November 16, 2009 | BITE: My Journal

Gastropub Alert: Tanuki Tavern

Half orders of stylishly dressed rolls at Tanuki lets us order more. Photo: Steven Richter
Half orders of stylishly dressed rolls at Tanuki lets us order more. Photo: Steven Richter

        I am surprised myself that I rather like Tanuki Tavern, a minor hiccup in the eclectic Food Hall we call the Meatpacking District.  It’s named for the Japanese raccoon dog and billed as a gastropub, a term I’ve done my best to ban from polite gatherings for evoking images of gastroenteritis. It’s the new venture of the week for endlessly optimistic feeding mogul Jeffrey Chodorow, downsizing what was once Ono in the Gansevoort Hotel, into a fantasy of an izakaya.  I could say ho-hum, a bar with snacks. But I say, “Nice try.”

Big crisped shrimp tempura ride in atop the bowl of soba. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Granted it’s wildly noisy, with a cluster of Japanese paper lanterns over the crowded bar area, and perhaps it’s more about sake, imported beer and cocktails, needless to say, than dining fulfillment. There are smart wood dividers and bare tables in a rosy Barbie pink glow, as an early report suggested. I do feel quite at home (okay, they recognized me waiting for a table) at a dim and shadowy table upfront, sharing small plates and handsome big bowls, loving the  soba noodles in wasabi broth with big battered shrimp and the deliciously crisp tempura seafood – lobster, shrimp, scallops, soft belly clams and oysters with a sweet chili aioli at just $17.

Early in the evening the standup bar gets more action than the sushi bar. Photo: Steven Richter

        There’s room for penny pinching here (if you’re not suffering from frugality fatigue by now) with snacks, most soups and noodles priced from $5 to $15, and entrées mostly $18 or less, except for a 16 oz. pork t-bone at $32 and a Japanese Waygu filet at a price the menu refuses to divulge. Our waiter opens the ceremony with that now inevitable announcement, “Our small dishes are meant to share.” 

Wagyu mini-burgers are full of flavor; pizza overflows. Photso: Steven Richter

        "How many Wagyu mini-burgers in an order?” I ask.


        “But that doesn’t work because we’re three.”

        “Sure it will, just get two orders,” he tosses back brightly, a math whiz.

       “How about giving us an order and a half?”

       “Why not?” he agrees.

       When a runner from the kitchen brings two orders I try to send one back. But our server steps up, promising he’ll only charge for one-and-a-half, the extra, his gift.  Well, the rich meaty little patties piled with shitake relish, daikon and pickled ginger are lush and delicious, needing only a smaller roll for perfection. 

Yellow fin tuna spaghetti Bolognese looks better than it tastes Photos: Steven Richter

        I wish we were six so I could order everything on the specials list: fried chicken livers with ponzu-miso-chili dip, scallop rumaki, octopus sunomono, steamed mussels in a sake-miso-seaweed broth and crispy rice with roasted teriyaki squab. The three of us are digging this Japanese-inflected American comfort cooking. Alas, a big bowl of yellowfin tuna spaghetti Bolognese with two slices of grilled bread on top is a bust – overcooked noodles (now rightly excised from the menu). Too saucy and spicy blue crab pizza is undone by too many ingredients dribbling down my arm: avocado, radish sprouts, red miso and three tobikos: red, black and green. What made me think it would work, you might ask? Guess I was just into the vibe and, a day without pizza….

       Maki are similarly creative (or a tad glopped up, if you prefer).  A sesame crusted tuna tataki roll with avocado, spicy tuna mousse, cucumber, scallion and eel sauce drizzle is better than the Yakuza BBQ roll with eel, avocado and Boursin cheese topped with spicy mango.  Or maybe it was the other way around.  Does it sound like I’ve had too much sake? Not at all. I had my usual glass of red wine.

       At this point, a familiar young man introduces himself - Zack Chodorow, the college-age scion I’d once met.  “May I send out some dishes?” he asks.  I find his deference endearing.  Okay, one dish, I agree.

Saturday night fever all dressed up in Tanuki’s bar. Photos: Steven Richter

        "Tori dango,” announces the runner, delivering Zack’s choice, three chicken meatballs encased in a marvelous rice crust with spicy ponzu.  Shall this be dessert? I waver. The place is getting noisier.  The gossip girls in their strapless backless dresses and spike heels are clustering near the bar, as if seeing each other is their favorite way to spend Saturday night. Sure the gathering is young and cute but it’s not that high gloss chic that can be intimidating. I’m glad I’ve persuaded our guest not to resist warm chocolate and red miso cake with sansho pepper sabayon - a voluptuous finale.

       I have no idea how lively it is upstairs but the bar scrum is so thick we need an escort to clear a path to the coat check. Next day I look at the bill and see we’ve paid for four Wagyu sliders, not three - a princely $26.  I’m sure the waiter who promised to charge for just three wasn’t smart enough to do that on purpose. I consider tweeting my annoyance but I’m already thinking we might go back one evening for more hit-and-miss but amusing Japanese-American fusion.  Togarashi-spiced French fries. Little neck clams and sake angel hair. Miso braised-marrow bone with black lava sea salt. Could be fun.

       By the way, Japanese folklore celebrates the tanuki as a mischievous cutup, according to Wikipedia, a master of shapeshifting but somewhat gullible and absent-minded. Chodorow told The Times’ Florence Fabricant that the tanuki is the patron saint of restaurants. I bet he’s hoping it’s so.

Hotel Gansevoort, 18 Ninth Avenue at 13th Street 212 660 6766