I wasn’t expecting much when I stepped up to Ikinari, the new Japanese steakhouse with no seats on East 10th Street. It was around 7 in the evening: Down the stairs and through the glass windows, I could see a narrow room full of people, standing around four-person tables and eating with evident relish. Gingerly, I descended the steps to the less-than-luxurious space, which was brightly lit like a basement rec room.
Here and there, I spotted glasses of wine and small side salads, heaps of boiled corn and tiny yellow potatoes, green beans and fluffy white rice. Steaks dominated the tables on sizzling cast-iron trays, their mineral tang lashing the nostrils as a fine mist of tallow engulfed the crowd like a fog. It’s so assertive that a bottle of Febreze at the front door invites customers to destankify clothes as they leave.
Over the last few years, Japanese restaurateurs have taught us much about dining and drinking. We’ve learned to slurp ramen in private booths and to grab sushi as it spins by on a conveyor belt. We’ve discovered that great whiskey doesn’t necessarily come from Kentucky or Scotland and have been imbued with a fresh appreciation of cream puffs and other desserts — even as the focus of an entire meal. And now we may be on the verge of a new and exciting way of eating steak — sometimes considered the quintessential American dish.
As an individual diner, I was lucky, because I was seated — well, not really seated, but stood — immediately. A waitress took my beverage and salad order, then directed me to the rear of the room, where nearly a dozen men in white coats and toques were busy at a gas grill or prep table. These cooks sometimes made forays around the room to see how diners were liking their steaks, picking up used trays like busboys on the way back. They all wore clear plastic contraptions on the lower part of their faces — sneeze guards?
One guy at a butcher block with a long knife took orders. He deftly removed cuts of beef — sirloins, filets, and rib-eyes — from a fridge behind him. He sliced them to the proper thickness, then trimmed fat and weighed them. Steaks are sold in increments of 100 grams, priced at 8 cents to 11 cents per gram, with minimum orders costing $16 to $27, depending on the steak. Though signs recommended steaks cooked rare, people in front of me ordered medium rare or even medium. Diners also have the option of having a steak served whole or sliced. Certain diners were ordering multiple steaks.
I exercised an option described as “limited,” which allows customers to try all three steaks, 400 grams — which is nearly a pound of meat — for a mere $30. The butcher selects scraps from a bowl to his left, but also cuts fresh steaks to fill out an order with a nice balance of types. All the steaks are exceedingly well-marbled. I returned to my raised table and waited, carefully examining the armada of sauces and other condiments provided, which totaled over a dozen. Foremost was a decanter of hot steak sauce. Skip it! Steak of this quality is best consumed unadorned.
When my order sizzled into view, my jaw dropped. I quickly tucked into the pile of pieces, some fatty, some lean, some blood-red in the middle, others done a little more than that. The sirloin was chewy; the filet tender as butter and a little squishy; and the most expensive — the rib-eye — was perfect in every way. Just as millennials learn that standing up at a desk is a refreshing way of working, I learned that standing up while eating steak is a pleasant way to dine, which encourages diners to focus on the dish, lending a slight sense of urgency to the procedure.
Yes, the steakhouse tradition of the city — as evidenced by places like Peter Luger, Old Homestead, and Keen’s Chophouse — involves plush furniture, dark, paneled rooms, and a slow progression of courses at a breathtaking expense. Ikinari proves there’s a different way: much cheaper, condensing the excitement of perfect steaks into a shorter, more concentrated experience.