The recently opened New York outpost of Japonais sure knows how to draw a crowd. It calls out to the passersby on 18th Street with a dramatic entranceway, glass terrace doors flung open to reveal a glitzy, red-hued interior, and a name familiar to anyone who’s ever asked a Chicago hotel concierge for a sushi recommendation. Inside, rows of wooden slats cover the ceiling in an undulating wave, and a large potted plant, looking like the topiary equivalent of oversized lollipops, provides eye candy for diners.
Although the main dining room is packed tightly with tables, waiters have no trouble weaving their way around to visit patrons frequently. Unfortunately, they visit frequently in order to apologize for service delays, not necessarily to bring food. That said, they do attempt to make up for delays with friendliness and thorough menu explanations—though by now most New Yorkers are more than familiar with the concept of a multi-sectional menu featuring “plates meant to be shared.”
The best of these many menu sections is the sushi. The breadth of choices ensures you’ll be able to find an old favorite, but it’s worth experimenting with the less classical selections. Bin Cho—technically in the salad section, but sushiesque in its presentation—features marinated baby tuna laid over a bed of peppery arugula and drizzled with citrus vinaigrette. A house special baked king crab—technically not sushi, but this place isn’t for purists—tastes like the tender meat and tartar tang of a crab cake minus the breadcrumb filing.
Of the soups, sides, and small plates, “The Rock” is a must-have, if only because diners who don’t order it will feel left out. The dish is D.I.Y and arrives in two parts: a bamboo basket of sizzling black stones and a platter holding uncooked slivers of New York strip steak. Whether you sear the meat yourself or have your server sear for you, the finished product is simple and satisfying. Not liking it would be like not liking a hamburger.
The menu items needing improvement (or perhaps a quicker trip from the kitchen to the table) are the main dishes. For example, Miso Zuke Barramundi comes drenched in a cloying glaze that’s practically congealed on the plate. Its skin is probably meant to have a satisfying crispness but instead covers the cut of fish like a soggy blanket.
Of the many sections on the menu, the one undoubtedly worth the trip is the wine list and drink menu. And the best way to enjoy it? In the lounge or bar with a bowl of salty edamame rather than one of the syrupy-sweet desserts.