Spring has sprung in the city, as evidenced by the Callery Pear trees screening the sky with their lacy blooms. To walk from streets exploding with those dainty flowers into 1 or 8 is to risk overloading your retinas with white. This Japanese restaurant in Williamsburg, whose exterior is marked only by aerosol tags, looks like a laboratory. But there's no mad science here, only calm thoughtfulness.
A la carte, 1 or 8 can be pricey. We happened upon the Brooklyn Restaurant Week menu, three courses for $25, but a prix fixe is offered every Tuesday through Thursday, three courses plus dessert for $34. There's also a limited late-night menu.
Our two appetizers perhaps best represent 1 or 8's sensibilities. We started with the homemade duck prosciutto salad dressed with sherry vinegar. Greens: fine; dressing: fine; unusual housemade prosciutto: wonderful. The duck was thicker than pork prosciutto, and piebald, a strip of white, a strip of brown, a strip of reddish pink.
1 or 8 is Japanese-ish. Put another way: traditional Japanese flavors or techniques serve as the sieve through which all kinds of ingredients, Japanese or otherwise, must flow as they make their way onto prettily imperfect plateware.
The scallop carpaccio was a study in gummies: the gelatinous scallop offset by delicate spheres of radish, two tiny halves of a tomato, and some droplets of yuzusco, a sauce made from green chili peppers, vinegar, and citrus. The circles went round and round, no beginning or end, sort of like the name "1 or 8" itself. As with the salad, components of this dish come from many places on the map.
The sushi plate included spicy tuna, yellow mango, and salmon avocado. The owner and some of the chefs grew up in Japan, and much of the fish gets flown in daily. Unlike so many rolls, these had give and softness. The yellow mango, perhaps, had too much of the latter, such that its insides were all moisture and no fruit flavor.
Our second main, niku jaga, was one of the best things we've eaten this year. Short ribs had been placed on a plop of mashed potatoes with some onions and potato chips along for the ride. The knife was just for show; this meat was tender enough to pull apart with a fork. About three bites in we discovered the dish's secret heart: a smear of hot mustard that draws everything together in one spicy/creamy/umami bite.
We finished with a tofu flan, with a shot glass of thin strawberry jam. The flan had the consistency of a light pudding, but the savory side crept up in its chalky aftertaste, reminiscent of the sensation that occurs when your boss calls you into his or her office for a "quick chat." The only other dessert available for the prix fixe was a compact chocolate tart, whose scoop of yuzu ice cream woke us up. As with the jam, this side gave the dessert its sweetness.
Huge booths bisect the dining room, some beneath a large lovely skylight. But coming here with a group somehow feels wrong. It's hard to be elegant when you're shouting down the table to be heard, and the polished concrete floors only apply sound. Better to huddle beneath the ghost-white branches, sipping sake and swapping stories. If you must, text discretely with a slim phone. 1 or 8 is best for: a date with an aesthete.