If the imprecation to “eat your veggies” holds tremendous appeal, especially at lunchtime, Itsu may be your place. This British chain from the founder of grab-and-go company Pret A Manger now boasts more than 70 branches in the U.K., with yearly sales reportedly exceeding $130 million as of 2016. New York’s newly opened Garment Center outlet on Seventh Avenue near 39th Street is the first outside Great Britain. It lies just south of a Pret A Manger, and the intent of this chain is to provide healthy, vegetable-heavy, “Asian-inspired” meals in a fast food setting, each under 500 calories.
Like the food, the design seems to be “Asian-inspired”: The interior walls resemble the rice paper partitions called shoji, blond beams traverse the ceiling, and light shades hang in latticework styles. A number of seating options are provided, including gray stools and benches along slender tables and eating shelves, with some actual booths. On your left as you enter are the grab and go cases, vending sushi, salads, and gyoza. A counter at the end disgorges hot dishes ladled into cylindrical paper receptacles. A gorgeous display of purple orchids decorates one wall.
Behind the counter, an overhead menu lists 13 main dishes in three categories: “Pot Soup,” “Rice Bowl,” and “Udon Noodles.” Though the menu is identified as “Asian-inspired,” half the food is specifically Japanese, though only vaguely so. (Indeed, the chain started out in 1997 serving Japanese food.) Thai and, to a lesser extent, Korean, make minor appearances, with some fusion elements thrown in, such as the so-called Asian falafel, straying only slightly from the target continent. The vast majority of Asian cuisines are missing in action.
“Chilli chicken udon” ($10.99) is typical of the way dishes are put together. At the bottom of the cup are springy udon noodles, with a thicket of vegetables above that, including peas, purple cabbage, carrots, and kale. The chicken is on top, looking like a greater quantity than it actually is. (A separate section of the menu entitled “protein boost” encourages you to pile on more chicken for $2.) You’ll be seeing those same veggies again and again; in fact, you should skip Itsu entirely if you’re not very, very fond of peas.
But the strangest part of this chicken udon is the soup, because it departs entirely from the comforting broth you expect with udon. It’s brown and slightly sour, and it seems mildly flavored with cumin. And there’s none of the spiciness that “chilli” might imply. In fact, much of the food at Itsu is mind-numbingly bland — though that is not a huge surprise considering the offerings at sister restaurant Pret.
The most successful dish I tried on two visits was the only one identified as Korean, a rice bowl called Korean BBQ pork ($9.99). Short-grained brown and red rice graced the bottom of the cup, then the usual veggies, then some chunky pork in a red paste that tasted like it owed more to American barbecue sauce than gochujang. Nevertheless, the sweetness was welcome in Itsu’s Death Valley of flavor.
Later, I tried the Asian falafel ($8.99). Three balls rode atop a rice and a vegetable mélange heavy on the shredded carrots. The falafel again tasted slightly of cumin, though this time the rice bowl had a trace of welcome spiciness, perhaps as a result of the “Thai sauce” promised on the menu board. That same visit, the Thai coconut soup ($5.99) was way too light on the coconut milk and disappointingly contained no basil leaves. It was partly redeemed by a handful of toasted pumpkinseeds. With no pickled ginger, the tray of sushi ($12.99) was edible but not fresh tasting. One sushi roll contained green beans.
Keep your mitts out of the gyoza case. The dumplings are steamed rather than fried, and are packaged in plastic wrap so the steaming never stops. Accordingly, the dumpling skins have a gluey texture, and my pork and scallion gyoza ($7.99) had no green flecks of scallion. I suppose the coconut chicken soup ($6.99) wasn’t bad, but it was mainly coconut milk and vegetables with some nice chewy chicken — and entirely lacking in salt and other necessary flavors.
Sitting there slurping up the soup, I pondered the question: What is Asian food anyway? Are there certain characteristics that unite the sprawling continent? Well, I think of strong fresh herbs like cilantro, holy basil, scallions, and shiso, and powerful spice combinations that make every dish taste different — and that doesn’t even begin to cover the breadth of it. Itsu pretty much ignores the flavor palate of Asian countries entirely, except for a little ginger here and there. Moreover various ingredients of Thai and Japanese food — we’re talking snow peas, bamboo shoots, enoki mushrooms, and distinctive greens — are foregone in favor of a resolutely English selection of garden vegetables.
Indeed, the entire menu caters to notoriously bland northern European tastes, running contrary to the wealth of flavor actual Asian restaurants in New York City can provide. The company hopes the American public will welcome this tastelessness.
Ultimately, the restaurant’s micro-focus on just a couple of cuisines is odd. There is something nearly neo-colonial about Itsu’s manipulation and cavalier treatment of various Asian cuisines. Why not just admit that most of the dishes are invented, rather than claiming a remote and tepid inspiration? And Itsu flaunting its Thai food and trying to intercept the Midtown lunch crowd is particularly tragic. Far more formidable Thai restaurants are in close proximity, like Larb Ubol just two blocks west.