Japanese Small Plates in an Intimate Setting at Zenkichi

Shrimp and corn tempura stuffed with camembert cheese. A surprising combination that somehow works.

Zenkichi doesn’t exactly have a dining room.

Instead, the dimly lit interior consists of narrow hallways that intersect with one another at right angles. Large bamboo poles reach up from the ground floor through the two levels of dining space, and full length mirrors make it difficult to tell where the hallways end and the mirror space begins. Secluded tables are set in alcoves along the sides of each hallway and, as you pass each one, customers speaking in low voices are partially visible behind a screen that has been pulled down for privacy.

Once seated, the waiter hands you menus and excuses himself, pulling down the screen separating the table alcove from the hallway. A small sign on the opposite wall says “we respect your privacy,” directing you to push a button on the table should you need anything. It’s a pretty good setup for a date.

The menu offers a nice assortment of Japanese-inspired small plates accompanied by about fifty different kinds of sake. Disappointingly, the frenetic pace at which the dishes are served somewhat detracts from the atmosphere.

A serving of the Zenkichi salad with soft homemade tofu

Some of the dishes are standouts, like a spinach and arugula salad with cool homemade tofu, which is so silky it falls apart when prodded ever so slightly with chopsticks. The spinach leaves are a helpful vessel for lifting the tofu carefully in your mouth. The salad is topped with an excellent mild sesame peanut dressing.

Jidori chicken with lemon and yuzu salt

Another highlight is the hot udon served in a dashi broth with thinly sliced scallions, seaweed, tempura crisps, and a soft poached egg. When broken, the egg oozes into the dashi broth, adding its richness to the clean flavors. The noodles are wide and slightly springy, cooked right.

Simply grilled Jidori chicken is cooked really nicely, with crispy skin, and accompanied by a wedge of lemon and a small mound of yuzu pepper. The yuzu pepper is incredibly pungent and flavorful and must be used sparingly; it adds a tangy flavor that nicely balances the chicken.

The rest of the menu is perfectly competent, albeit nothing special. A fun Japanese chicken “meatball” consists of seasoned ground chicken stuffed into a bamboo pole and served a soft egg dipping sauce and a wooden paddle for scooping the chicken out of the pole. There is the obligatory black cod with miso, which is tasty but nothing to write home about.

Hot udon in a dashi broth with soft poached egg

Some interesting tempura dishes fill the “fried” portion of the menu, including shrimp and corn tempura stuffed with camembert, which somehow works. I particularly like a dish of shrimp, fish cake, and eggplant all wrapped up in a shiso leaf and fried in tempura batter. The eggplant adds a nice sweetness and shiso, which is Japan’s answer to basil, adds a fantastic one-of-a-kind flavor that can’t be described in words. It is served with basic tempura sauce and an interesting green tea salt.

Shrimp and fish cake tempura with shiso

My principal complaint–and it is a very significant one–is that on each of my visits the food has come out way too quickly, often with two dishes arriving at a time well before I had finished the earlier dishes. As a consequence, I have felt quite rushed, and some dishes have been cold by the time I had a chance to try them, not having been ready to move on yet from the previous course.

This would be a problem at any restaurant, but at Zenkichi the style of dining actually makes it worse. To begin with, the small plates format works best when the guest has the opportunity to savor each dish individually, the meal becoming a parade of deliciousness rather than a bombardment of all different flavors at once. With such interesting dishes, the restaurant would be better served by letting the guests enjoy each one. Two at a time would be fine too, so long as the courses were adequately spaced out.

Walnut chocolate pudding

Perhaps more importantly for Zenkichi, the rush to put food out gets in the way of the romantic privacy that the restaurant is trying to create. It is hard to feel secluded or private when the screen is opening every five minutes for another dish or two to arrive. In short, the pace of the meal is entirely at odds with the ambiance.

Perhaps I’d be better off ordering only a dish or two at a time, pushing the button when I was ready for more. But it has not been clear to me whether or not that would be acceptable.

Short of that, the best opportunity to relax and enjoy your privacy is over dessert and, happily, the desserts are very good. The walnut chocolate pudding is a standout, with a rich dark chocolate flavor similar to a good molten chocolate cake, topped with whole roasted walnuts. I will return, and I’ll ask for a slower pace.

77 North 6th St, Brooklyn
Tel. (718) 388-8985

Recommended dishes: Zenkichi salad ($13.95), hot udon ($14.95), Jidori chicken ($10.95), chocolate pudding ($6.95).

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