One Great Plate: Fried Octopus Balls

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:11

    Walking the gastronomically diverse stretch of St. Marks Place between Second and Third Avenues, you’d never guess that Go Restaurant was the first Japanese outpost on the block. “We opened in 1985,” declares longtime proprietor Isami Nagai. “It was all Polish places and homeless people with garbage can fires back then,” he continues with a smile.These days, you’re more likely to encounter Goths, hipster contingents or groups of giggling tourists in this part of the East Village, but eat on the front patio of Go and, with some luck, you’ll still glimpse a homeless drunkard or two.

    The restaurant’s plain wooden interior is no different than most city sushi spots, but its big, two-sided menu is. While it’s littered with Japanese-American favorites like teriyaki and tempura, more traditional dishes abound. The Takoyaki ($5), a typical Japanese street food of fried octopus balls—muscle meat, not testicles—is a great place to start.

    This version is served as a steaming six-pack, slathered in brown okonomiyake sauce, which, by Mr. Nagai’s own account is “like Worcestershire sauce, but with pear and apple to make sweeter.”

    The aroma is initially that of seafood, courtesy of the katsuobushi, dried skipjack tuna shavings dubbed “dancing fish flakes,” that adorn the outside of this rounded appetizer. But thoughts of the ocean drift away with the first succulent bite: Saucy, fried deliciousness leaves only the mild, chewy texture of the tentacled treat inside to be discovered, and it reminds me more of chicken than fish. Superfluous here is the included dollop of mayo, or the 50cent side of cheese that’s offered, but share this plate with a friend and you’ll have no problem popping two more in your mouth.

    Throughout the menu you’ll find plenty of opportunities to sample more katsuobushi (or “bonito” for short), a staple Japanese ingredient used in soup broths, sauces and toppings. Incidentally, this eerily lifelike tuna derivative served as the inspiration for the title of John Lennon’s Shaved Fish album.

    Not to be missed is the commonly consumed Okonomiyake ($8.50), a Japanese omelet (that shares a name with the sweet sauce) comprising pork, cabbage and noodles, which boasts yet more flapping fish flakes on top. Also enticing is the sukiyaki, a slow simmered iron pot full of thinly sliced beef, tofu, veggies, egg and a sugary soy sauce concoction, which comes with soup and rice for $17 and is often found at year-end parties in the Land of the Rising Sun. But if you really need your sushi fix, you’ll leave here more than satisfied with whatever raw fish you order.

    When I asked Isami why the emphasis on authentic fare, he calmly explained that, “everyone knows tempura, but when Japanese students come to NYU during the good economic times of the nineties, they want something else.” Fortunately for him, so do the rest of us.

    -- Go Restauarant 30 St. Marks Pl. (betw. Second & Third Aves.), 212-254-5510 --