A Homey Take on Japanese at Ootoya, Now in Times Square and the Flatiron
Country of origin: Japan
Locations worldwide: Over 300 in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, and the US
NYC locations: One in the Flatiron district, one near Times Square
Sure, you can have sushi or ramen at Ootoya, the large Japanese chain that recently sprouted its second US branch between Bryant Park and Times Square, but that would be missing the point. New York already has more than its share of single-minded specialists and Ootoya excels at less common teishoku, set meals with miso soup, rice, pickles, and egg custard, plus dish-specific sides, all presented in eye-pleasing ceramic and lacquerware.
While not quite pushing Cheesecake Factory levels of choice, there are numerous options under the headings of free-range chicken, Washu beef (a form of wagyu), Yongenton Silky Pork (the actual brand name), and fish (fish doesn't merit a tempting descriptor, it seems). These examples are representative of the lunch menu, which is the best value, despite not being cheap.
Toro Aji ($16), a.k.a. fatty horse mackerel, is a classic, grilled, crisp-skinned and strong flavored, glazed with sweet soy. The filets are the main event, but the accompaniments are equally upstanding: braised kabocha squash, grated daikon, and a plate of mixed seaweeds.
Buta Shiokoji ($16) is an east meets west combination where the well-marbled pork belly with caramelized charred edges is a treat unto itself, but is served with a green salad and tomatoes, plus mashed potatoes on a white plate, creating what already seems like a complete meal—that is, if it weren't for the bowl of rice on the side. Don't question the double starch; it's in the spirit of teishoku.
Tori Kurozu-An ($14) goes multi-multi-cultural. Essentially this is sweet and sour chicken, China by way of the US, interpreted by Japan and now sold to New Yorkers. Made with black vinegar, though, not ketchup, the tart sauce can at least claim more Chinese heritage than American. Tossed with lotus root and served with watercress and more of those mashed potatoes, this tasty dish also wins for breaking the most geographic boundaries.
Miso soup lurks in the crimson bowls, and the egg custard (I hesitate to call it chawanmushi because it doesn't contain any fillings) comes in the covered vessel that resembles a basket.
Despite being nothing more than home-style cooking, everything at Ootoya feels a little special, especially in comparison to the super fast food chains like Yoshinoya (R.I.P.) or Go Go Curry. The miso soup isn't the more common tofu and nori, but a chunkier vegetable and pork laden broth, the short-grained rice has a pleasant texture and natural sweetness (brown rice with millet is also available) and can be topped with hijiki or tororo, a gooey grated yam. Sometimes it's the little things that make a difference.
About the author: Krista Garcia is a writer and reformed librarian. Being obsessed with chain restaurants and Southeast Asian food, she would have no problem eating laska in Elmhurst and P.F. Chang's crab rangoon in New Jersey on the same day. She blogs at Goodies First.