If East Japanese Restaurant had a chance to choose its West 55th Street digs all over again, we bet it would not take the restaurant directly next door to Yakitori Totto, one of the city’s finest Japanese grills.
Technically, East was there first, but no matter. By now, the poor izakaya must be in desperate need of therapy, as it sits side-by-side with its direct competitor, playing Jan Brady to Totto’s Marsha. A good friend of ours once told us that this particular branch of East (one of several in the city) has earned the reputation for being Totto’s overflow room — when there are no tables in the adjacent building, people end up at East. It’s enough to make you feel a little sorry for the place.
While East admittedly tries too hard to do too much — sushi, noodles, grilled food, bar snacks — some of its better dishes are actually very good, as HungryMan and I discovered recently. That said, it pays to be strategic about eating at East. The restaurant hosts theme evenings throughout the week: “Let’s Eat Tuna on Wednesday,” for example. These nights are often the best time to eat the signature dish, since there is so much of it in house that evening, and from what we have tasted during our visits, the theme ingredient is usually fresh. At the same time, a bit of counterintuitive strategy pays off here: Don’t, despite what your drunk friends may have told you, eat sushi here. This is not to say that East’s sushi is not adequate — it can be — but it never exceeds the quality of something you might be able to pick up from Whole Foods. Also avoid the noodle dishes, which are again, barely mediocre, if still edible. We found a recent order of the nabeyaki udon ($8.50) with tempura, sliced fishcake and egg to be bland and rather greasy — a charmless bowl of soup, but a filling one.
What East does well is izakaya snacks and soups. Our favorite dish, the tuna kimchi nabe soup ($8.50), a zippy bowl of savory broth that hides a thick chunk of broiled tuna, makes a lovely winter dinner. So, too, does the restaurant’s very finest dish, the ika wata yaki ($7), grilled squid that has been marinated and braised in its own ink, soy sauce and a miso-mirin glaze. When I ordered the ika wata yaki for the first time, our server raised her eyebrows and asked me, “You sure?” When she returned 15 minutes later to see that I had polished the entire thing off, she smiled and told me, “Usually, only Japanese order this. It is too strong.” Indeed, she had a point — to eat ika wata is to embrace squid’s natural pungence, in much the same way that eating cuttlefish demands at least a passing tolerance for funk. And because the musky, umami-rich marinade lends the squid an extra stratum of earthy depth, diners expecting clean, flavorless calamari rings might be in for a shock. Yet, in a restaurant where nothing else is much of a surprise, perhaps punchy dishes like the ika wata and the kimchi nabe are East’s best hope for making a real impression of its own, and for setting a course towards emerging from the (literal) shadow of Yakitori Totto. Lord knows, it won’t be the sushi that does it.
East Japanese Restaurant
253 W. 55th St.
(at Eighth Avenue)