February 12, 2011 | Japanese
A Japanese-Restaurant Empire
East Ninth and Tenth streets are full of Japanese food.
I have a new Japanese conversation partner. Her name is Akiko, and I found her through one of various sites where you can search for someone who will teach you his/her language in exchange for your teaching your own.
East 9th Street, Home to a Japanese Tea House
Such websites serve as reminders that language skills have value in the open market! It’s like a special kind of currency that you can use to purchase other skills. (Warning: I’ve been told that some of the sites are more focused on dating and hookups than on language-learning, so if you’re looking exclusively for the latter, beware.)
Besides actually being a native of Japan and a native Japanese speaker, Akiko has been a helpful provider of information on local Japanese resources.
For example, she suggested I go to a Japanese tea house called Cha-An, on East 9th Street between Second and Third avenues. Now, this kind of thing happens to be right up my alley.
As I have mentioned previously, I am determined not to eat my way through this project. A tea house, however, sounded very healthy and simple.
So off I went to East 9th Street. On the way, I saw vestiges of our neverending snowstorms, a romantic sample of which is shown here.
Enough Is Enough: Fallout from Previous Snowfalls
When I got to the tea house block, I was thrilled, because this is a street I have passed before and often wondered about. It is cute. Any bleakness in the photo above should be blamed on winter and my own limitations as a photographer.
As I began walking down the block, I saw the tea house sign some meters ahead of me (all this foreign-language study has me thinking metrically) and signs for a number of other Japanese establishments as well. Right across the street, for example, were two Japanese restaurants. They looked nice. I decided to check them out after tea.
To reach the tea house, I climbed a flight of stairs, at the top of which was an inviting, stylish, clean space full of customers. The place had a warm wood aesthetic.
As a low-value non-lunch-eating customer, I volunteered to sit at the counter, which gave me a great view of the kitchen and rows and rows of tidy tea offerings.
Behind the Counter at Cha-An
If I was hoping someone working at Cha-An would have time to talk to me (I was), I picked a really stupid time to arrive: 1 p.m. The place was packed, and the wait staff, while extremely polite, were all extremely busy.
The menu came in an attractive binder, with laminated pages, color photos, and descriptions of teas from around the world. I stared longingly at a picture of a dessert, then turned the page.
I would have liked to have Japanese tea, but my caffeine intake has been creeping up lately, so I went herbal, which options came from other, non-Japanese parts of the world. My choice: Crimson Chai from South Africa.
Sitting there drinking tea was very relaxing. I practiced converting transliterated sentences into Japanese kana while I enjoyed my beverage and occasionally made out Japanese words spoken by the employees working behind the counter.
Before I left, I went to use the restroom. As I entered, the toilet cover rose automatically to greet me. I found this enchanting—what hospitality! I took a photo of the toilet, but I feel it would be tacky to post a picture of a restaurant’s toilet, so I will refrain.
Even the Bill Was Packaged Appealingly
T.I.C. Restaurant Map: Seriously?
Cha-An is owned by T.I.C. Group, I learned from a brochure available at the tea house entrance. The map showed a number of other T.I.C.-owned Japanese restaurants around town, including, to my amazement, six on the very block I was already on. Plus three more just one block away!
This I had to see. Nine Japanese restaurants, same owner, practically next door to one another?!
When I went outside after paying my bill, I realized that the two restaurants I had seen right across the street were in fact part of the T.I.C. family.
First I went into Sobaya. It was packed, with a heavily Japanese clientele. Sobaya specializes in soba, a type of Japanese noodle. There was a soothing fountain at the entrance.
A Relaxing Sobaya Fountain
Next door was Robataya NY, where it was a little calmer and a waitress showed me around a bit.
She told me Robataya specializes in grilled foods. The front room has a large grilling area that I think the waitress said would be operational at dinner, but was quiet, at least today, for lunch. She pointed out long wooden paddles used to serve the food to customers who would be seated around the grilling area. The paddles looked big enough to move boats.
