Butai, a new Japanese restaurant that has opened near Union Square, has a style all its own.
“Thank God it’s Friday,” said our hostess cheerfully as she showed us to a candlelit table in the upstairs dining room.
Indeed. The place was packed, and judging from the sound of laughter and clinking glasses, the people here-most of them young and stylish-were having a rollicking good time. With the exception of a couple in the corner, they were all Japanese.
My companion wanted something to snack on with his cocktail. “How about cheese sticks?” suggested the waitress. An odd choice, but why not? They turned out to be a kind of deep-fried spring roll, made with a thin wonton-like skin wrapped around melting mozzarella cheese. They were cut in two-inch pieces and served not with a dipping sauce, but with a wedge of lemon.
“A great snack for a guy watching football on TV,” said my friend as he took the last one.
Butai is a two-tier restaurant offering two different experiences depending upon where you sit. On the ground floor, the music is quite loud and people mill around the bar or sit at the counter, where they can watch the chefs making sashimi and cooking on a robata grill. A long, high communal table set with stools takes up the center of the room. The main dining room is upstairs. It is spacious and comfortable, with high ceilings and large windows, hung with swagged, metallic-looking silk taffeta curtains, that look out over the street below. The walls are covered with dark brown velour that absorbs noise, and the polished dark wood tables, placed far apart, are set with votive candles.
The restaurant has a very, very long menu: several well-thumbed pages presented on a clipboard, with over 150 items, under no less than 19 headings. It’s as confusing as a menu in a Chinatown restaurant; there are so many dishes that you feel you may as well simply order at random and see what you get. Which is exactly what I did.
Chef Seiji Hanahashi’s assorted “inspirational” sushi platters are priced at $40, $60 and $80. The $40 platter was plenty for two, with very fresh sushi that included uni and yellowtail. The choice of sushi, sashimi and “special” rolls is vast, and it includes a “live shell” selection with Japanese conch in soy sake glaze and orange clams. The “special” rolls are particularly good. Crunchy dragon roll is made with eel, cucumber, tempura flake and avocado topped with tobiko (flying fish roe); a spider roll is filled with fried soft-shell crabs; and whitefish tempura is wrapped in a bean sheet with asparagus, tomato and jalapeño.
The most expensive dish on the menu by far is the aburi toro, which costs $30. This is bluefin tuna, cut from the richest, fattiest part of the fish, a connoisseur’s delight. We were served five pieces, and they had been briefly seared to give them a subtle, slightly charcoal taste, but I found them greasy. I would have preferred the toro raw.
Under the section headed “kushi yaki” (grilled chicken), the menu reads like a found poem:
Momo thigh 3.00
Mune breast 3.00
Kawa skin 2.50
Teba wing 2.75
Tsukuno meatball 4.00
Whatever you order-main course or appetizer, thigh, meatball or skin-all the food comes at once. Homemade tofu (a luscious, creamy custard in a bowl) and squares of pork belly threaded on skewers with charred scallions appeared alongside grilled, salted whole chicken breast cut in chunks under a crackling golden skin. “Today’s Zensai,” an appetizer, showed up at the same time, too- a platter of five small bites: meaty pieces of seared, marinated duck, peppered tuna, a squared-off nob of Japanese yam, eel sushi and asparagus with sesame sauce. It came with a glass of plum wine on the side.
There are over two dozen items cooked on the robata grill, from flame-broiled lamb chops to “striped arabesque greenling.” The latter name sounds like a badly translated line from a poem by Baudelaire (“striped arabesque greenlings greet the yellow dawn … “). Our waitress, a beautiful young woman from Senegal, struggled to explain exactly what it was. All I can tell you is that it’s a whitefish, called “hokke” in Japanese, and it arrived at our table as a perfectly grilled fillet, with a sweet flesh. Another fish from the grill, sanma (helpfully translated for English readers as “saury”), looks like a cross between a mackerel and a huge sardine. It’s related to the needlefish and has a long, sharply pointed nose. The saury is served whole; those who can successfully fillet it with their chopsticks should be entitled to a free dinner.
To go with this food, there’s a selection of chilled sake; if you prefer wine, the gavi and pinot grigio are good white choices. A New Zealand sparkling wine, the spumante Lindauer Brut, is surprisingly agreeable and nice on a hot day. Whatever you do, don’t order the house cosmopolitan. It’s made with Midori and peach schnapps and is so sickeningly sweet that I found it undrinkable.
I’ve eaten in a great many Japanese restaurants in the past year, from Lower East Side noodle bars, midtown sushi counters to mega-celebrity hot spots like Megu, Matsuri and Ono. Butai is not cutting-edge; the food’s not innovative, nor is it served on fancy pottery in Zen-like or lavishly decorated surroundings complete with pools and Buddhas. But I was won over by this restaurant (even though I only made a dent in the menu). It’s a lively, modest, unassuming place. The service couldn’t be friendlier, and the food is not only good, it’s inexpensive. I didn’t go home feeling as I did a few months ago after an $800 dinner for two at Masa in the Time Warner Center: that if they brought back the guillotine and set it up in the square outside the restaurant, I shouldn’t be surprised.