In Neil Gaiman’s book “Good Omens” any audio cassette left in a car for a fortnight automatically morphs itself into a copy of Queen’s Greatest Hits. Much like the ill-fated tapes destined to blare the Bohemian Rhapsody, it would seem any empty space in New York with more than one hundred continuous feet spontaneously bursts forth as a “somewhere in Asia/somewhere else somewhere, fusiony but more on the Asian influence side” mega-restaurant featuring modern décor and a techno trance soundtrack.
This trend in New York dining has an intersecting set with another one – that of other American cities sending us their more successful franchises (L’Altelier, Buddakan and so on). In the dead center, AnB in our Venn diagram, is Japonais. Someone obviously forgot about a couple of feet on the north side of 18th street between Park and Madison because red vinyl chairs, flagstone tiles, and an undulating ceiling of blond wood beams have sprouted forth in a local incarnation of Chicago’s popular Japonais, complete with a lounge area, a cocktail list with way to many drinks ending in –tini and drum machine driven trance music blended into the background. If the Gramercy Park area was jealous of Nobu 57, Megu, or Morimoto they now have Japonais – the idea behind the newest comer being that genius may be achieved somewhere in the combination of an authentic sushi bar and a proper French kitchen (I can't remember what the first "fusion" food was but this version did not sound groundbreaking to me).
Originally Angelou and I were going to have dinner around 6:00 PM, in the end we sat at 7:30 joined by Lifeson, a change and a delay that the staff handled both graciously and efficiently. Besides testing the bounds of customer courtesy, this afforded us an opportunity to have a couple of appetizers and cocktails wich are vodka sake and fruit juice combinations, and get a feel for the bar space which is actually pretty cool and very convivial (I made friends with a guy waiting for a blind date while I waited for my group) and I imagine is actually more fun in larger groups.
Starting with the cocktail list and moving through the rest of the menus are separate sections of Les Spécialités de la Maison; the scope gets even narrower as the servers tell you which of these are suggested by the chef. In the absence of a chef’s menu I decided to focus on these areas when making my selections, here is what we had:
Kani Nigiri 2pcs spicy baked king crab: very highly recommended by the chef it was better warmer, as it was served. The sauce coating this dish was fatty which managed to dumb down the crab’s sweetness a little. Overall a pleasing flavor in spite of a homogenized quality.
Waygu Carpaccio thinly sliced wagyu beef with yuzu and dark soy ginger sauce: dressed and topped with lemon zest, micro greens, chives, and toasted garlic. The toasted garlic took center stage from the other flavors, which was ok because it went well with the lemon and the sanguine beef but made the rest of the components seem kind of senseless.
Eight Samurai Tartare lobster, scallop, dungeness crab, tuna, octopus, salmon, bonito, and botan ebi served with Japanese fried taro and lotus chips: The menu declares “Our unique menu is designed for sharing” which this dish belies. Eight separate chopped fish are served on Chinese soup spoons differently and sometimes well complimented (I didn’t see the sense in the curried octopus, but loved the quail egg and black sesame in the tuna). The starchy thickness of the tartares made the thin chips useless for scooping them, leaving the three of us to use chopsticks to scoop bits onto the chips. This is a pretty dish and it tastes pretty good but if you intend to share it, share it with someone you are comfortable at least double dipping chopsticks with, otherwise get it as your only appetizer and enjoy it yourself.
Sashimi Japonais otoro, whitefish, botan ebi, and zuke sake: If you are going to throw your hat into the current ring of sushi masters offering food in New York your sashimi better be of the highest quality, and this was; almost perfect examples of each fish in each case.
Ebi Ebi panko shrimp topped with shrimp and wasabi tobiko sauce: as good as I imagine a shrimp tempura roll will ever taste.
Tuna Tuna Salmon salmon roll topped with sliced tuna and avocado wasabi tobiko sauce: pretty straightforward large-gauge roll rested on a very light avocado purée.
Toban Yaki Seafood oysters, sweet shrimp, king crab, and clams served with yuzu butter: This dish was a total miss. All the fish ended up tasting the same and not necessarily good and most was well overcooked. The only real dud of the evening, it had none of the genius possible of this type of cooking and dropped into all of the pitfalls.
House Smoked Waygu Rib Eye 10oz grilled rib eye served with truffled miso potato purée, grilled asparagus and kirin beer fondue: all around very good flavors and exceptional beef, the purée and fondue were both a little tan and again kind of homogenous, thicker than they seemed to need to be; the texture was way short of ethereal but the flavor was quite agreeable.
The food at Japonais is satisfying, even pleasing, while somehow feeling safe. The closest dish to amazing was the smoked Waygu, the prices tended to the higher side of fair, and the room is best described as convivial. Japonais fits squarely in the middle of the list of places I would take a group of out-of-towners looking for a scene, keeping in mind I don’t much care for actual scenes. Japonais seems a solid stepping stone restaurant; if you need a place to take a person who sees the dragon roll as the ultimate in sushi preparation this is the perfect place to go and have quite a nice meal.