salmon, which is my husband’s favorite sushi, so it worked out perfectly.

Grilled Black Codfish & Vegetables w/ Roasted Rice Ball, again was a perfect sample plate of robata-yaki. You get a fish, veggies, and rice ball. I thought it was very creative and great offering, especially for those who have never had robata-yaki food. The portion was not that much, but the quality was very high. The fish was grilled to perfection, flaky but yet juicy and packed with its natural flavor from being grilled slowly. The veggies also have the natural flavor emphasized with the slow grilling method, having a bit of its natural sweetness to it. Great texture, very fresh, and you can really taste the ingredients as they supposed to taste.
In case you need some extra flavor, they have sea salt and togarashi inside small clay pots. You can put a dash of salt or togarashi to add extra flavor without overpowering the natural taste of the ingredients.
It interesting to watch them prepare these items right in front of you, however, they are not really set up in the way that you could really see the grill, but it was still cool to see them work. The staffs working at the grills were not Japanese, which was a bit surprising. I just assume that a restaurant with such history and tradition will have all authentic, Japanese staffs working here. But, that is easier said than done in country outside of Japan. All the staffs, regardless of their background, were all very nice and polite. The most interesting or fun thing about robata-yaki is the way the grill chefs hands you the dish.
They have a long wooden paddle, that they place grilled dish, and expend the paddle to the intended customers. They have to have a good arm muscle, steady hand, and good balancing to do this. It was kind of funny to watch a first-time customer, not knowing what to do immediately, while the grill chef patiently wait until you take the plate off of the paddle.
Before we moved onto the dessert, we really wanted to get their special grilled fish item that they had for the day, Robata Grilled Flounder ($33). A whole fish takes a while to grill, so we actually placed the order before our main dishes came out. It still took a little bit longer for the fish to came out, but that allowed us to digest all the appetizer and main dishes. And look at this fish. A thing of beauty. Grilled very slowly, without losing any of its flavor or juice, simple seasoning of sea salt, nothing else.
The meat of the fish came off the bone very easily, as they are so tender. The outside was nice and crispy just a bit, while the inside was just flaky and amazing. It was soooo delicious! When a fish is cooked over the open-fire for such slow way, you can eat almost the entire fish. From top to bottom. Bones, fins, and all. It was so good! It came with a high price tag, but it was really amazing.
Around this time, the restaurant all of a sudden dimmed their lights a little bit. The hostess with a big smile walked inside the grilling section. One of the grill chef was holding an old, traditional Japanese percussion instrument, made of two pieces of hardwood in his hands. From here, an “entertainment” part of the dinner began. He started to speak sentences in Japanese, and this is when I was 100% clear that he was NOT Japanese. I could tell he practiced really hard, not only trying to pronounce everything but also, memorizing them. After each sentence, the hostess will speak (translate) in English. She also had an issue, maybe she was nervous, but she could get one particular word out, which made her even more nervous. After struggling with that particular word, she finally spitted out a different word, making herself able to move on. I was so worried for her, cheering on quietly in the inside. I am glad she made it through. The grill chef could not finish his last sentence either, but I don’t think anyone else noticed (I think I was the only Japanese customer there that night). After the speech, he banged the wooden sticks in certain rhythmic sequence, wishing everyone a health and well-being. I think the loud noise from the wood supposed to scare away the evil spirit or something.

After the fun entertainment filled with warm wishes for the customers, my hubby wanted a little extra food. He wanted to get some more of Roasted Rice Balls ($7/2pcs). They had a choice of miso, soy souce, or shiso-ume plum paste flavors. He ordered the shiso-ume plum paste flavors, and the grill chefs started to make them. They don’t require much grilling time, so they came out much faster than the flounder. They were pretty good, nice shiso-ume flavor, but not strong. At a traditional Japanese restaurant, many of the customers like to end their meal with some kind of rice or noddle dish, so this gave us a nice, warm, filling ending.

But, that was not really THE end of the meal, as we still have desserts coming! We had Mochi Ice Cream and Homemade Pudding. We were getting pretty full, but we were still happy to get some desserts. It sometimes is the most important part of the meal!

The mochi ice cream was a serious mochi ice cream. Forget those store-bought, delicate mochi icream. This one was huge, opposite of delicate, but powerful and strong looking. They had a real mochi sheet, rather thick, covering over the generous amount of matcha ice cream. Mochi was not super soft, but a bit tough, making it a bit hard to eat with spoon. It was a solid mochi ice cream though. It also had sweet azuki bean on the side, which was a really nice touch.

You might wonder “why pudding at traditinal Japanese restaurant?” but the pudding has been with Japan since long, long ago. I grew up eating them, so it is a part of Japanese culture (in my opinion). So, the Homemade Pudding is made with fresh Vanilla Bean, which I could see and smell. I love vanilla bean… And all the way on the bottom is the liquid-y syrup that comes with Japanese custard pudding. It is so good! It is not overfly sweet, not too dense, but rather light and airy. It reminded me of my sweet childhood.

They have a nice size bathroom, one for men and one for women. They had the character for “man” and “woman” on the door, which was kind of funny. I don’t know if I have seen such sign in Japan, as it is kind of not polite to address customers as “man” or “woman.” You know, it should be “gentlemen” and “ladies” usually… But I can see how they are trying to produce a bit more authenticity with the characters.

The toilet was standard Japanese TOTO toilet, with all the great functions controlled by the panel on the wall. The buttons on the top are the only ones you really need to use. To open, you can manually lift the lid, or you can press the button and it will automatically open for you. Same for closing the lid. Sanitary, right? And to flush the toilet, just press the largest button on the top of the panel.

 

We had a good food here, at affordable price (minus the pricey flounder). It was a fun dinner, my husband’s first robata-yaki experience. He enjoyed picking up the dishes off the long wood paddles. The staffs were very nice, friendly, polite and efficient. They kept our water and green tea full, never rushed us, and treated us with smile. I am glad we got to go during the Restaurant Week! If you are interested in having the robata-yaki experience, give them a try. They have 5-course menu at $58, and 6-course menu at $70. Of course, they have à la carte available as well. Good old, traditional food with friendly staff, and fun experience all in one!

Inakaya – 231 W 40th St, New York, NY 10018

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