NYC Chow: What We Lack From Japan, Vietnam & China

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Yakitori Totto
251 West 55th St. 2nd Fl., New York, NY 10019
Phone: 212.245.4555
Rating:    [learn more]
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"We'd like nothing better than to have a place like Totto's in WNY; the combination of fresh, grilled, and fried Japanese small plates, along with unique beverages, is always a winner."

As much as we love Buffalo, we acknowledge its culinary omissions: compared with 15 years ago, the city and suburbs have declined in authentic - underscore authentic - Japanese and Chinese foods, and these days, it's difficult to find a properly made bowl of the salad-like Vietnamese noodle dish bun (pronounced boon). Contrast that with New York City, home to a competitive Chinatown district with roughly 200 Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai restaurants, as well as noteworthy Japanese and other Southeast Asian places in separate locations across the city. Whether you're a Western New Yorker looking for truly authentic Asian fare outside of home, or a chef looking for the "next big trend" in Far East cooking, we hope that you find this second part of our look at NYC dining to be worth a full read.

The two most distinctive Asian restaurants we've recently visited in New York City were Japanese, starting with Yakitori Totto, depicted in our first three photos here. We've spoken before of our love for izakayas - Japanese sake bars with menus of cheap, tapas-like snacks that can be eaten and shared. Totto is a clean, modern izakaya specializing in robata yakitori, translated to mean chicken (tori) grilled (yaki) over a distinctive long charcoal grill (robata), as well as numerous other grilled, fried, and fresh items, plus an extensive variety of sakes and other drinks. We showed up at dinner time, grabbed counter-side seats fairly easily despite the place's reputation for being ever-packed, and then watched a line form immediately after we sat down. It was lucky timing.

"Lucky" really was the correct word, too, as the items we ordered were almost invariably excellent. Ordered as an afterthought, the Totto's Salad ($8), a big bowl of greens, sliced soft chicken breast, and tomatoes, was awesome: loaded with a green dressing made from Japanese shiso leaves - also known as perilla - which possess a gentle citrus flavor, the cold bowl was a perfect offset for the hot meat and vegetable skewers that comprised the majority of our meal. We ordered a bunch: standard chicken thigh (momo, $2.50), wasabi and salted chicken breast (mune, $2.50), and rare chicken thigh (oyster/sot l'y laisse, $3) bits, Berkshire pork with scallions and ponzu sauce (kuro buta negi pon, $3.50), enoki mushrooms wrapped in bacon ($3.50), and vegetables - mini green peppers in spicy bean paste (shishito, $2.50), shiitake mushrooms ($2.50), and eringe mushrooms ($3). Rather than breaking them all down, we'll just say that each was a different sort of tender treat, perfectly grilled in front of our eyes to the point just before either char or excessive heat damaged their flavor. The highlights of the robata items were the eggplant with miso paste (yaki nasu miso denkaku, $3.50), three purplish circles with miso and sesame seeds on top, and the Kobe beef tongue (Kobe beef gyutan, $8), both especially interesting in soft, rubbery texture and soy flavor. Less impressive were the boring lamb chop ($6) and daily special scallops ($3), which unlike the rest of these items could have been found anywhere else; we've had better versions of both in Californian and Japanese izakayas.

Deserving of special additional mention was a dish we see far too little of in Western New York, the Japanese take on fried chicken called karaage (pronounced ka-ra-ah-gay, $8) - a cleanly, crisply fried take that is especially succulent on the inside, lightly salted, and almost always served with lemons. It's a delicate contrast with the overpowering Kentucky Fried versions, which seem to become more batter than chicken over time, and we almost always enjoy it, as we did here. We also really enjoyed both the broad drink menu and the specific sake (Wakatake's daiginjo onikoroshi, $14) and plum wine ($6.50) we ordered. In summary, we'd like nothing better than to have a place like Totto's in Western New York; the izakaya combination of fresh, grilled, and fried Japanese small plates, along with unique Japanese beverages, is always a winner in cities we've visited, but Totto's version is all class and quality with great service. It merits a strong 3.5-star rating.

