Review: Hakata Tonton

New York City,
Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Why my friend and food expert Simon Majumdar mentioned he was possibly free for dinner while in NYC for a short work trip, I immediately suggested my favourite NYC restaurant, Hakata Tonton. This treasure of Japanese “soul” food in Greenwich Village has delivered, for me and many others, consistently the best food in Gotham. An oasis of unpretentious but passionate cooking, its devotion to offal and nose-to-tail eating has earned it a legion of devoted fans, from the city’s top chefs to those that seek it from around the world.

Hakata Tonton is a small place just around the corner from the Christopher Street subway (1 Train) station. Reservations are a must for this small place, as the few tables are often packed with groups feasting on its famous hotpots. The L-shaped counter is a convenient place to sit for duos.

We sat at the aforementioned counter, which was more sensible anyway. As Simon had an early morning filming, we began with a wonderful “muscat cider” from Rikuzenkataka. The effervescent sweet soda was a fine way to begin the feasting; however, more importantly, it was a great tribute to help support the people of the town that was so utterly devastated during the 2011 tsunami…

After a short time — and watching other people start their hotpots (which we bypassed due to the fact it’s summer and we’re both not liking the hot and humid conditions of summer NYC) — we were presented with the first of many small plates, the day’s selection of pickled vegetables. Honestly I’m not a fan of Japanese pickled vegetables, but the carrot and daikon weren’t a bad way to clear the palate before the meat-centric feast ensued…and ensued it did…

Within a short time we were greeted by a selection of the restaurant’s best dishes. The first, also a favourite of many of my friends, was the veal liver sashimi. Presented with two sauces (which are usually not necessary), the liver has a sublime flavour juxtaposed with the texture of its raw presentation. However, for some reason it just didn’t taste as good this evening as it usually does…

As we began feasting on the liver, the house gyoza also arrived. Now these were spectacular, with a meaty and succulent filling ensconsed within a still-sizzling wrap. And quickly the tonsuku (pig trotter) with cucumber in spicy sauce appeared and my attention followed. On a hot day, there’s little that’s better than cold and spicy, and these trotter pieces were divine. I took a wee break for a picture — the first using my new Samsung Galaxy S-III (forgive me, still trying to figure the bloody thing out).

Quickly putting the phone away (btw Simon takes much better photos, ask him or follow him on Twitter at @SimonMajumdar), my favourite dish was next — the grilled motsu (offal). Now I know this is not to everyone’s taste, but the delicate way they are presented will convert the doubters to offal eating. Topped by a complementary spicy caviar, the motsu delivers tenderness but with just enough chewiness.

By this point I had (solo) started to enjoy some sake on the side, but in a rather limited way, as I had to run for a train at some point too. We seriously enjoyed this barrage of food, but chose to have a few more to cap the evening off. So we grabbed the menu and took another plunge…

The second round came in a short time, starting with the snow crab croquettes. Executed perfectly, they came crunchy and strong on the outside, but creamy and decadent inside. Simon, as a Spanish food afficionado that judged many a Spanish chefs by their croquetas, seemed impressed by these spherical pieces of heaven. But for me the star of the night was the grilled tonsoku — more trotter — in spicy garlic sauce. No one does trotter as good as Hakata Tonton, and this dish is about as tasty as it gets for this humble appendage.

By this point we were spent, having feasted on some of the best small-plates Japanese food anywhere in the world. Humble, but spectacular. All this, alongside excellent company and a great conversation as always with one of the most knowledgeable eaters on the planet, turned a humid and stale mid-week evening into one to savour…especially on the unspectacular Metro North train home…

Hakata Tonton
61 Grove Street
New York, NY 10014
(open dinners; closed Sundays)

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3 thoughts on “Review: Hakata Tonton

  1. Pingback: Review: Onegin | melhuang1972

  2. Pingback: Review: Carne di Hall | melhuang1972

  3. Pingback: Review #2: Hakata Tonton | melhuang1972

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