New York City’s flirtation with deep-fried pizza has never quite borne fruit. Sure, we’ve had places like Forcella, PizzArte, and Don Antonio, but they offered the fabled Neapolitan montanara mainly as an afterthought. Now, along comes a place where fried pizza is the heart of the menu. What’s the catch? Well, the restaurant’s menu isn’t Italian, but a mashup of Japanese and Italian elements.
Kimika — often a girl’s name in Japan, meaning “noble” — opened mid-August on the ground floor of the Nolitan, a boutique hotel at the corner of Kenmare and Elizabeth. It dangles before us an especially comfortable outdoor dining area featuring curving wicker chairs, marble tables, and discreet lighting behind a wooden fence stout enough to keep horses from escaping. Commercial vehicles noisily laboring toward the Williamsburg Bridge provide an auditory backdrop, as international tourists exiting the hotel chatter in a Babel of foreign languages.
The restaurant is the project of Erika Chou and Doron Wong, the duo behind the Thai restaurant Wayla, on nearby Forsyth Street. The executive chef is Christine Lau, who once worked at Patti Jackson’s Delaware & Hudson, a long-gone favorite of mine in Williamsburg with an upstate theme, where newly invented recipes using discordant ingredients seemed homely and historic. Like chickweed pie.
Back to the fried pizzas, called by their Italian name of pizzette fritte ($19 to $25). The best one on the menu wads sliced mortadella on top of a hot crust that gently warms the meat, sending odors of garlic and pistachio skyward. Besides the white globules of fat in the meat, lubrication is provided by squiggles of dark, sweet concentrated miso. Almost as good is the fussier summer squash pizzette, featuring raw slices of green and yellow zucchini blotched with a pesto of shiso and sunflower seeds. These pies spin through my dreams like flying saucers.
The fried pizzas alone are good enough to make you want to return to Kimika again and again, but there are plenty of other culinary attractions. The menu is divided into six sections, with no consistency in pluralization. Besides pizzette fritte, the sections are: small, pasta, large, and sides, plus a separate dessert menu.
To the chef’s credit, the conceptual underpinnings of each dish are kept quite simple, such that most can be described in two or three words. One example from “small” is an heirloom tomato salad ($15), whose description might be “tofu Caprese.” Like a lighter and less rubbery mozzarella, fresh tofu lakes the bottom of a shallow bowl, with a miniature dice of cukes and wedges of juicy heirloom tomato skating on top. The salad is lightly seasoned with fresh herbs and black sesame seeds, keeping the taste fantastically subtle.
The “large” section is devoted to entrees, presented with relishes rather than true sides. One stunning trompe l’oeil choice is eggplant katsu ($19), in which a hefty slice of skinless eggplant is crumbed and then fried to a medium brown. The cutlet delivers a crunch, and if it appeared on a TV cooking show, you’d swear it was a pork schnitzel.
What a thrilling discovery to find the interior of the eggplant cutlet nearly liquid, with the faint bitterness of long-lost love. On the side, find the mayo-dressed cabbage conventional to Japanese katsu cutlets, and a hump of caponata, the sweet Sicilian eggplant relish. Other enjoyable large dishes include thick slices of herb-stuffed Italian porchetta that have been deep-fried to concentrate the porcine flavor and a wonderful charred and sliced 16-ounce rib-eye steak ($48). Served with a wasabi chutney, it allows Kimika to function as a steakhouse if one orders a side dish or two, like small potatoes fried in duck fat and squished.
The most elaborately conceived item falls in the pasta category, a rice-cake lasagna ($19) that constitutes the most profound of the Asian and Italian mashups, though perhaps it skews more Korean than Japanese. It arrives in a gleaming casserole. Dredge around with your big spoon and find tubular rice cakes in a tart and spicy sludge that seems like cooked kimchi, the swatches of Napa cabbage crunching between your molars.
The Italian part? Crumbly pork sausage and provolone further fill out the casserole, the former adding fennel flavor, the latter unaged and hence creamy without being sharp. This dish generates a contemplative state of mind, for the ways it seems like conventional lasagna and the ways it does not, like parsing an irregular verb.
The menu explodes with possibilities, offering a maze-like set of potential paths. All roads lead to dessert, though. These tend to ramp up the idiosyncrasy of the menu, such as an ice cream sundae topped with fried chicken skin and candied chestnuts. My favorite is one of those crushed-ice concoctions that seem impossible to finish… until you do. Tiramisu kakigori ($12) features the usual ladyfingers and mascarpone, to which have been added cubes of bouncy chocolate mocha and the toasted soybean powder called kinako, which tastes somewhere between coffee and cocoa.
I went several times to Kimika, and always left wondering, what have I just eaten? But still, I was very happy with all of my meals. And I’ll never forget that mortadella pizza.