In The Midnight Hour: Izakaya Ten
Open Until: 12:00 am, Mon-Wed; 3:00 am, Thu-Sat; 11:00 pm, Sun
Drinking Until: close, 7 days
Food Until: close, 7 days
By definition, the Japanese izakaya is a place meant for drinking, home cooking, and—most importantly— late nights. Izakaya Ten, on a stretch of 10th Avenue known for its vibrant art gallery scene, does the legacy proud with cramped confines, intimate lighting, and menus as boundless as the amount of shochu and sake its patrons imbibe. Seafood takes center stage, to no surprise, and a number of Japanese cooking techniques are at play: yakitori (grilling), mushimono (steaming), and pitch-perfect deep frying among them. In a neighborhood saturated with ambiguous "Mediterranean" outfits, the restaurant is a welcome distraction, and has been five years running.
As a testament to its bibulous ways, the front bar stays crowded throughout the night. In addition to the extensive wine and shochu lists, there are some hard-to-find Japanese beers that reach well beyond pedestrian choices like Sapporo and Asahi. We opted for a Coedo Beniaka lager ($11), a 7% ABV brew made from red-skinned, white-fleshed Kintoki sweet potatoes. Burgundy-hued with a head the color of rust, the flavor is surprisingly malty and earthen, with a roasted-nuttiness on the nose. It's a beer so intensely flavor-forward, one might easily assume that it was birthed from some artisanal microbrewery in Oregon, but these suds come from the Saitama prefecture, a suburb of Tokyo.
Sushi and sashimi are on offer, and the fish is certainly fresh, but cooked dishes are where the restaurant shines. From the cavalcade of small plates we ordered, there was shatter-crisp tako karaage ($8), battered and fried octopus with considerably more chew than fried calamari, doused with lemon juice and covered in green tea salt; and tender monkfish liver ($9), steamed and served in the traditional fashion, swimming in ponzu and topped with scallions and spicy grated daikon. While not as meltingly tender as we've had before (top honors go to Sasabune on the Upper East Side), the lilliputian bowl makes for a beautiful presentation, with the liver perched on a single shiso leaf.
Yakitori options are limited, but bittersweet, spicy shishito peppers ($3) come adeptly blistered, and tsukune ($4)—a kind of oblong ground chicken meatball—are glazed with sweet soy; both come flanked by tiny piles of togarashi and sea salt for dipping. The star of the night, however, was a plate of takoyaki ($6.50), that enduring Japanese street food snack of octopus-filled pancake balls. Here they're fried a deep golden-brown and topped with the familiar accoutrements of bonito and seaweed flakes, Kewpie mayonnaise, and sweet takoyaki sauce, all par for the course. But what sets these gems apart is their texture, which is more like a crunchy croquette than a fluffy pancake. The brittle shell gives way to a custard-like interior, briny with octopus but with an unctuousness like the finest wagyu. As big fans of Otafuku in the East Village, it pains us to say that these may well be the best takoyaki we've had in the city.
With a painted exterior facade reminiscent of Hokusai and a manga-inspired interior mural that reaches up the wall and onto the ceiling—looming over diners like the giant wave made famous by that celebrated artist—Izakaya Ten isn't just a dining anomaly for the area. It's a reflection of the neighborhood's art scene roots, filtered through a big ol' glass of shochu.
About the author: Zachary Feldman is a former debutante and current freelance writer. He makes hand-crafted, small batch bitters under the moniker Bitters, Old Men.