61 Grove Street (at 7th Avenue South; map); 212-242-3699; tontonnyc.com
Service: Friendly, efficient, knowledgable
Setting: Cramped but clean, similar to a high-end ramen shop
Compare to: Qoo Robata Bar or Zenkichi in Williamsburg, Kasadela on the Lower East Side Must-Haves: Tonsuoku Hot Pot, Tonsoku Dumpling, Ankimo, Grilled Tonsoku
Cost: Small plates $4 to $10, Hot Pot $13 per person
A few years back, Fergus Henderson of London's St. John restaurant introduced the glory of sticky, rich, pig's foot broth to the masses (see Henderson's recipe for "Trotter Gear" in the delightful The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating). Chef/owner Himi Okajima of Hakata Tonton in the West Village agrees with Henderson's unbridled love of trotters—so much so that he's built an entire restaurant out of it. Nearly every item on the menu (save for dessert) features tonsoku broth, or collagen-rich nuggets of braised foot.
With a menu this offal-centric, there's a strong risk that dining could potentially become a contest of macho posturing, but the laid back, quiet atmosphere of the restaurant keeps things honest. This is food that's here not to prove a point—the chef seems to truly love what he serves.
In some dishes, the intrusion is obvious, as with the Cold Tonsoku with Ponzu ($4): pig's foot, thinly sliced, pleasantly chewy, and surprisingly light. It's elevated with a well-balanced and fresh ponzu sauce scented with yuzu and dashi broth, and a good introduction to the pork foot that runs through the meal to come. Other times it pops up unexpectedly, like with the Monkfish Liver ($8). Ankimo, as it's known in Japanese, is referred to as "the foie gras of the ocean" for a reason—rich and buttery, it melts over your tongue in a briny wash, here cut by a vinegary miso sauce and the thin slivers of cold pig's foot that top it.
Ankimo ranks up there as one of my favorite ingredients, which takes me to Grilled Mentaiko (spicy salted pollock roe; $5), perhaps my favorite breakfast dish of all time. Hakata TonTon grills it perfectly. LIghtly charred on the exterior but cool in the center, the only thing I could think of to improve its salty bite would be a bowl of rice. It's one of the few foot-free options.
Even the pig-foot averse don't get an easy time on this menu. Meat-based sashimi is not all that common, even in New York. Hakata Tonton serves 100% raw calf's liver sashimi, but for the slightly less adventurous, the Seared Calf Liver Sashimi ($10) might be a better option. Thinly sliced and seared on one side only, the liver is served cold with a spicy soy and sesame oil sauce. The first bite comes at you with a salty, green onion kick, but chew for a moment, and there's no denying that this is liver.
Slightly easier to stomach for liver-lovers would be the Foie Gras Inarizushi ($10). Foie sushi? Well, yes—and it's delicious. A pouch of fried tofu skin is stuffed with vinegared sushi rice mixed with bits of fatty foie and topped with a thin slice of seared liver. The foie slices are rather meager, but you can't ask for much more at a measly $10. With a sweet soy and mirin-based tare, the dish is strongly reminiscent of fatty freshwater eel sushi, not a bad thing.
Tonsoku Dumplings ($8) are crispy, folded flour wrappers stuffed open-style with a juicy, Berkshire pork-foot based filling. They come on a sizzling cast iron platter that virtually guarantees they'll stay crispy until the last bite. I've always been more of a fan of completely closed dumplings that trap juices inside, but these are plenty moist even in their open-ended state.
The signature dish of the house, Grilled Pork Tonsoku ($7), is unforgivingly porky with a rich, gelatinous texture. Charring gives it a crisp, blistered surface great for smearing with yuzu-kosho. A jar of the hot, salty condiment made with Japanese citrus sits on each table and is an essential addition to the Grilled Motsu ($10). The grilled small intestine of American Kobe beef, this too is not a dish for the offal-ly uninitiated. Well seasoned, crisp on the outside, with a creamy and distinctly flavored center, it's served simply with sliced scallions and a hefty scoop of spicy roe.
Both of these grilled offal choices are better than the Sautéed Pork Tongue ($9), which is frankly, pretty bad. Tough and chewy, I was almost forced to discreetly dispose of it in my napkin after a solid 2 minutes of chewing. Snow Crab Cream Croquettes ($7) suffer the opposite problem—mushy and gluey with not much crab flavor. Much better is the Mentai Fried Chicken ($9). Extraordinarily tender and juicy inside, the semi-boneless wings are fried Japanese style with a dusting of corn starch and flour. The miso butter they're tossed with is only mildly spicy but plenty flavorful.
If you manage not to fill up on the insane number of small plate options, the hot pots are excellent. The house specialty, the Hakata Tonton Hot Pot ($13 per person, 2 person minimum) is a rich and spicy pork collagen-based broth that comes to the table piled impossibly high with Berkshire pork belly, tender trotters, soft tofu, juicy pork-filled dumplings, cabbage, and Chinese onions which simmer down to a thick stew. The broth in the hot pot is insanely porky and only gets more so as it simmers down. We couldn't manage any more, but upon request, a hot bowl of freshly cooked ramen noodles will be brought to your table to finish off with the broth.
The Japanese aren't particularly well known for Western-palate-friendly desserts, but Hakata Tonton seems to make a concerted effort and are quite successful with it. Green Tea Tofu ($7) is like the Japanese version of a panna cotta. It adds dairy creaminess to the more traditional almond and soy-milk flavored annin tofu, though it still has the lightness of silken tofu punctuated with a slightly bitter shot of aromatic sencha tea. It was the lighter of the two desserts we tried, making it a better finish for a large meal. Soba Crème Brûlée ($7) is an interestingly savory rendition of the french classic. It comes with a side of rich black sesame-flavored ice cream (also available for $4 a la carte) that is excellent, though not the best in the city—that honor is reserved for the version at Zenkichi.
Like many things Japanese, there is a genuinely quirky nature to a restaurant that serves almost nothing but pig's foot without a hint of irony. The meal actually ended outside the front door where the waitress presented us with our final course: a PEZ candy, complete with plastic cartoon-character dispenser. Oh, those crazy Japanese!