Young & Hungry: Three Days of Cheap Eats Equals One Zenkichi Splurge

2008820pizza.jpgLike all of you serious eaters out there, not only do I love food, I love reading about food. So it's not always easy to read reviews of restaurants way out of my price range; places that fall on the side of aspirational, rather than attainable. NYC Restaurant Week seems to be a way to help out those more frugal, yet it still gets mixed reviews on the whole. For me, shelling out at least $25 for lunch feels like a stretch, but at the same time special occasions call for special measures. It seemed a little too fortuitous that my boyfriend was visiting me for the same two weeks of this summer's Restaurant Week. We could have blown our budget, but careful planning makes timed splurges possible: we ended up eating two RW meals—one at Cafe Boulud and the other at Zenkichi, which could very well be the best date place in the city.

I had planned out those two weeks of eating like a completely crazy nut. Never in my life had I ever been so detailed oriented. I typed out and printed a food itinerary, complete with maps and "Plan B's". I wanted to show him my NYC food life—the things that I love to eat every day.

Eating out for two weeks could have been a major budget buster, but lucky for us, my favorite foods to subsist on are pizza, burgers, tacos, and Chinese food. Leftover fried tiny buns from New Green Bo, are in fact, not tiny at all and made for an easy light lunch when re-fried on the cast iron. Best of all, the eight biggie buns come in at just $4.25. (Note: it now goes by Nice Green Bo, but they're as brusque as ever.) Tacos from Yola's, right across the street from my apartment, were fresh, filling, and topped with tasty guac, which is always appreciated and not always common for cheap taco joints.

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Though it's always fun to hop from one greasy spoon to the next, sometimes the savings have to pay off somewhere. For us, that payoff would come in the form of our last dinner together at Zenkichi's. Somehow even more anonymous and hidden than Bozu's, never before have I felt so transported when walking into a restaurant (not counting the visits to Mars 2112 and Medieval Times in middle school). The walk to our table was confusing enough, seemingly full of twists and turns through dimly lit narrow corridors lined with private bamboo-screened tables. Once seated in our private nook, complete with a service buzzer, we ordered the omakase for two, which was $35 a person for RW, $45 any other time.

20080825-zenkichi-tempura.jpgThe meal began with a flavorful miso soup, followed by a second course of tuna carpaccio, yellowtail sashimi, and a dish of lobster and avocado that I couldn't stop eating. The salad greens with beef that came next were pretty forgettable, but the following tempura shrimp and peppers were delicious. The batter was light, not too greasy, and the whole thing was made even better and more interesting by the tiny mound of green tea salt served alongside it.

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The black miso cod with shitake mushrooms was probably my favorite course of the night—big petals of super moist and flavorful fish peeled away from whole with just an easy nudge of the chopsticks.

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The scallops with eggplant and the unagi sushi courses were also tasty, but more easily forgotten when flanked by the miso cod and the dessert—a black sesame mousse and milk pudding with blueberry sauce. The mousse was so rich and thick, it could have been ice cream and the intense black sesame flavor brought me right back to the bowls of black sesame dumplings in warm sugar water my grandma used to make me as a kid.

The food was delicious, but at Zenkichi's it's all about the atmosphere. Surrounded by other couples hidden behind their bamboo curtains—from the canoodling to the awkward—Zenkichi is no doubt a prime pick for first dates and anniversaries alike. Though some may argue that this type of decor and impeccable service is nothing out of the ordinary in Japan, I argue this: not all of us are lucky enough to have made it to Japan, and considering how short a stroll it is from my apartment, Zenkichi deserves the enamored reviews it gets.

The look and feel of the restaurant has that swank edge no doubt, but the attitude is warm and gracious, and the privacy of the curtains lets you relax in a way that many high-end restaurants don't necessarily allow. Speaking of high-end restaurants: as for Cafe Boulud—it was great, but not amazing. I filled up on butter rolls (actually stuffed with nuggets of butter, who knew?), knowing that after Restaurant Week—and my boyfriend's visit—my life would have to sadly make its way back to the frugal side of things.

Zenkichi

77 N 6th Street, Brooklyn NY 11230 (nr. Berry; map) 718-388-8985
zenkichi.com