The new location of Izakaya Den is a stunning celebration of the Kizaki brothers’ 30 years in the local dining scene.
I was equally excited about Izakaya Den’s more global offerings. Seeing the words “kimchi,” “menudo,” “sofrito,” and “panzanella” share a menu is a welcome departure from the all-things-local concepts we’ve seen multiply in the last decade. I devoured especially crispy Brussels sprouts leaves tossed in enough lemon juice to balance fatty chunks of tare-braised pork belly. I monopolized two of three succulent, properly filleted shrimp with creamy jalapeño-infused grits. I slurped up the kitchen’s 48-hour lobster ramen with custom-made noodles. But other selections from this menu needed work. The rice at the center of the arancine was overcooked, and its tomato sauce tasted flat. Lobster patatas bravas were appropriately tender (both the crustacean and the spuds), but the potato lacked the all-important crispy outer layer. The bread rounds on the hoisin-duck crostini were too dry. But these were textural oversights that could be attributed to an off moment in the kitchen or the departure of the restaurant’s opening chef de cuisine.
What really gave me pause across several visits wasn’t these nitpicky details; it was the service. I’m not talking about the usual balance sheet of waitstaff scores and misses: At Izakaya Den, quick knowledge of the English name for Japanese words was among the pros, while forgotten orders headlined a list of cons. What left a more lasting impression on me were the entirely awkward server statements that were common to every single visit.
“This menu is…fishy,” two different waiters stumbled as they described the restaurant’s more traditional izakaya menu. “I only drink PBR,” another told us when we asked him to guide us through the restaurant’s beer selection. One night, a staffer pedantically spelled out: “When I say whole fish, I mean the head, the eyes, the tail….” Later, my date asked the waiter to describe the seafood dynamite, a terrine of baby scallops, baby shrimp, sliced calamari, and clams bathed in a mixture of Japanese mayonnaise and smelt egg. “I hope I don’t offend you,” the server said, turning to me. “They are baby fish.” “Why would that offend me?” I asked. The response: “Some people get offended.” In all fairness, Izakaya Den’s versatile menu can be complicated to explain, but it’s not like these servers were required to make squid guts or slimy mountain yams (two authentic dishes the Kizaki brothers intentionally left off the list of options) sound appealing.
Izakaya Den’s stunning space, impressive collection of sakes, wholly intriguing menus, and (most often) extraordinarily executed food are attracting sophisticated, adventuresome diners, but the restaurant’s waitstaff is noticeably struggling with how to interact with the modern-day customer. It’s unfortunate this group of guests is being given the same dialogue as the restaurant’s equally important cadre of 30-year Kizaki regulars. Both customer profiles are critical (especially in a 15,000-square-foot, 250-seat space), and Izakaya Den needs to be able to smoothly navigate conversations with both.
In the upper echelon of restaurants, it is a server’s job to suss out whether he or she is working with the Times Square tourist who’s read about the restaurant in her travel guides or someone who has driven all the way from Vail specifically to be transported by Toshi’s more unfamiliar Japanese fare. Servers at Izakaya Den could more effectively cater to all kinds of diners by first asking a few subtle but revealing questions. “Have you been here before?” “Are you in the mood for sushi, selections from our more daring izakaya menu, or our Western-inspired offerings?”
I believe Izakaya Den employees are capable of finding the confidence they need to bridge this service gap. Until then, meals here are much like looking through a kaleidoscope. With the restaurant’s many rooms and menus and server aptitudes, you can end up with a dining experience that is underwhelming or one that is brilliant. Here’s my suggestion for pointing your visit in the right direction: Ask the accommodating hostesses if there is room to be seated upstairs, tucked along the cozy banquette in the open, light-drenched front room; order things you’ve never heard of from the more eccentric izakaya menu; and, when the servers’ explanations get odd, stop asking questions and just look up the answers to those curiosities on your modern-day smartphone.
—Photograph by Carmel Zucker