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- The Draw:
- Finely tuned Japanese plates and sushi; a vast and stimulating drink list
- The Drawback:
- The massive menu leads to inconsistent quality
- Don’t Miss:
- Spicy tuna on crunchy rice, short ribs, creamy pork kimchi, cold soba, tempura, Tsukiji market sushi, sake
The Japanese have been serving good food in sake stores for at least a hundred years, and today, “izakayas”—bars that also serve small plates—far outnumber ramen joints or sushi dens. Their ubiquity reflects the sociable habit of after-work drinking in Japan, which can extend from early evening until the staggering-salaryman dash for the last train out of Shinjuku Station. Izakayas can be large or tiny and offer menus long or brief. “Kara age” (fried) chicken and “yakitori” (grilled things on skewers) are typical, but there’s almost no limit: intestine stews, fried tofu pockets, fish cakes. Last year, I had horse tartare and cured horse fat at an izakaya in Kyoto. (It was the best horse I’ve eaten, I’ll say that.)
Hong Jian Lee, the Macau-born owner of Mizu Izakaya, approached his LoHi project, open for almost a year now, as a student of Japanese bar customs and cuisine. The space is a mashup of watering hole, sushi bar, cocktail lounge, and conventional restaurant, with high-top, regular, and lounge tables. Decor runs to wood and ropes and old-timey incandescent bulbs, dark blues and stone colors, and a massive izakaya-themed mural. One night, folks at the next table were doing sake bombs. On another, music spiked to a level not targeted at my aging demographic. But hey, it’s a drinking joint in LoHi.
The restaurant’s main menu sorts approximately 50 dishes into things fried, things raw, things from the “binchotan” (white charcoal) grill, etc. Some dishes are traditional bar snacks: bits of perfectly cooked chicken thigh grilled with scallion; octopus cakes; gyoza. Others, such as kimchi with pork belly and a red-pepper cream sauce, veer into fusion territory. There are bowls of ramen. There are maki and nigiri/sashimi menus, a separate premium sushi list, and daily specials. There’s even a selection of large plates that you might find in a fancier restaurant: miso black cod with sweet potato purée or a whole fish from the grill.
All that, and I haven’t even touched on the beverages: There are more than 40 sakes. There’s a bunch of cocktails and another menu with premium Japanese whisky drinks and several nonalcoholic shrubs and soda concoctions, plus a short tap assortment that featured, when I was there, a Hitachino Nest Beer saison made from Japanese wheat and malted rice; kombucha; cider; and the delicious Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project sour peach wild ale.
Dizzy with choice, diners should come into Mizu Izakaya with a plan. I suggest ordering a beer and declaring your intention to confer over the menus for 10 or 15 minutes. Then order a few starters. Consume these before ordering the next round of drinks and food. Repeat as necessary.
My first-visit blunder entailed ordering all of the food for a table of four and asking for it to be sent out “in the order and pace the chef thinks best.” Mizu’s kitchen doesn’t work that way. Dishes were launched at our table like shells in a fireworks finale. We ended up eating a $176 meal in about 35 minutes; it could have lasted two hours.
Amid the incoming fire of food, I began to appreciate Mizu’s use of touchstone Japanese ingredients—some mild, like beloved Kewpie-brand mayonnaise, and some strong, such as “yuzu kosho,” a salty, spicy paste with citrus-peel kick. Sauces and garnishes are judicious, with ponzu, shiso leaf, and various soy concoctions producing bright flavors and aromatic intrigue. It makes for fine food to consume with many drinks.
And there are tasty bargains to be found. The spicy crispy tuna, from the menu’s raw bar section, shines. This treat revives the tired spicy-tuna trope by putting the raw mixture atop rafts of rice fried to a delightful crunch, then adding avocado, a ring of jalapeño, and a dab of “masago” (capelin roe). A Tokyo tonkatsu whiz couldn’t have put a better crust on the rice, and for $14 you get six hefty morsels.
The Tem Zaru soba, if available, is another good bet. A bowl of green-tea-inflected noodles, of proper chewy consistency and cool temperature, is served with a dashi dipping sauce and shaved daikon plus an improbably large basket of tempura: two great prawns, squash, red peppers, and more. At $16, it’s practically a gift.
On the small plates list, the tidy $8 heap of Cream Pork Kimchee (sic) is a standout. Strands of tender pork come tangled with the Korean fermented cabbage, and the whole thing is lusciously sauced. Imagine the tang and old-shoes funk of kimchi with a creamy vodka sauce, as if an H Mart truck crashed into Vinny’s old-time Italian joint.
At $18, beef short ribs with king trumpet mushrooms and Fresno peppers may not seem like quite as much of a deal—until you taste that boneless meat, of which there were eight generous slices: charred at the edge, medium-rare inside, with dry-aged savory notes. I’ve had plates of steak that cost twice the price and featured not much more meat. The mushrooms added another layer of chewy, earthy umami.
But with a menu this large, it’s no surprise that inconsistency is the bugbear. A whole grilled squid was nicely plated but had sat on the grill too long. Although the tempura with the soba was airy and well made, tempura another night had the weight of onion rings from a lonesome roadside diner. A grilled razor clam special, which begged for a light hand, was instead clobbered by a sweet, garlicky sauce in a $13 serving that was almost sufficient for a gaggle of house finches. None of this food was left uneaten; it just didn’t reach the heights of the good stuff.
On the imbibing side, Mizu’s half-dozen $12 cocktails (not part of the pricey Japanese whisky line) are named after the principle booze in each—the Rum, the Gin, and so on. The Tequila added lavender and cardamom bitters to a basic margarita, but the flower and spice notes fled to the back, leaving, well, a basic margarita. The Rye, with strawberry ancho jam, resembled a good punch.
Instead, you might want to order sake, surely the most underappreciated drink in America. Mizu’s sake list is applause-worthy, dividing small and large bottles by flavor profile rather than by confusing quality classifications. However—even more than with a wine list—one needs guidance. Our server answered questions by saying she had “tasted a lot of these at once so can’t really remember,” and I ended up with a bottle less interesting than desired. Lee and company should add more tasting notes to the menu or have a sake sommelier on hand.
About the sushi, finally, there is room only to say that Mizu’s short list of nigiri and sashimi made from fish flown in from Tokyo’s legendary Tsukiji fish market caught my eye, drained my wallet, and made me very happy. Two pieces of the fatty tuna, served nigiri-style, were $18. A pair of golden eye snapper nigiri cost $15, and red spotted grouper was a relative bargain at $10. These prices can be justified, though, given the lively firmness of the fish and the absence of tiredness—which is difficult to describe, but boy, do you know it when you taste it.
I left Mizu thinking this: Pare the menu and there’s a great restaurant inside this good restaurant. Why not select the top three dozen dishes and hone each to the quality of those spicy tuna–crunchy rice things? Now that would make for a fine evening of food and drink before weaving your way into a Lyft and homeward.