In most areas of human endeavor, the adage "If it isn't broken, don't fix it," applies. Not so in the restaurant industry, where abrupt menu transformations and outright changes of identity occur with regularity, sometimes with no apparent rationale. So it was not long ago with Jinya Ramen on Greenwich Avenue. By all accounts, the noodle shop was a complete success, with a perpetually packed premises, a "tonkatsu black" broth that attracted acolytes, and an intriguing roster of add-ins to customize your noodles. Salted plum, anyone?
Well, the L.A. mini chain shuttered its only New York City outpost last July, with rumors surfacing that the space would be repurposed as a sake bar. That sake bar has finally arrived. Its name is Shuka, which means something like "the boss's house" - and if the idea of going to the boss's house makes you slightly nervous, so be it. The décor isn't all that different than when the place was Jinya Ramen, only the communal table is gone, the lighting a bit darker and more dramatic, and the entire feel more like a medieval dungeon for ninjas.
Lucky for us, the food remains superb, if a bit expensive. It might be labeled "creative izakaya." The menu divides into six sections in a somewhat illogical sequence, comprising 32 dishes in all: Raw Bar, Salad, Starter, From the Grill, Fried, and To Finish. If there's any other restaurant in town that Shuka resembles, it would be En Japanese Brasserie, where a similar small-dish progression occurs. In fact, the menus of the two places overlap by about 20 percent.
My crew and I started out with an apple salad ($9), two varieties cut in matchsticks along with daikon and fresh figs in a light yuzu vinaigrette. The figs add a Californian touch. The selection would have made a splendid dessert. Next came a baby yellowtail carpacio [sic] with some frizzled leeks and micro greens on top amid splotches of tart dressing. Not bad, and not a bad deal at $14.
Plunging into Italian or perhaps Jewish territory, a chicken liver mousse ($8) with an unusually buoyant texture arrived, sprinkled with chives and accompanied by white-bread toast fingers. Did the dish pair well with sake, which we were imbibing by the tiny glass? As we found, the opaque and slightly gritty nigori ($8-$9) goes with nearly anything. The attentive waiter asked us if we wanted more toast fingers, and we did.
Next, a heap of eggplant cubes (nasu, $9) in a thick white fluid tasted smoky, but it may have been liquid smoke. Indeed, the Japanese seem to have no problem with chemical-based flavorings, as the abundance of truffle oil on the menu proved. That oil appeared in the aioli that dressed the karaage ($14), four perfect pieces of fried chicken that were the high point of the meal, a dish that America contributed to the izakaya canon. The chicken at Shuka rivals En's bird in splendor, and the pungent truffle oil seemed not a terribly bad idea in this context (though I have a prejudice against truffle oil).
The bigger — and more expensive — feeds occur in the last two sections of the menu. Miso black cod ($22) is a dish famously introduced to Japanese cuisine by Nobu Matsuhisa at New York's Nobu. Nice that it has flown back home from L.A. to re-roost. The serving could be bigger. More satisfying, and really quite spectacular, was a bowl of crab fried rice with an abundance of crustacean and an additional boon of orange salmon row. Three diners almost had trouble finishing it. These last dishes were washed down by me with a glass of nanbu bijin all koji ($11), a strong sake made in a beer brewery that tastes like maple syrup. The sake menu at Shuka lists 28 varieties, most available by the glass. It also darkly hints there is a premium sake list for higher-rollers. Given that the prices run to over $200 on the regular list, it seems like you're already looking at a premium list. Clearly, New Yorkers have lots to learn about sake. 24 Greenwich Ave, (646) 838-5599