Sunday, March 29, 2009

Restaurant: Ono

I will state this outright, Ono is not the type of restaurant I like. I don't like high priced super fancy and trendy restaurants, especially if they are Sushi/Japanese places. Why you may ask? Mainly because I can't stand spending a ton of money for food that may be great, but clearly tells you that you are paying for the ability to be part of the cool crowd. Now that the rant is over, I should point out I only went to Ono because I had a $150 gift certificate. Located inside of the Hotel Gansevoort, I realized instantly that my dad and I were the least fashionably dressed people probably within 300 feet of the place. A fun hip hop soundtrack (a bit loud for a restaurant) and a lively bar scene greeted us as we made our way to the table. The waitress was friendly enough to suggest how many of the small and large plates to order for two people, and we agreed that my dad would work the wine list, while I picked out the food. As we debated the final order, rice "bread" was brought out with a delicious sweet, salty and tangy spice rub dusted over it.

We decided on a bottle of rioja, 3 small plates, 2 "robata", a large plate, and a side dish. A lot of food for two people, but we were full of confidence (and noticed the rather small portions at other tables). It was also a clear statement that we weren't going to order $19 california rolls, if we could get non-sushi. The three small plates came all at once, and consisted of miso barbecued tuna spare ribs with yuzu spiced lotus chips, shrimp and chive gyoza with chili ponzu sauce, and spicy crab pizza with avocado, red miso and radish sprouts. The tuna spare ribs, while a novel concept, almost ruined a great piece of tuna, and lacked any distinct, or even subtle flavor that you would hope grilling or saucing would have established. They were also very small, and hardly had any meat on the "bone". The shrimp and chive gyoza were delicious, and went well with the light chili ponzu sauce, but there was nothing so special about them to make me say "Wow." I felt like I could have gotten just as good gyoza at a local noodle shop for about $12 less. The real standout among the starters was the spicy crab pizza. If you go to Ono you have to order this, whether you like crab or not. A delicious "dough" was really more like crispy flat bread, topped with a large amount of crab and avocado. What really makes the dish is the red miso and different types of fish roe that are generously portioned on every single piece. The multiple flavors intermingle well and despite the odd name, actually do remind you a bit of a Japanese version of what pizza could be like. Clearly there was a fight over the last piece while a spare rib was left for the loser.

Robata is just a fancy word for grilled meat, like a yakitori. We ordered the chicken and the asparagus and while both were grilled perfectly, the real highlight and reason for ordering were the 5 dipping sauces any robata came with. The sauces included ponzu scallion, toasted sesame mustard, kimchi, plum miso BBQ, and shiso pesto. Ironically the better of the sauces all seemed to be on one side of the plate. The shiso pesto, while a fun idea, was extremely bland, and felt like you were eating a less flavorful mint pesto (which I've had and is delicious if done right). The plum miso BBQ sauce I think was the same used on the tuna spare ribs, and was even worse than with the tuna. It lacked any distinct single flavor, and tasted like a more viscous Kraft BBQ sauce that I can buy at Key Foods. The kimchi sauce started to wake me up, with a surprisingly mild heat that went well with the chicken and the asparagus. The ponzu scallion was quite deliciously light and tangy, with the sharpness of the scallion and acidity of the ponzu standing up to the grilled flavor of the food. The toasted sesame mustard was maybe the best of all the sauces. It had a distinct mustard flavor similar to Chinese mustard, but the toasted sesame added an entirely different layer of intensity that fit really well with the asparagus.

For the main course a huge 28 oz "Togarashi crusted rib eye" in a red win teriyaki sauce was brought out, bone in, but already sliced. Along with this came the side of creamed ginger spinach with pine nuts. To say that we started salivating is an understatement. The steak was cooked perfectly rare, and the sauce was maybe the best part of the night. Every American is familiar with teriyaki sauce, given that it usually was your first introduction to Japanese food as a kid. The version that was served alongside the rib eye was a totally different experience. The reduced red wine added a fruity yet acidic flavor to what often is too sweet a sauce. The creamed spinach, while a little too creamy for my taste, was also delicious and the crunchy pine nuts only added to the hint of ginger in each bite. After slicing every last ounce of meat from the bone, and wishing we had bread for the sauce, our eyes turned on the dessert menu with distinct fear after eating so much.

Dessert was quite the let down, but perhaps we had already eaten too much to fully enjoy it. I ordered a pedestrian coconut custard, and we shared a trio of ice creams, neither of which were anything that I would ever recommend someone waste money on. The only good part during dessert was the tea I ordered called Final Fantasy (not the video game). It was a strong black tea that had the flavors of blackberries and a slight woody flavor. Whatever the exact mixture of loose tea, it was a delicious and a pleasantly soothing way to end such a varied meal.

Overall I probably would not go back to Ono unless someone else was buying. I'm sure the sushi is amazing, and there are some other impressive dishes, but there are other top notch restaurants that cost a little less, and give you more consistency dish to dish. If you are looking for some different Japanese food, and want to have it in a trendy setting, this is the place for you. Perhaps a good start to a night out in the Meatpacking District?

Ono, So So

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