When the Tokyo chain sometimes called the Denny's of Japan for its sheer ubiquity (somewhat unfairly, as what, then, are we supposed to call the many Dennyses-yes, the Denny's-that also thrive there?) announced it was opening its first U.S. branch on a side street off Union Square, a cheer went up from the city's ex-pat and wannabe communities. Offering a type of quick-service comfort food not readily available in a city now teeming with sushi palaces, izakayas, soba-yas and enough ramen to ensnarl all of the MTA, Ootoya (8 W. 18th St., ootoya.us) both eases the patriot's dreams of home and checks another box on the foodie's To Eat list. But even for those who don't have a burning desire to eat natto or dream of a curry don the way mom used to make, the restaurant has much to offer.
The gimmick here is that every entree is available as the centerpiece of a set meal called teishoku. Delivered all at once to maximize the busy office worker's precious time, the meal covers a lacquer tray with a swath of seemingly interlocking receptacles. Lift the rounded lid on a black bowl to reveal miso soup, steam curling gently upward. Arrayed on a chunky white saucer is a rainbow of nukazuke pickles, which are fermented in rice bran rather than the usual brine. And what's in that delicate ceramic basket, a miniature replica of a 19th-century snake charmer's? Surprise! It's chawanmushi, a delicate, savory egg custard.
While it's perfectly reasonable to assemble a meal from the menu's assortment of small dishes, sushi, grilled skewers and entrees, the teishoku set provides the most instant gratification, as well as an insurance policy against more adventurous orders. Never had tororo, mountain yam that's been grated and whipped to a slippery frenzy, a common Japanese topping for soba and more? Order the hanabi don anyway, a rice bowl that comes loaded with slices of sashimi, soy beans, okra, a soft-cooked egg and a cloud of the snow-white tuber, safe in the knowledge that you've got basically a second meal waiting in the wings if it's not to your taste. (But if textural contrasts excite you, it almost certainly will be. Give the whole thing a good stir to get warm rice, cool fish, crunchy veg and silky egg yolk all in one bite.)
For those ready to move forward sans safety net, the small dishes that make up the first half of the overwhelmingly long menu yield unusually big returns. A concise list of yakitori contains the ever-elusive tail, a tantalizing morsel of crunchy skin and fat, as well as tsukune, a chicken meatball served with a small bowl containing a single egg yolk for dipping. It's one of the best renditions in the city, better than some dedicated houses can dream of.
That grill also transforms non-skewered meats, including a tender beef tongue, a number of mackerel never given their due in American cooking and pork belly. Ignore the candyland warning signals set off by a cinnamon-marinated version; the only sweetness comes from the fatty meat itself, the spice a surprisingly perfect savory fit. And then there's the fryer, which turns out a perfectly bronzed breaded pork cutlet, presented atop the traditional wire grate to keep the underside from sogging up against the plate. It's the perfect design solution to a problem you didn't know you had.
The Denny's moniker is not only unfair to Japan's Denny's outlets, it vastly maligns the experience at Ootoya. The interior is coolly wood-lined, with an elegant bar up front and a more convivial, wider bar in the main dining room behind which the merrily industrial kitchen can be glimpsed. Cold sake comes in glass decanters balanced in a bowl of ice, a single chrysanthemum placed daintily alongside. Modernist steel latticework stands in for shoji screens, separating tables and covering the soaring vent above the yakitori grill. You've never had a Rooty Tooty Fresh 'n' Fruity in a place like this.
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