Robataya’s Bilingual Offerings
Bottles as Art
Free Eggs and Pickled Vegetables
I was fascinated by the free eggs and pickled vegetables that were sitting out in the main lunch room. I love eggs. They get a bad rap, but eggs are definitely one of nature’s perfect foods.
While we were talking, I told her, “Nihongo o benkyou shitte imasu.” (I am studying Japanese.) She smiled politely.
A side observation: in general, I feel that my announcement that I am studying Japanese has not generated the same interest in chatting with me that my similar announcements in some previous languages generated. I know I’m boring in Japanese, I know my vocabulary is impoverished, but really, I do want to speak!
After Robataya, I headed to the east end of the same block, where I found another T.I.C. restaurant, Otafuku, a tiny hole-in-the-wall place that offers takoyaki (octopus balls) and okonomiyaki (savory pancakes).
At Otafuku: A Contemplative Customer?
I did finally get to test my language skills there with the staff; unfortunately, they were my Spanish skills, not my Japanese.
Next I dropped by Decibel, my fifth T.I.C. establishment of the afternoon. (Yes, seriously, I was still on the same block.)
Decibel, for Your Sake Needs
Decibel is a sake bar with some food options as well, and it was closed. It is more of a night-time kind of spot, I gather, and apparently has been around for a while.
According to its website, “With almost 100 of Japan’s finest sake available Decibel is the closest to Japan you can get without stepping on a plane.”
Finally, walking to the west end of the same block, I arrived at a sixth T.I.C. restaurant, Hasaki, whose outdoor signage proclaimed its presence there since 1984.
I observed sushi.
I talked briefly to a harried waiter, who was unable to answer my questions about the restaurant’s history.
Around Since 1984
One thing that boggled my mind is that these six Japanese restaurants, all on the same block, were not the only Japanese restaurants on the block.
Sharaku Job Ad
Right by Hasaki, for example, is Sharaku, a competing establishment. In the window I saw an ad for wait staff, posted in both Japanese and English. The Japanese came first, then the translation.
I was able to sound out the kana for “waiter” and “waitress” and was happy about that.
Next I went to 10th Street between First and Second avenues, to see the remaining three T.I.C. restaurants in the immediate area.
The restaurant Curry-Ya is relatively new and specializes, not too surprisingly, in curry cuisine. The space smelled delicious.
But wait! There’s more!
Rai Rai Ken
After that was Rai Rai Ken, which specializes in ramen and gyoza (dumplings). It was cheerful, but did not look like my kind of food (not sure it would qualify as health food). However, it appeared to be many other people’s kind of food; there were quite a few patrons.
Next door to Rai Rai Ken was Shabu-Tatsu, which specializes in shabu shabu and Japanese barbecue. It was closed for lunch, so I was limited to trying to peer in the window.
After typing “shabu shabu” in the preceding paragraph, I had to go Google the term. Actually, I had to Google most Japanese food terms above that were not the word “sushi.” My shabu shabu research (not extensive) told me it is thinly sliced meat and vegetables cooked in boiling water and served with dipping sauces.
I found it astonishing that nine Japanese restaurants from one company, plus other Japanese restaurants not owned by said company, could all make a go of it on the same two practically adjacent blocks.
I also found the cross-promoting interesting. The T.I.C. businesses all advertised that they were part of the same restaurant group. They were not hiding that fact at all.
Whizzing Home Through the Tunnels
Conceptually I myself would prefer that the restaurants I go to have different owners—I like the variety—but I loved the idea that so many people wanted Japanese food that these places could happily coexist. And they did all seem quite different in any case.
Japanese food is my personal favorite of all cuisines, though as someone who is obsessed with sushi and sashimi above all other Japanese eating options, I am not really eligible to judge the cuisine as a whole.
I can say that I would much rather see a dozen Japanese restaurants dotting the gastronomical landscape than a bunch of greasy, obesity-abetting diners and fast-food joints.