Until Sushi Izakaya opened at the Thompson LES in April, it seemed that the growing Blue Ribbon empire was becoming a diluted brand.
I recall mediocre sushi at Blue Ribbon Columbus Circle, lousy French bread pizza at Brooklyn Bowl and bland rock shrimp at a Park Slope outpost.
Once a small Soho spot that served fine food to cooks and waiters in the after hours, Blue Ribbon has turned into a chain of 10 bars, restaurants or bakeries in New York and Las Vegas, with a greatest hits menu of “Blue Ribbon Classics” at a dozen Renaissance Hotels in North America.
That’s good news for brothers Bruce and Eric Bromberg, who back the franchise.
But one wonders how many post-shift waiters are splurging for $30 sweetbreads at the Soho flagship when similar dishes are available at other late-night places for less.
One of those cheaper, better, more ambitious venues is Blue Ribbon Sushi Izakaya.
The popcorn shrimp are a skip here, too, and the sushi’s not very good. But just about everything else I tried on the 100-item-plus menu is exactly what it should be: rich, salty and strongly-flavored.
These are small plates meant to be consumed with Blue Ribbon’s own cold, creamy sake.
Three-bite skewers come out in three minutes flat. This is for when you need to kill hunger fast. Beefy medium-rare short ribs get a dollop of intense garlic puree ($4).
Tiny shrimp, anointed with a sharp tomatillo ponzu, somehow retain their delicate sea-worthiness.
Chicken-thigh kebabs ($4) pack a concentrated poultry punch and a sting of scallion. Pork belly has enough soft, bacony meat to balance silky, succulent fat.
Eat these with your hands, at the bar, where service is more trained and efficient than in the clubby, dimly lit dining room.
The meat section of the menu is heavy on offal: Chicken liver, chicken feet, tongue, tripe and brontosaurus-size slabs of bone marrow. The latter are umami bombs of gelatinous pleasure topped with savory bonito flakes and finished, improbably, with excellent teriyaki sauce ($18).
Beef tongue? Sushi Izakaya firms up the spongy meat and finishes it with a heady black truffle sugo. This piece of perfection costs just $15.
Rice rocks the house. One fine version comes with tongue and sweetbreads ($28). More advanced gourmands will order the bacon and liver version for bites of smoke and iron ($19).
Even better is squid ink rice ($29), anointed with what looks like a giant mess of orange whipped cream. It’s custardy sea urchin.
Those looking for G-rated fare need not apply.
Raw horse mackerel is a case-in-point. A capable chef cross-hatches the silvery skin; all the better to soak up the ponzu sauce with. The taste? Powerfully, headily oily.
Yes, Blue Ribbon’s industrial-grade sushi, with un-sauced fish and cold rice, is most definitely a pass. But the expert sashimi -- mackerel and otherwise -- is quite good.
Sunomono, which in this case means cucumber-wrapped fish, turns expensive king crab into a California-roll like snooze. Cost: $22 for a few bites.
Better is the eel version, as the cool cuke keeps the intense gelatins of the sea snake in check.
Miso gives baked clams an extra slick of richness. It makes silky black cod Nobu-worthy and even improves an intensely lobstery lobster.
Miso also appears in a rich-as-cream dipping sauce for the 20-ounce rib-steak, a fine steak with a roast-beef flavor ($42). Sweet onion tempura accompanies the cut; that’s your dessert. Though green tea ice cream, as dense as kulfi, isn’t a bad choice either.
Perhaps I’ll give the other Blue Ribbons a shot again.
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Many dishes under $20; some under $10.
Sound Level: Around 75 decibels, about average.
Date Place: At the bar, where you can knock knees.
Inside Tip: Walk-ins only for four or fewer but there’s rarely a wait.
Special Feature: If you like Blue Ribbon’s famous matzo-crusted fried chicken (I don’t); you can get that here too.
Back on My Own Dime: Especially for skewers.
Blue Ribbon Sushi Izakaya is at 187 Orchard St. Information: +1-212-460-5300; http://www.blueribbonrestaurants.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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