Robataya: Grills, Shouts, and Oars in the East Village
Robataya is the latest from the restaurant group that manages such Japanese gems as Sobaya. Its grilled menu offerings are similar to those of Aburiya Kinnosuke, but presented with greater fidelity to the rowdy spirit of the robatayaki.
With ro meaning fireplace, bata meaning around, and yaki meaning grill, robatayaki is a phrase literal of its intent. The U-shaped seating around a central hearth, the booming call and response, and the food served precariously on the fat ends of oars hark to practices among Japanese seafarers hundreds of years ago. According to legend, the fisherman grilled their catch on boats and shared the bounty with other fishermen by bellowing announcements. Food was then distributed, from boat to boat, on the very oars they rowed with.
At Robataya, even glass bottles of soda are proferred to diners via oar, a feat just barely on the fun side of disaster. Two chefs in white-footed socks cook and shout from a raised platform equipped with infrared gas.
You place your order with a waiter who barks it to a chef. The chef thunders a confirmation back. With efficient commotion, the chef then scuttles over to stage's perimeter where foods are piled preciously, spotlit and on pedestals.
The chef gestures while on hands and knees. He points at an ingredient and you nod. He plucks the food right then from view and grills it immediately to order. A final broadcast of the dish, and you are presented the dish by extended oar.
As to the preparation of the food, seasonings here are carefully curated, allowing the virtue of each ingredient to shine. Much of the grilled is minimally dressed with suzushio, a terrific sea salt described as nature's MSG. Suzushio is mineral-rich with a insinuating flavor that's at once bitter, sweet, and acidic. Savoring the flavor gave me pause as I thought, "When's the last time salt tasted NEW?"
And so, on with the show ...
The prawns were a ocean confection despite being grilled a touch past tender. But the suzushio really accentuates the sweetness of the sea.
Witness the O-face of utter alarm. As an oily fish lean in shape, aji's an ideal candidate for shioyaki (salt-grilling). The fish's fat keeps the interior moist and the animal's minimal width allows for quick cooking. The result is thin and crisp on the outside, sweet and meaty on the inside.
Shishamo translates roughly as "willow leaf fish"—suggestive of the graceful curl of its spine. The pregnant fish are a common delicacy at izakayas and these particular specimens seemed grilled at early-term. Sadism aside, the crisp skins stretched over swollen bellies were especially good.
A well-grilled cephalopod should be smoky, pliant, and with a playful sense of chew. This dish did not disappoint. Here, ika is served with freshly grated ginger, great for reviving the palate.
Grilled uni isn't my preferred method of intake, since uni loses the buttery texture that makes eating it such a delight. But Robataya adorns the dish with grilled konbu seaweed. Prepared in this way, konbu assumes the novel sweetness and flaking crunch of roasted coconut.
Grilled eggplant is a reliable treat but here, the nasu is especially beguiling. Oozing, melting, honey-coating the tongue.
Eryngi, or king trumpet mushroom, is almost muscular in taste. Raw it's unremarkable, but roasted, it takes on the supple chew of a prime cut of abalone.
Robataya's tsukune has a grind that's particularly coarse. It's easy to discern the quality of the meat and here the tsukune is charred with a meaningful crust.
Among a mostly solid array of offerings, there are a few you could skip without much regret.
Nagaimo: Though the flavors are fine, the roasted Japanese mountain yam has the air-riddled crunch of polystyrene. (Barbecued coffee cup, oh yes.)
Hotate: Served in a half-shell, you can't help but hope for something transcendent. Instead: the foot of the bivalve chopped up into bits. The delicate sea sweetness of the scallop is lost when stewed.
Yaki-Onigiri: If only there were more char...
Matsutake: The most disappointing item of the evening, probably because of the expense. There was no caramelization, no char. With such minimal cooking, the taste of the mushroom was made plain. Some believe the rare mushroom smells of pine needles and damp forest while others describe it as cinnamon and dirty socks. The highlight of the dish was the companion sudachi wedge. (Sudachi's like the most lucid lime you've ever tasted and a helpful palate cleanse after a sampling of skewers.)
Those critical of Robataya will find the price point high on dishes that fall short. A good rule of thumb is to avoid the temptation to order the unusual. If you keep close to the daily specials and focus on the seafood simply grilled, you're sure to leave sated, charmed, and unavoidably entertained.