At Royal Izakaya in Queen Village, a torch passes
But something is definitely going on behind the innocuous blue door of Royal Izakaya. Something very special. The land of the "shiny fish." A sake lover's dream. A gastropub pioneer's vision for a tavern where Tokyo meets Philly over chashu pork wrapped in pillowy buns, grilled skewers, and karaage chicken wings that crackle with serrano heat in tangy vinegar and soy. Royal Izakaya also features the legacy of a Japanese master chef passing the spotlight and torch to his talented son. Literally.
Boosh! A jet of blue flame blasts from a canister in Jesse Ito's fist as he flashes the skin along a slice of raw "kinki," a rarely seen scorpion fish imported from Japan for the rarefied omakase tastings he serves in the new sushi room. Heat brings the oils to the surface of the skin, which puckers with smoky char and snaps beneath a pinch of chives against the dense white flesh.
We're tucked behind a curtain in a small room at the back of the izakaya, where eight lucky souls have secured a reservations-only seat around the gorgeous mahogany sushi counter. There's chatty fish talk between Jesse and his guests as he works away, plating fish with a finishing brush of soy before handing each piece over individually. But, mostly, this room is serene, punctuated by exclamations of pleasure as people wrap their lips around sweet ivory discs of truffle-dabbed live scallops or the luxury of Turkish bluefin tuna belly so marbled with fat it dissolves into an Omega 3 hum at the warm embrace of a bite.
The deep orange plumes of plump Hokkaido uni? They're firm for a moment then melt into a briny-sweet cream that triggers a giddy shudder, then a silent nod between me and my guest.
The energetic pulse of '70s glam rock and a boisterous barroom filters in as the curtain to the front room is pulled back, and I'm reminded Royal Izakaya is really a multifaceted project. In fact, it's two restaurants in one: the recently opened sushi room, a reservations-only haven where the prix-fixe menus go for $125 (18 pieces) and $65 (10 pieces); and the much larger, far more casual no-reservations izakaya pub up front with a massive menu of cooked small plates that comes with a more limited selection of sushi. It's also one of the most interesting new places to drink in town, with a deep roster of premium Japanese whiskies, myriad sakes, shochus, and craft beers, both Japanese and Japan-inspired locals, like the house lager from Tired Hands made with Royal Izakaya's sushi rice and yuzu.
by Craig LaBan, Restaurant Critic Critic@CraigLaban firstname.lastname@example.org
If my bon vivant pal is paying, we'll splurge big on a pricey tumbler of Yamazaki, Nikka, or Hakushu malt whisky (then segue into the list of shojus, by which time we should be gnawing on skate wing jerky).
If I'm eating salty bar snacks and want a refreshing quaff of Japanese beer, I'd drink any Hitichino Nest, various rice ales, or Stillwater's sake-style saison.
For raw fish, though, nothing works better than sake, which is available here in every style, from cloudy sweet nigoris to fun ginjos served in their own cups (Kitaro!)
My favorite, though, was a luxurious junmai daiginjo called Dassai 50 "Otter Fest," which was full-bodied and round, even with flavors of licorice and mint, that was the perfect chaser to a thick, pink slice of fat-marbled o-toro tuna.
Dassai 50 "Otter Fest," $22 a 5-ounce glass, $92 a 720 ml bottle, Royal Izakaya, 780 S. Second St
A major destination for all kinds of Japanese drinkables - top-notch (and pricey) whiskeys, a large collection of 33 sakes and a dozen shochu spirits, plus 30-plus craft beers, including Japanese rarities from Iwate
(sansho pepper ale; oyster stout), Koshihikari rice lager, and several Japanese-inspired American brews, including Tired Hands Royal Lager, a shandy-ish brew made with the restaurant's sushi rice and yuzu. Among the sakes, try the Bushido on draft over ice, the approachable Rita Pure Green, or the elegant richness of a Dassai 50 Junmai Daiginjo.