Date Night: Naka Naka, Japanese Cuisine in Chelsea
Naka Naka presents a demure alternative to the big box restaurants of the Meatpacking District. At around twenty seats, it offers intimacy, delicacy, and intricacy. Our server walked around in an apron and bare feet, while the host wore a happi coat and slippers. We sat at the communal table in the center, at what could have been an altar, decorated as it was with flowers and antiques. Outside, wind whipped itself into a frenzy; inside, "The Girl from Ipanema" continued her sad journey to the sea.
We started with a special, mongolka isobeage ($12), or calamari tempura. Beneath the light, slightly salted batter, the large, ridged slices of calamari stayed firm. Typical fried calamari, with its dark brown shards and grease, has nothing on mongolka isobeage. In fact, we liked the tempura so much we ordered the shrimp tempura roll ($9), which evidenced a similar balance between fish and batter, seasoning and not.
To drink, there is of course sake, but also plum wine ($6). It's a syrupy plum explosion, complete with a green plum anchoring the bottom of the glass. Patterned paper, folded to look like Hawaiian shirts, held chopsticks. Colorful paper swans functioned as chopstick holders and rests. If God is in the details, Naka Naka is a pretty holy place.
In addition to the shrimp tempura roll, we ordered the naka naka roll ($18). It featured fresh clean nibblets of tuna, salmon, eel, yellowtail, and custard egg, an everything-to-everyone option if you're not sure what type of sushi you're in the mood for. Tobiko (flying fish roe), as little as beads, rested off to the side. Wrapped in nori, the translucent fish looked like stained glass. Artful, yes, but also rather hulking. This was sushi as showpiece.
Our kamonanban ($16) came with either thick white noodles (udon) or buckwheat noodles (soba). We went with the latter. Plump chunks of tofu dissolve into the broth. Meanwhile, the duck provided meaty structure and gave our teeth something to do. You won't forsake Cocoron for the soba here, but the rich, salty, savory slurp is perfectly creditable.
We have two complaints: the chopsticks were cheap, splintering easily, and the stools didn't do much to encourage lingering. Higher than the table, the stools forced us into a bit of a hunch. Nevertheless, our dinner here made for a fun evening. It looks quiet, but its flavors shout, and as an oasis of calm in the Meatpacking District, it's best for: a civilized date.