With the exception of that cultish comfort-food delicacy ramen noodles, most New Yorkers tend to view Japanese cuisine through the narrow, distorted prism of exotic sushi, fancy multicourse kaiseki dinners, and elaborate omakase feasts. But when I lived in Japan as a high-school student (your humble critic is a proud graduate of the American School in Tokyo), sushi was a luxury my brothers and I enjoyed (if our parents were paying) maybe once a month, and we never once tasted the exotic pleasures of Kobe beef. We subsisted, like legions of Japanese schoolkids do, on steamy bowls of pork-laced ramen (or soba or udon) noodles, and chicken or pork-belly yakitori stuck on little bamboo sticks. We gobbled crunchy fried potato croquettes at train stations, and devoured mountains of breaded pork katsu cutlets for dinner, which are served — with piles of shredded cabbage, or smothered in curry sauce, or cooked with a sweet mash of eggs and onions — over mounds of rice.
You can find reasonable facsimiles of these classic Japanese everyday dishes all around this eclectic, food-mad town, but until the arrival, several months back, of a new restaurant called Ootoya, you could rarely find all of them, more or less, under one roof. Ootoya is a populist, Cracker Barrel-style chain of more than 100 restaurants in Tokyo, but the new Manhattan outlet, which occupies an elegant, wood-lined space on 18th Street off Fifth Avenue, has been designed as a kind of upmarket flagship. There is a posh-looking sake bar up front, and a spacious dining counter in the back, where you’re greeted by friendly shouts from the waiters and cooks when you take your seat. The café-style tables are comfortable, the service is good-natured and efficient, and because reservations are not accepted, the sidewalk outside is crowded, most evenings, with an almost entirely Japanese mob of young couples, well-to-do ladies with powdered faces, and Tokyo salarymen dressed in their charcoal-colored suits.
“You better eat this before I eat it all,” my brother said as we fought with our chopsticks over pieces of a fatty, faintly candied house specialty called buta cinnamon — strips of grilled pork belly sprinkled, deliciously, with sugared cinnamon. This is not to be confused with the equally tasty buta shiokoji (grilled salt-cured pork belly) or the superior version of gyu tan shiokoji, which, as every Japan nose-to-tail aficionado knows, are crispy-edged slivers of grilled Washu beef tongue, served with wedges of lemon and a cooling spoonful of potato salad on the side. We were less enthused about the bony, heavily salted chunks of grilled mackerel, which appears in many different forms on the menu, although we soon recovered our equilibrium when a selection of nostalgic noodle dishes hit the table, the best of which was a tray of cold seiro soba, which we merrily dipped in a cup of raw egg yolk.
Some of my hypersensitive Japanese-food-snob friends have quibbled with the faint gumminess of these soba noodles, and the slapdash, conveyer-belt quality of some of the house sashimi at Ootoya (for maximum trencherman pleasure, the Platt brothers suggest the log-size futomaki rolls pressed in giant bamboo leaves). But nobody had any problems with the yakitori selection, which includes spears of asparagus wrapped with pork belly, and a traditional minced-chicken creation called tsukune, which is designed to be eaten on a stick, like a corn dog, after being dipped in more egg yolk. If you’re in a large, ravenous group, you can supplement these bite-size dishes with fried beef and potato croquettes the size of cricket balls, and a bountiful selection of rice bowls smothered with toppings like fried pork and eggs (katsu don), ground chicken (oyako don), or slivers of sashimi mixed with avocado, okra, and fermented soy beans (the enticingly gooey hanabi don).
All of these faithfully rendered dishes can be ordered à la carte at Ootoya, but the preferred style of dining is teishoku, which means your main course is brought to the table with a platoon of set side dishes (miso soup, pickles, a serviceable chawanmushi egg custard) on a large lacquered tray. The combination can be overwhelming, especially if you order one of the generously sized tubs from the Simmered and Hot Pot section of the menu, which range from chalky, over-steamed buta yasai nabe (pork rib) to the excellent fried chicken kaasan ni, which is served with grated radish and a soft-boiled egg in a sweet, soy-infused broth. You can get a stout tub of fried pork cutlets in soy broth, too, although the real specialty of the house, the Platt brothers agree, is the sliced katsu pork-loin cutlet, which is arranged, in the classic way, on a silver wire grate, with a bountiful mound of grated cabbage on the side and a tangy, semi-sweet, hoisinlike sauce for dipping.
I agree with the picky Japanese-food experts about the soba and sashimi at Ootoya, and there might be better examples of classic pork katsu around town, too. But if you’ve spent time eating yourself silly in unpretentious restaurants around Japan, like I have, or if you’re tired of blowing cash on increasingly pricey, non-carbon-friendly sushi dinners and want to experience the bustling intimacy of a populist Tokyo meal, then this is the place for you. As in Tokyo, you can knock back shots of sweet-potato shochu with the salarymen at the izakaya-style bar, where there’s also a decent selection of floral, artisanal sakes (both hot and cold), which I enjoyed, one evening, next to a spiky-haired gentleman who was devouring his dinner while nodding to the beat of the techno-pop tunes blaring through his ear buds. In the great Japanese tradition, the desserts are short on variety (there are three) and heavy on texture. It helps if you have a fondness, as the Platt boys do, for gummy pounded rice mochi, which is folded here into bowls of green-tea ice cream, or served in little petits fours-like squares, with bamboo toothpicks and a fine dusting of ground soybeans.
8 W. 18th St., nr. Fifth Ave.; 212-255-0018
Hours: Dinner daily 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $3 to $18; entrées, $9 to $35.
Ideal Meal: Buta cinnamon, yakitori, teishoku pork-loin katsu, mochi with green-tea ice cream.
Note: Put your name on the list before 6 p.m. to be sure you get a table, and be prepared to eat at the bar.
Scratchpad: One solid star for the Japanese cooking (and the prices), and another for the traditional Japanese atmosphere.
*This article originally appeared in the October 22, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.