Yakitori Totto on Urbanspoon

Another of our Japanese meals, not pictured here, was at New York's Katsu-Hama (11 E. 47th St., New York, NY 10017, 212.758.5909) - a restaurant specializing almost exclusively in deep fried cutlets of pork (tonkatsu) or chicken (torikatsu), served in authentic Japanese style in one of three key ways: plain with freshly sliced cabbage and rice (katsu, $10-$11), mixed with Indian curry on a bed of rice (katsu curry, $12), or under an egg atop a bowl of rice (katsu don, $11). What makes Katsu-Hama special isn't just that it makes tonkatsu properly - even its panko breading is done with attention to proper coarseness - but that it offers the delicious curry option, and also a second special grade of pork: black Berkshire pig-derived pork loin (kurobuta katsu, $18), which is unusually juicy and tender, thanks to better fat marbling and shorter muscle fibers. While average diners will instantly be able to tell the positive difference between standard tonkatsu and the Berkshire version, it's really local Western New York chefs who should experience the distinction at a place like Katsu-Hama for themselves; this Japanese version of schnitzel could easily become a staple of high-end fusion restaurants, and deserves to have a more prominent place at our best Japanese venues. Katsu-Hama deserves a 3-star overall rating.

Katsuhama on Urbanspoon

Our hunt for the City's best Vietnamese food brought us to Cong Ly in Chinatown (124 Hester St, New York, NY 10002, 212.343.1111), a hole in the wall that has been on locals' "best Vietnamese" lists for at least the last seven years. From a fairly extensive menu, we picked one item that the place was known to be great at - the beef noodle soup pho (pronounced fah), specifically the Dac Biet version with six meats ranging from brisket to salted navel, flank, omosa tripe, tendon, and eye of round ($5.50). While Cong Ly's pho wasn't mind-alteringly amazing, the dish rarely is when prepared authentically: its broth was flavorful yet mild, and salted lightly enough that it could actually be enjoyed alone by spoon after eating the generous portions of beef and long rice noodles found inside. Thin onion strips, bean sprouts, scallions, and a nice chunk of lemon added subtle, fresh flavors to the bowl, as well.

Other Cong Ly items were also impressive. In addition to glasses of fresh, icy lemonade ($2) and lemonade soda ($2), which we really enjoyed, the Bi Cuon ($3), two fresh rice paper rolls stuffed with thinly-sliced pork, basil, and mint leaves, were just dry enough to perfectly absorb the included fish sauce dip. More notably, the Bun Bo Lui ($5.50) - a bowl of super-thin rice vermicelli noodles mixed with carrots, scallions, chopped peanuts, and lettuce, then topped with beef - was, for a change, surprising. We've had this dish a thousand times before, but Cong Ly's beef - wide stripes of meat that had been rolled into miniature egg-shaped, mouth-filling nuggets - was unusually good, charred crisp on the edges and left more tender inside, the soy, salt, and sugar of a traditional Vietnamese marinade popping out with every chew. It's hard to find properly made bun these days in Western New York, so even this generally familiar version seemed like something special. Cong Ly merits a 3-star overall rating.

Cong Ly on Urbanspoon

Also in Chinatown was Jing Fong (20 Elizabeth St., 212-964-5256), a dim sum parlor that was noteworthy more for its size and scope of offerings than the memorable quality of anything it offered. Set up like a traditional, cart service-based Hong Kong dim sum restaurant, and located at the top of a large escalator-based entrance, you sit at your table as servers wheel around platters of steamed, fried, and baked treats that range in price from $4 to $8 per plate. While we weren't blown away by the service, the communal tables, or any of the individual items, Jing Fong does offer shark's fin dumplings and baked pork pastries, seafood and vegetable dumplings, generous portions of tripe, and a bunch of small plates that can't be found in Buffalo-area dim sum places. We'd sooner drive to Toronto for a meal at Sky Dragon or Rochester for Cantonese House, but Jing Fong's not bad. It merits 2.5 stars overall, but even so, we'll say this much: we'd be thrilled to have a restaurant of comparable scope in Western New York.

Jing Fong on Urbanspoon

Desserts are the topic of the third and final part of our three-part look at NYC dining. Part one, on New York's famous pizza and hot dogs, is available from this link.

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