In Japan, an izakaya is a tavern that serves food and drinks. Izakaya diners typically sit for hours drinking beer, sake and other potent potables while sharing small plates from a large and varied menu. The experience is perfectly suited to a city like New Orleans.
There is only one of these Japanese taverns in the Big Easy: Yuki Izakaya. Amid the jazz, brass and funk band sounds emanating from neighboring clubs, Yuki offers a true taste of the Land of the Rising Sun's popular street dishes, home-style shared plates and an impressive list of drinks. And, because this is New Orleans, there is live music daily.
There are a few things newcomers to Yuki should know right off the bat. While there are a number of raw fish preparations on the menu, Yuki is not a sushi bar. Diners should not expect traditional sushi or American-style sushi rolls. There also isn't any notion of dining courses, sequenced from appetizers to entrees to desserts. The experience is best compared to Spanish tapas dining, with small plates arriving whenever they happen to be ready. But here, patience is a well-rewarded virtue.
Visiting Yuki for the first time is like being transported from Frenchmen Street to a bustling tavern in Tokyo or Osaka. The walls feature Japanese art and pop-cultural artifacts, and classic Japanese films are projected on the wall above the bar. It is a dimly lit, casual environment that suits drinking.
Diners looking for familiar Japanese items will not be disappointed. Old favorites abound, from edamame to seaweed salad, shumai (seafood dumplings), miso, ramen and udon soups and sashimi. There also are french fries, but fortune favors the brave, and it's worth a step outside of your comfort zone.
Dishes not to miss include mentai oroshi: spicy cod roe atop finely grated daikon. It is a simple and intensely flavorful but not overpowering dish: the delicate brininess of the cod eggs is complemented perfectly by the sharpness of the radish. It delivers a quick burst of umami, and is gone all too quickly.
The onigiri, or rice balls, were a spot-on version of the popular Japanese snack, packed tightly in seaweed and filled with either cod roe or savory plum paste.
Karaage, Japanese-style fried chicken, was juicy, flavorful and expertly fried — a true winner, and unique among the many varieties of fried chicken in New Orleans.
Grilled yellowtail neck left our party fighting over who got to scoop out the last bit of fragrant flesh from the roasted fish bone. The most adventurous diners might enjoy the maguro natto, a combination of raw tuna and fermented soybeans, which pack a pungent, malty flavor and a distinctive, sticky texture that few Westerners seem to appreciate.
Yuki has a formidable sake selection, including dry, floral hot, cold, and milky unfiltered versions, not to mention a fine array of shochu, a Japanese liquor distilled from sugar cane, sweet potato, barley, tea, rice or other bases.
Not everything at Yuki is outstanding. One live band, while good, was loud enough to make conversation difficult. The yakitori (skewered grilled chicken) seemed promising, but the restaurant was out of the crispy chicken skin, and the dark meat, while flavorful, lacked the distinctive char open flames provide. Service was pleasant, if flighty at times.
For those looking for authentic Japanese flavors instead of California rolls, as well as an outstanding sake and shochu selection in a lively environment, Yuki Izakaya is the place.