This is an udon noodle bar run by the same owners as Bozu just up the street, and the two restaurants share much in common: a wonderfully lit interior, warm, cosy and unsurprisingly full of canoodling couples. The menu has a lot of variety, but we would strongly advise against ordering any sushi rolls – the rice, on our visit at least, was scraped from the bottom of the pan, completely lacking moisture and sponginess. To allow this to be served was a grave error, especially when we were eagerly awaiting jalapeño yellowtail rolls ($8). The vegetable gyoza ($8), however, were well-presented and revealed a moist texture under the crispy pancake lid. But it was the curry seafood udon soup ($16) that stole the show, with its rich flavors and robust noodles: perfectly peppery, though there could’ve been more shrimp and mussels inside.
For atmosphere, Samurai Mama really does score highly. We look forward to giving the sushi here another chance, even though we’ve already been won over by the gyoza and udon.
Mu has been at the forefront of heavy investment in Long Island City, a couple of blocks away from MoMa PS1. There are still only a small handful of eateries in what was called a food desert just three years ago, with Bierocracy and a random cupcake shop just a few yards away. This tiny ramen joint still gets long queues but on the snowy night we went it only took 20 minutes to get seated. There is no takeout or doggie bags – the integrity of the noodles and broth is that important. The U & I, an uni dish with maguro and ikura, is usually sold out early so we were lucky to get it: a small wooden bowl with well-balanced portions of rice and fish to be scooped up ‘like ice-cream’ with a wooden teaspoon. Delightful, but dear at $22.
The ‘gyoza’ – chicken wings stuffed with foie gras – were perfectly fine, rich and raunchy ($14), but the ‘okonomiyaki’ were American-style mini scallion pancakes topped with trout and tobiko, which resembled something a well-heeled millennial might concoct with leftovers for Sunday brunch.
All this tapas-crapshooting left us yearning for good ramen, and the signature oxtail and bone marrow Mu Ramen ($18) did not disappoint. A thick broth that had obviously taken lots of work to get to that consistency, excellent cuts of brisket (only 3 tiny pieces though) and the spongiest, bounciest noodles this side of the East River. The Spicy Miso ramen ($15) is just as good, with its broth silkier and its noodles of the thicker variety.
The atmosphere here is great, with 90s hiphop cranked up and lighting kept at a medium burn – sit at the counter or around a large central table. Service was informative, but having a ‘featured dish’ that still appeared on the menu being recommended by both the server and the head chef made me a tad suspicious; to hear it was clams on a Blizzardy Sunday night of a weekend of travel bans made complete sense. For the first time in NYC we also heard that we could only pay our bill with a maximum of 2 credit cards. Pretentious and fussy, and all this on the LIC side of Queens.
Subway: 21 Street Van Alst (G), Hunters Point Av (7)
New York restaurant critics – no doubt chagrined by Zuma’s belated opening in New York after successful outposts in Dubai, Miami, Istanbul and Hong Kong after the original London location – weren’t kind to the brand when it came to the city. Why should NYC be last on the list, why such an afterthought? After all, the super-rich haven’t stopped parking their money here. It might be easier to ignore such relics of the early-naughties, themselves far too close to the eighties’ slick and flashy izakaya abominations; for Zuma is definitely big and brash and pricey. Delusionaryculinary visited the Knightsbridge location in 2004 and again in 2014, but lunch in this midtown location on a hot summer’s day will be most memorable for the lamb chops, thick cut and marinated in miso, then seared over the robata grill until dark and sticky outside, and pink inside. Their version of a Chawan Mushi, remixed for dessert but less egg custard and more fruity-foam, was unbeatable. The $25 restaurant week lunch deal was in effect, and made it so much more accessible, but prices hover around the $21-23 mark for most dishes, which for such splendid fusion Japanese fare is really rather reasonable. Ignore the peacocks, get the lamb chops.
Subway: Grand Central – 42nd st
Not quite an izakaya as the Gothamist wrongly labelled it, but a modern fusion okonomiyaki restaurant specializing in the truckers’ favourite belly-filler: noodle pancakes. It’s so new (one week old when we were there on a Saturday night) that it’s overwhelmed with Bushwick gourmands, and servers are struggling to keep up; so let’s concentrate on the food. Delusionaryculinary fell hard for these cheap creations when he lived in Shiga-ken for a year in 2001, so brought a keen critical eye to proceedings. We sat at the bar and chatted to the grillmaster, Lawrence, who led us through some of the different combos available, and they all sounded mouth-watering. The Classic ($9) topped with pork belly, otafuku sauce and kewpie mayo was great but we still chose to add some octopus to that. Mexican Osaka ($12), with chorizo, avocado, cilantro, chipotle and crema, another with pulled pork and BBQ sauce and a third topped with crispy ramen noodles, means that there’s more choice for the fusion-hungry. Besides the pancakes, the kitchen does a good range of mini-bitings and snacks, mixing up Wasabi Guacamole ($7) with gyoza chips, a Daikon Vichyssoise ($5) that subs in radish for chilled potato, and also Takoyaki ($7), the beloved street food balls stuffed with octopus. Cheese nori and shrimp tempura were tasty beer snacks. Decor is kitsch Japanese posters, skateboards and tchotchkes, and the bathrooms are plastered with nihongo magazines and newspapers. A few lesser-known beers are on the menu such as Okinawa’s Orion, while Ozeki One Cup ($7) sake and Sapporo draft are also available. The Wasabi Beer from Niigata ($13), light but flavourful, is an experience that must be had. Make the trip to Bushwick: it’s all happening here now.
Subway: Morgan Ave (L)
It’s fantastically small and busy, and it’s not that cheap, but the ramen is exceptional. Excellent spicy miso ramen with pork was our favourite, but the basic ramens are also decent, allowing subtler flavours to come through. Noodle quality is superlative, but the magic is all in that broth and the slurp you give it.
Subway: 1st Ave/2nd Ave
We went over to the brightly lit sushi side, rather than to the hibachi tables which take up the first room of this large space; there is also a bar/lounge area which looks much more amenable for small groups and couples that don’t want the glowing diner atmosphere that the non-discerning masses end up in. Sushi Specials were half-price, so this is really good value for most of the week. However, with excruciatingly slow – albeit friendly – service, and no frills or surprises, good value would be the only reason to come back here. That, and their unique Happy Birthday song performance.
This became a London mainstay a decade ago in Charlotte Street, and the branch just off the middle of Oxford Street has cemented its reputation for nouvelle Japanese cuisine. Service is perfectly charming and efficient but the food comes out in the order it wants to. The lamb cutlets were thick and sublime, the fried aubergine a hearty surprise, and the chicken unlike any poultry I’d ever eaten at any Japanese restaurant anywhere – supreme. For desserts, we enjoyed the creme brûlée with Yamazaki ice-cream so much we ordered it twice.
The wine and cocktail selection is comprehensive as well as imaginative. This is a pricey place, but it really is special; funkier than Nobu, more upmarket than Sumosan and comparable to Zuma, it really has found its groove in London.
Tube: Bond St / Marble Arch