Bara Review: Down-to-Earth Frenchy-Japanese Drinking Food
Once word gets out about the tremendous fried chicken, I’m afraid no one’s going to bother with less-obvious pleasures such as the lettuce or the tripe. This would be a shame because at Bara, a restaurant that opened in December in Manhattan's East Village, the tripe is in soft wide petals—wide enough so you can really enjoy that fluttering, grainy bounce, alongside wee potatoes and radishes in a rich, wonderfully old-school sauce made from lobster stock and cream.
It deserves your attention. So does a modest salad of crisp, sweet, sparkling-clean lettuce leaves covered with tiny dried shrimp and pumpernickel croutons in a sharp vinegary dressing. But yes, alright, the fried chicken at Bara is very good. Distractingly good.
Deeply golden and crisp, it requires just the slightest of enterprise to crack through. Your reward is hot, properly seasoned meat that’s a bit juicy without veering toward the slippery. There are pickled jalapeño slices to nibble between bites, or to balance on the thick of a drumstick and crunch down. That would be enough, but chef Ian Alvarez also sends out a fantastic mayonnaise walloped with yuzukosho, a Japanese chili-citrus paste, along with a thin chili-vinegar and some miso-mustard.
You see pork belly and fried chicken on a menu and think you know exactly what to expect, but the food at Bara is full of surprises. It takes inspiration from the new wave of casual French wine bars and old Japanese taverns that make serious food casually, with a lot of care. Flavors are complex and fresh, turned up with a range of salt and acidity, and most things are easy to share if you like the people at your table.
The 42-seat restaurant is a spare nook, just next door to Prune. It’s a nice place for a date, the kind of restaurant where nothing is conspiring to be romantic, so everything just is. Go for a cocktail at the bar with a few grilled duck meatballs, but know the place is just as suited for a longer, rowdier evening with many friends (and many rounds). Sure, you could call this stuff drinking food, but on certain kinds of nights, isn’t all food drinking food?
For a while, Bara offered a low-cost tasting menu (five courses for $55) but the menu has since been rejiggered as à la carte. This tinkering is a theme—Bara is still finding its way—but the changes tend toward improvement. The beets, which have been given several makeovers over the last couple of months, now involve a thick smear of fresh farmer's cheese, whipped so it's as smooth, lush, and faintly cheesy as mascarpone, holding together tiny wedges of beet and beet-stained rings of raw apple. The plating is beautiful but not too fussy, and the flavors are softly bright. The Japanese-style egg custard topped with crab meat is also a delight—pretty but not precious. It's served in a larger portion than at most Japanese restaurants. The color of milky coffee. it's wobbly and practically dissolves on the tongue.
There’s a list of cider and beer, natural wines, and a bit of sake and shochu, to pair. This sounds like too much, as if Bara is stretching itself thin, but each category is narrowed down to just a few great things—and a cool glass of Le Pere Jules cider will be exactly right when the evenings are warmer and Bara’s big windows on First Street are swung open. General manager Kyle Storm’s cocktails are also excellent, including an Old Fashioned made a bit witchy and herbaceous with génépy, an Alpine liqueur. On a recent evening, the nightly sour was a fine mix of bourbon and blackberry, dosed with lime.
There’s always a steak as well, here a flatiron, a nice cut from the shoulder with a little personality, served hot and pink with a Worcestershire-based steak sauce that shines with butter. Chef-partner Alvarez builds its funk out the old-fashioned way, by fermenting anchovies for a few weeks with vinegar and molasses. It’s everything a steak sauce should be—lip-smacking, salty, barely sweet, and just thick enough to coat the meat.
Bara can occasionally be a bit rough around the edges, even for a place that’s meant to be casual. Sometimes the fantastic duck meatballs are too soft, falling apart before you can run them through the miso-spiked mustard. (These structurally unsound versions disappear, all the same.) There’s also some repetition of flavors, which you may notice—depending on how much food you like to order—and this can feel monotonous on such a concise menu.
Take yuzukosho, that stunning condiment made from salted fermented chilis and the floral zest of the yuzu, a Japanese citrus. Sure, it’s habit-forming, and it makes the mayonnaise that accompanies the fried chicken unforgettable. But like any acquaintance you bump into more than once in a day, the small talk can start to get tedious. Oh, fancy seeing you here, again, on the fingerlings.
With the exception of the mackerel tataki (which you may not expect to be so lovely and light on its toes, raw and finely chopped), Alvarez avoids using Japanese and French terms on the menu whenever he can use English. There are menus on which this might feel wrong, like not citing a source, but at Bara it comes off as natural and unpretentious, as if someone is being careful to manage to your expectations and not let you down. (Anyway, what do you call a pile of springy fresh buckwheat noodles that resembles fettuccine, dressed with sticky threads of oxtail meat and shaved bottarga? Not soba.)
If you’re in the mood to relax and eat well, a meal at Bara can be truly delicious—unbuttoned but civilized. Service is effortlessly cool and comfortable. Servers can be slightly distant, but they're quick to smile and answer questions, never cold or standoffish. For now, the restaurant is still quiet enough that you can walk in on the early side, or make a reservation late in the day. Not for long, though. Not with that fried chicken.
Bara is at 58 East 1st Street (East Village); +1 (917) 639-3197 or bararestaurantnyc.com
Rating: 1/4 Stars (Good)
What to Order: Little Gem salad ($11); Honeycomb tripe ($12); Grilled duck meatballs ($7); Flatiron steak ($22); Fingerling potatoes ($9); Fried chicken ($18)
Who’s Next to You: Groups of thirtysomething friends from the neighborhood; a couple at the bar with their dog tied up just outside, taking turns to go outside and pat him on the head; a couple of anxious midtown workers, meeting for drinks and dinner on their way back to Brooklyn.