Japonais, a big-box Asian restaurant that once dispensed fruity saketinis, closed last year, making way for a big-box Asian restaurant with a DJ booth and zero- calorie noodles.
This is Kibo, the latest New York offering from Stephen Hanson, the private equity-backed restaurateur behind chains like Bill’s Bar & Burger, Dos Caminos, and Strip House.
Will there be more Kibos? Perhaps if they’re smaller. The Gramercy Park spot was half-empty at 7:30 on a Saturday night. Opening a 299-seat venue in post-recession New York may be the ultimate hubris.
Coldplay blasted on the sound system. The Houston Texans routed the Bengals on a TV in the lounge. And in case you got bored eating a California roll, two additional flat-screens at the sushi bar showed anime.
Kibo’s chief draw is that the Japanese offerings were “designed” by Joel Robuchon. Did he really sign off on the sriracha spicy tuna rolls, which taste little different from the maki I used to eat at a Columbia University cafeteria?
Kibo’s crispy shrimp ($12) could easily substitute as an appetizer at the Outback Steakhouse. Bland chicken teriyaki with asparagus ($14) proved to be a breast doused in what tasted like KC Masterpiece barbecue sauce. Sushi was prepared with overcooked rice.
At least things are on the cheap side. Cod is $28 and it’s pretty great: silky flesh with a sweet hint of miso. Just as good is sun fish with shallots and peas in ponzu broth ($24).
Tofu, crunchy on the outside, oozes like good ricotta. Beef tartare is soft and creamy, with a gentle zing of wasabi and the chili-and-fava bean paste toban djan. Curried cauliflower with fresh coriander is flavorful enough to satisfy the veggie phobic.
The room’s “coup de theatre” is a glass cube in which a man plays with fire, placing skewers of meat, chicken, fish and vegetables over the robata grill. Boneless chicken wings pack twice the flavor of regular fowl; branzino skin is gently crisped. Garlic sausage is a must; skip the $29 wagyu ribeye, which is merely passable.
Cocktails taste like sugary college bar creations; some are spiked with the likes of raspberry sake, pomegranate liqueur and Hawaiian-punch syrup.
Try “Kibosake” on draft, an assertive, almost spirit-like rice wine that cleanses the plate, just $10 a carafe. Those looking for a smoother, more floral experience will try the Red Maple Junmai Ginjo ($22).
Order a dry American “Kung Fu Girl” Riesling ($11) to counteract your spicy cucumber starter.
Waiting for beverages can be a 10-minute affair. Staffers, some equipped with secret service-style earpieces, might use your table as an impromptu trash tray, stacking dirty bowls of soup on top of one another, tossing in ramekins of chili sauce and used chopsticks for good measure.
Unfinished plates are sometimes ferried away too.
Zero-calorie diet noodles are served in fatty ramen broth.
Instead order the regular noodles in a restorative coriander-shellfish broth. Pork ramen is generic, with too little pork flavor, too much ginger. Ho-hum short ribs and forgettable crab rice are also skips.
Tiny pineapple sorbet ice cream cones come in threes. There were four of us. Could the kitchen possibly send out a fourth ice cream cone for a few extra dollars? The server shook his head.
The Bloomberg Question
Price: Most dishes under $30.
Sound Level: Loud, anywhere from 75-85.
Date Place: No.
Inside Tip: Nice yogurt mango parfait for dessert.
Special feature: Great miso soup.
Back on My Own Dime? Nah.
Kibo is at 111 E. 18th Street. Information: +1-212-824-2770 or http://www.kibonyc.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse sotto voce. 56 to 60: Speak up, please. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: Heads turn because you’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)