February 2007


I learnt the terms “salaryman” and “karoshi” during sophomore year in a Japanese culture class. At 20 and with no need to be gainfully employed, those words meant nothing to me.
Fast forward 5 years, and I’ve joined the ranks of salarymen, working amidst warrens of cubicles, day in, day out. And while the concept of death by overwork is still far-fetched, some days are certainly worse than others. And when those days happens, I do as the Japanese do, retreat to a pub of choice for cheap drinks and honest grub. And lucky for me, the presence of the Japanese mission to the UN as well as the scores of Japanese expatriates meant that a good cluster of Izakayas in midtown.
While Peishan was in town, I grabbed her and a couple of friends to Riki for Saturday dinner. The clientele on the weekends was highly multicultural, a sign of izakayas’ growing popularity amongst non-Japanese. Also, with ample space, semi private rooms for larger groups and an english/japanese menu, Riki’s a good place to learn about izakayas. Perusing the hundreds of menu items (mostly meant to be shared) was an arduous task amongst 9 people, so they elected me as the official food orderer, even though I knew as little as they did about Japanese pub food. But with the help of some draft beer and suggestions from a very pretty server, we did pretty ok.
It may seem gauche to eat that much rice while simultaneously drinking, but the rice dishes at Riki is too good to miss. The kimchi fried rice was especially sublime, each grain of rice cooked perfectly al dente and coated with a spicy and addictive sauce. We promptly ordered another bowl after polishing our first. We also had some ricecake dishes, similar to rice krispies but pan roasted to yield a fun crunchy texture. The pouring of sauce over a hotplate housing the ricecakes also created a dramatic sizzle.
The Japanese adore their Kewpie mayonnaise and it is no surprise to see some comforting, gut sticking mayo-based dishes on the menu. I’ve had the mentaiko roe and mayo filled omelets as well as the mayo and seaweed-that-looks-like-pure-chlorophyll-topped okonomiyaki. While creamy and savory, they were unfortunately a little too heavy for my liking.
Riki has an admirable kushiage menu (skewered meats and vegetables) and as we walked in we also saw cooks busily negotiating the smoky fire while meticulously cooking the skewers. Both our duck skewer with a bracing wasabi glaze and the tender beef ribs were well endorsed by my table.
My favorite dishes must come from the Nimono (stews) department. The niku jaga is a popular family style dish of potatos, onions, beef and some jelly strands in a sweet soy sauce suitable for pouring over rice. My favorite of the night however was the meltingly soft beef tongue in a salty miso-based stew. The taste and texture of tongue really isn’t that different from brisket or more chewy cuts of meat, so don’t be afraid and order it if you see it on the menu.
Another great thing about izakayas is that in a city where servers turn tables almost callously, izakayas don’t mind if you to sit and linger, and we did the same in Riki, chatting in our very cozy and tight little room long after we’ve drained our glasses. We don’t all need to be salarymen to appreciate that.

Restaurant Riki
141 E45th St (Bet Lexington & 3rd Aves)
(212) 986-1109

Peishan was in town this weekend and we took the opportunity to eat and drink excessively. Of the various edibles that made the trip through our digestive systems, I’ll like to highlight a couple locally produced, proud to be New York specialties.

1) Locally produced wine sorbet using New York State wines from Wine Cellar Sorbets. I bought it at Dean & DeLuca ($7.50/ pint) a week in advance knowing this is something TPS the wine afficionado will appreciate. She did! In fact she polished most of the sorbet for breakfast =p We loved the pleasingly smooth cabernet sauvignon slush that dyed our tongues a deep violet while the fresh clean riesling was unfortunately a little too sweet and too subtle. Nevertheless a good palate cleanser And at 5% alcohol, the sorbets provided just a little buzz. A sugar high and a mini wine high… needless to say we happily dug in.

2) Brooklyn Brewery’s Black Chocolate Stout, which we found at Vintage wine bar, a soho bar specializing again in New York state wines and other drinks. We werent even intending to visit this place, but I swear TPS can instinctually sniff out every local bar in town when she wants to. The stout is a beautiful burnished brown, and smelt like molasses and chocolate. Drinking it, I can pretend it was snowing outside while I sit next to a fireplace sipping my beer. And at an alcoholic content of 10.6% I sure was feeling toasty. Better yet if I had some chocolate cake by my side. The chocolate stout is only brewed during the winter season, so grab some before it runs out! This stout, together with the highly drinkable lager that I sell at the cafe makes me, hardly a drinker toying with the idea of visiting the brewery, located just across the river in Brooklyn.

3) Another Brooklyn transplant making Manhattan a better place is Junior‘s for their famous cheesecake. There are two branches in the city, both in hyper-touristy areas (Grand Central Station & Times Square) but prices are honest, portions are enormous and the cakes really ain’t bad. In fact, the rich slab of plain cheesecake was really good! The chocolate and the carrot cakes got my vote too but I was really glad the plain cheesecake was located strategically in front of me for easy access. I wasn’t as fond of the gloppy blueberry topping on the fruit cake, nor the artificial tasting strawberry shortcake cheesecake but they too had their fans. While we only had room for 5 slices between the 8 of us that night, I have no doubt I will be returning soon to try out the entire dessert menu. You can also have standard deli fare at both locations, but dessert really is the star. So for visitors with a sweet sweet tooth, why not end your day in the flashiest way, with dessert in Times Square?

Having made the trip downtown in a blistery sub-20s weather just to have some hot udon at Honmura An, imagine my dismay to find it shuttered on Sunday afternoon. They don’t serve lunch on Sundays! Argh…
Utterly defeated, I tried feeling better for myself through retail therapy. Did not work. I tried having sweets to lift my flagging spirits, specifically a buttery cherry scone from Balthazar. Did not work. And my fingers nearly got frostbitten while i attempted to eat the scone with an ungloved hand. I needed some soupy comfort quick, and then I realised I wasn’t that far from a bowl of pho in Chinatown.
I find the pho scene in New York not as good compared to other cities with larger Vietnamese communities (pho 75 in Roslyn!) but on such a cold day, a steaming bowl of salty beef broth has great restorative powers no matter where you get it. Lukewarm broth, as some restaurants I’ve been to serve it, is a cardinal sin. Luckily, Pho Tu Do, my purveyor of choice for the day serves strong and very hot beef broth. I gulp done half a bowl quickly, all table manners forgotten until I my face begins to thaw and I start feeling human again. Then I tackle the generous portion of slick rice noodles, thin cuts of raw beef cooked in the boiling broth and chewy, gelatinous tendons. A heap of bean sprouts flash cooked in the broth adds crunch and some sprigs of mint and a squirt of lemon juice invigorates the broth. I can’t finish the noodles but the soup’s all gone by the time I call for the check.
Vietnamese restaurants in New York aren’t largely specialists and Pho Tu Do is no different, serving pages and pages of other cooked food besides pho. This can be both a blessing and a curse, as variety may come at the cost of less focus, but for $4.25, having some pho on a cold winter’s day can’t hurt anyone.

Pho Tu Do
118 Bowery St (Bet. Grand & Hester Sts)