231 Eldridge Street, New York NY 10002 (between Stanton and E. Houston; map); 212-529-3133; familyrecipeny.com/
Service: Friendly and familial
Setting: Small but comfortable
Must-Haves: Menu changes regularly
Cost: $6 to $25 per dish
Tokyo-born chef-owner Akiko Turnauer has a pretty solid resume of restaurants under her belt, including stints at Nobu and SoHo's former Kitchen Club. Eschewing the high-end fusion trappings of her former employers, she's decided to go back to her traditional roots to bring homestyle Japanese cooking to her new Chinatown restaurant Family Recipe.
The food is not Japanese per se, but it's not meant to be. Rather, it draws on Akiko's childhood travels throughout the world with her food-obsessed father. Ingredients are strongly seasonal and high quality, while cooking techniques remain simple, mostly drawing from classic Japanese homestyle method—grilling, sauteeing, simmering, and steaming.
A small amuse of cucumber slices topped with a bit of well seasoned, smoky sauteed shredded cabbage set the tone for the meal. There's no question that this is home cooking. Not fancy, about as un-rarefied as you can get; straightforward and simple in its flavors. I'm not sure who the eponymous Alice is for the Alice's Pickles ($6) but I do like her style.
Persimmons and beets are not common fare for Japanese-style tsukemono—the salted or brined fresh pickles common to Japanese cuisine and often served alongside rice or sake—but they work. These pickles come out crisp and briny.
Pork Belly Buns ($12.50 for 2) are another staple on the menu, and with good reason. Fluffy white steamed buns come wrapped around slices of marinated pork with scallions, red shiso paste, and a ginger mayonnaise. If you're used to the McChicken-esque mayo bombs at places like Momofuku, you might be disappointed, but I personally prefer the lighter flavor and meatier texture of these little sandwiches.
Grilled Tofu Skewers ($6) had the potential to be awesome—I love both tofu and the miso paste that tops them—but they were marred by inferior texture. The tofu was simply too firm and cottony to be enjoyable. A much better vegetarian-based option was the Eringi Salad ($11), which featured a giant, meaty, perfectly grilled King Oyster mushroom with a deeply savory flavor served with a refreshing mizuna salad dotted with pink peppercorns. This salad with a bowl of pickles is the kind of food I could imagine my own grandmother serving.
Like the appetizers, meat dishes were a bit hit or miss. Roasted Chicken with XO Sauce was perfectly cooked with nice crisp skin and even breast meat that was moist and tender, and the XO sauce it came with was well balanced with a pungent dried seafood aroma. I just didn't care much for the way they came together. Indeed, even on the plate they seemed to be completely separate elements.
Their Rice Bowls ($12 to $17) are solid. I particularly enjoyed a special of the day featuring brown rice cooked in a miniature cast iron pot topped with marinated bean sprouts and rosy grilled pork cheeks along with a sweet soy-based sauce. Though the cheeks were flavorful and well marbled, they could have been sliced a bit thinner—their thickness made them tough to eat, especially because they were served only with a spoon.
A cute sextuplet of one-bite ice cream cones were completely skippable with a grainy texture and not much flavor.
I strongly admire what Akiko is doing here: trying to introduce us to a style of Japanese cooking that is not well represented in the city. It's hardly traditional Japanese in terms of ingredients or even preparation, but in its spirit and in its balance of flavors and cooking techniques, it's wholeheartedly Japanese, and it's clearly got plenty of soul—something that's mirrored in the friendly, attentive service that shows Japanese politeness and hospitality at its best.
With a bit of tweaking, the dishes would be truly satisfying.