I know plenty of people who are learning to cook New Orleans food over the phone. Pot on the stove, wooden spoon in one hand, phone in the other, they call home and ask mom or dad just how they made that court bouillon, bisque or stuffed pork chop they remember from family meals and want to recreate in their own kitchens. That's also how Yuki Yamaguchi perfected the recipes for her new Frenchmen Street eatery and nightspot, Yuki Izakaya, albeit her phone calls home to mother had to stretch all the way back to Shizuoka, Japan. Clams in sake butter, grilled eel, bulbs of rice filled with salty, spicy cod roe or savory cakes made from fish paste and yam may strike exotic notes across the American palate, but it turns out such dishes recall the comforts of home for Yamaguchi and her fellow Japanese expatriates. So too might the format of her new izakaya, designed and named after a type of tavern or bar-and-grill establishment common in Japan and now also found in American cities with large Japanese populations. There is no sushi bar here, but rather a drinking bar to knock back beer, sake or shochu, a mild, light distilled liquor, and a kitchen turning out small portions of Japanese bar food, soups and appetizers.
Yamaguchi came to New Orleans in the late '90s and worked as a bartender at Café Brasil for years until the onetime Frenchmen Street hotspot went dark. Late last year, she was able to take over the nightclub's separate back bar, a narrow hole in the wall space, and transform it into an izakaya. People eat either at the bar or at a handful of tables in a tiny second room, where a low ceiling and partial screening of green bamboo creates a cozy, secluded vibe. The scene is dimly lit, and an intriguing mix of world music fills the place. A DJ often takes over late at night, and the hipster-kid scene picks up after 10 p.m. The kitchen stays open as late as demand keeps up, which can last into the early morning hours.
The ideal way to experience izakaya eating is to drop in with a few friends, order a storm of small dishes and share it all in whatever order they come out. The karaage is indispensable. Dark chicken meat is marinated in ginger and soy sauce and fried in a light potato-starch batter. You can tear off little pieces of the very tender meat and dip them in a sriracha hot sauce or a tangy, green vinaigrette. Two recent specials that I hope can make it to the standard menu are the eel and the tongue. Local sushi eaters have probably encountered little slivers of eel like this as part of a roll, but Yuki serves chunks of the creamy, full-flavored flesh on skewers still hot from the grill, the glistening skin caramelized into a sweet crust. The tongue also gets a blessedly simple preparation, seasoned with just salt, pepper and lemon and sautéed in butter until the thin slices of gloriously textured meat reach a state just a bit softer than bacon.
French fries look like any other crinkle-cut fries, except these are dusted with the earthy shichimi seasoning mix of pepper and ground sesame seeds and are served with a dollop of nose-punch-pungent wasabi sauce. A bowl of bite-sized, white-shelled clams arrive soaking in a luscious, salty butter broth. The potato korokke is like a fried patty of mashed potato with a creamy corn filling that tasted very much like an Indian samosa, complete with a sweet, plum-flavored sauce draped over the top. Another toothsome oddity is the beef and lemongrass 'salsa," which is ground beef heartily enhanced with shreds of lemongrass and meant to be scooped up with translucent, airy shrimp-flavored fried crackers. The hampen fish cake may be the sort of dish you need to grow up with in order to crave, but it certainly was fun to sample. A square cut into triangles, like a grilled-cheese sandwich, it had a curious, elastic texture and tasted much more like tofu than fish.
This is not the place to look for Philadelphia rolls, but the handful of sashimi options are distinctive. In particular, the salmon carpaccio has gorgeous, thin slices of the bright orange fish ribboned with tiger stripes of white fat. It is topped with an unexpected but truly enhancing relish of chopped olives, red peppers, capers and carrots in vinaigrette, which tastes a lot like a good, local olive salad.
There is a large selection of hot and cold sakes by the glass or bottle. The menu offers helpful tasting notes, and the bartenders can ably guide your selection as well. Another star of the beverage menu is shochu, a liquor that is stronger than sake but much less potent than vodka, which it resembles in taste. I prefer the crisp and clean tasting citrus-flavored sudachi-style shochu served on the rocks. It is a sipping, drink but it doesn't interfere with the flavor of the meal, especially when dealing with the salty, intense flavors that are the stock and trade at Yuki.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Yuki Yamaguchi converted the back of Caf Brasil into an izakaya, a Japanese type of bar that serves tapas-style small plates.