June 14, 2010
By SAM SIFTON
A LOBE of sea urchin sits on a small tile of raw, red, marbled steak placed on top of a single shiso leaf, the shape of the ace of clubs, and a rectangle of nori slightly larger than the meat. The package is meant to be folded onto itself, then touched to a low bowl of soy sauce and eaten in perhaps two bites: a raw surf-and-turf canapé, elegant and spare.
Cool, uncooked chuck meat that has been chopped, chopped and chopped again is placed in a delicate pillow over warm rice just scented with sweetened vinegar. The effect is meat sushi, gorgeous and puzzling, red against the white of starch, the flavor of the protein almost indistinguishable to that of tuna. Raw tripe with a spicy miso sauce follows, salt and fire set against the spongy flesh, and a dish of flash-boiled shredded Achilles tendon, the tendrils fantastic in texture and taste. These might be dried tofu or cooked pasta, long mushrooms or pieces of ear: a magic, nervous-making dish.
Cubed raw liver comes to the table as well, a chilled, lumpy stew dressed with salt and sesame oil. It tastes of lightning storms on the high plains, of fear and magnificence combined. It is faintly metallic, rich with blood.
Still with us? Not feeling faint? These are all appetizers at Takashi, a modest and wondrous strange new restaurant on Hudson Street in the West Village that specializes in raw offal and Korean-style Japanese barbecue. They are simple exciting dishes: a taste of passion best consumed with cold sake and an open mind.
There are electric grills embedded in the restaurant’s tables. A waiter will turn yours on when the appetizers are finished, then lower a narrow black exhaust hood over it. An element heats the mesh of the grill; the hood pulls heat and smoke silently away from the table, up to the roof. The whole contraption looks like a Swedish stereo system, or something out of an elegant German dentist’s office.
Entrees to be cooked upon it include sheets of thin rib-eye steak, as beautiful as stamps or silk handkerchiefs; fingers of meat taken from between the cow’s ribs; meat from the short rib; skirt steak; smiles of cheek. There are sweetbreads, too, the shape of small clouds; papery disks of sliced tongue; accordion files of stomach and intestine; dark, crimson bits of heart.
Put these all on the hot grill, one by one, bit by bit. Let them go crisp. Eat with raw Greenmarket vegetables, pungent kimchi, more of those shiso leaves.
Takashi serves a dark-red pepper paste to go alongside the food. It is redolent of shrimp and sesame, garlic, ginger, fish sauce, the salty tang of fermentation. It amplifies the taste of all that it touches. The food beneath it is no less shocking if you eat it bare: it tastes wild, absolutely natural. In the thrall of its consumption, the whole dining room seems to pulse with life.
Takashi Inoue opened this restaurant in April, with Saheem Ali. It is an intimate room of just 34 seats, all warm wood and clean lines. The style of the place is yakiniku, a kind of Japanese homage to Korean barbecue thought to have originated in Japan during the Second World War, when more than a half-million Koreans were conscripted into the Japanese army and brought to the island to work.
Mr. Inoue is a child of that diaspora. His grandmother, who came from Korea, runs a small yakiniku restaurant in Osaka, Japan. He came to the United States three years ago to study English, and soon fell in with Mr. Ali, then a theater director who is now the restaurant’s general manager. Takashi is their first restaurant.
Two philosophies are at work within it. The first has to do with the quality of the meat, which is superior to anything you will find in a traditional Korean barbecue restaurant, at least in Manhattan. (Mr. Inoue buys from Dickson’s Farmstand Meats in the Chelsea Market, and from the Pat LaFrieda outfit in the meatpacking district.)
The second has to do with the diversity of the cuts of meat Mr. Inoue offers his customers. The overarching point of Takashi is to celebrate the cow in its entirety. There is even a whimsical mural on the restaurant’s southern wall that explains this, outlining Takashi’s devotion to horumon, a Japanese term for variety meats or offal that translates roughly as “discarded goods.”
The meats are offered for grilling in one of two styles: either marinated in Mr. Inoue’s pepper paste or simply dressed with garlic, salt and sesame oil. Various soy-based dipping sauces come on the side.
If seated at the open kitchen, it is easy to ask the chef which preparation is best for which cut: he is the muscle-bound fellow often wearing a baseball hat reading “Jack.” But if you’re alone and worried about what, say, “fourth stomach” tastes like, it is wise to ask for the marinade, which provides covering fire for those new to the texture. (For the record, fourth stomach tastes like the one scrumptious rubber chicken on the planet.) If you’re considering the rib-eye or skirt, you ought to stay with the plain salt, garlic and oil, which will allow you unfettered access to the taste of the beef.
Make sure to ask for vegetables as well: a selection of Greenmarket beauties that make up a still-life that complements the meats. A raw baby carrot taken after a bite of the marinated grilled tongue, for instance, is a terrific combination; a soft, fragrant ginger shoot after a piece of simply dressed rib-eye is even better, a match that may haunt your memory for days.
Consumed with one of the restaurant’s excellent sakes, adequate wines or seemingly mysteriously chosen beers (the Tusker Export is a nod to Mr. Ali’s Kenyan heritage), these have the ability to raise what might seem a stunt meal into a real one.
There is but one dessert at Takashi: a soft-serve vanilla ice cream of Mr. Inoue’s devising, available with toppings that range from green tea to gold leaf, but which is best eaten plain. It has nothing to do with yakiniku culture, with Korean food or Japanese. It is simply a continuation of the restaurant’s cowish, idiosyncratic theme, a Zen riddle to consider as you pay the check.
Takashi is probably not for everyone: too do-it-yourself and odd. But its eccentricity is honest, its atmosphere winning and its food quite good. So there is large intestine on the menu. You are not in New York to play on the junior varsity, are you?