In The Midnight Hour: Hachember
Open Until: 1:00 am, Mon-Sat days
Drinking Until: close, 7 days
Food Until: close, 7 days
Hyper-specialized Japanese restaurants in New York are nothing new (see: Otafuku, Oms/b) but Hachember, which opened last May in the space that previously housed Patate Fellow, Fat Hippo and (most famously) 71 Clinton Fresh Food, may just be the city's first otsumami bar where "women and gay men can eat and drink in harmony". Otsumami, for the record, are Japanese snacks meant to be paired with alcohol—so essentially we're talking about a more bare-bones izakaya. The large red signage, a holdover from the previous tenants, bears the visage of cheerful owner Toshi Cappuccino, a longtime theater critic who raved to us about The Book of Mormon, and who also has quite the set of pipes himself (video after the jump).
Like the repurposed signage, much of the restaurant maintains design elements from restaurants past—the ultra-comfortable white leather booths from Fat Hippo are as inviting as ever, but the room has a darker, more sophisticated feel, framed in gray brick and numerous Japanese movie posters, some of classic American films. This being a drinking restaurant, the backlit bar takes center stage, offering a lengthy-yet-focused list of beers, wines, sake, shochu and hard alcohol. Beer selections don't get too adventurous, featuring a number of corporate brews, many of which are American. However, Sapporo comes on tap, and any bar that stocks Yamazaki Single Malt is a-ok with us.
Much of the food is fried, so a plate of moro-kyu ($5) is a welcome alternative. The snappy wedges of cucumber take a swipe or two through dollops of Kewpie mayonnaise and moro miso, a version of the sweet/salty condiment wherein the soybeans are left unmashed, similar in looks to another fermented soybean product, natto. Straightforward and minimalist, the plate is wonderfully balanced. The cucumbers provide refreshing crunch, and the mayonnaise and miso bring elements of sweet, salt and creaminess. Paired with a lighter beer like Sapporo, it resonates as bar food without the expected grease.
Another vegetarian option, negi shio-tare ($5) finds wisps of thinly sliced scallion tossed in barely-there soy and sesame dressing and topped with sesame seeds. The raw onions come on quite strong, making another great case for drinking something, in this case to temper all that onion funk.
At its best, Tori No Karaage ($7), the ultra-crisp, Japanese-style fried chicken, is all about heavy spice and a crust that's somewhere between Korean and American-style birds. The tender specimens here are made from thigh meat, ensuring a moist interior and deep flavor. On the side is a small cup of Japanese curry for added flavor and a small salad of cabbage and cucumbers brightened with lemon juice. It's a great rendition of a cultural classic, made all the better by the addition of the curry. Sayonara honey mustard.
A staple of late-night Japanese dining, okonomiyaki ($12) comes either plain or mixed with seafood, pork belly or both. Having never encountered pork belly in this dish, I opted for the mixed version, which includes baby shrimp, pork and octopus in addition to the traditional filling of shredded cabbage and yam. This is a must-order dish, the pancake grilled a deep golden-brown and topped with bonito flakes, mayonnaise and a piquant, Worcestershire-like sauce simply called "okonomiyaki sauce". The shrimp and octopus add a pleasant chew, and the fatty pork belly throws this already-rich plate into overdrive; the only salvation from salivating being another sip of beer.
Hachember is a fun and earnest endeavor, and while it hasn't exactly taken Lower East Side nightlife by storm, it's carved out a fine niche for itself in a dining landscape that's as tough as any in this city (see: Baohaus's recent departure). And remember, if Toshi Cappuccino asks you to sing a duet, the answer is always yes.