Once we figured out where we needed to go - through the lobby of a commercial building and down a few flights - we parted a curtain, and turned to each other with broad smiles on our faces and gestures of approval. A friend had mentioned Sakagura a while back, saying don't forget to find this amazing Japanese restaurant when you are walking on 43rd. I put it in my notes, and made reservations on a Thursday evening at 7:00 pm. We only waited a few minutes, but when we were taken to our booth - we were a party of six - every table was filled. Somehow the minimal interior with cement flooring, simple wood tables, bamboo, and a bar that extends down an entire side of the restaurant came together seamlessly. For me, however, it was the large flowering branches of cherry blossoms that captured my attention - and heart. It was the middle of April, and I had been eagerly awaiting these trees to open their buds in Central Park, but they had been taking their sweet time after a very cold winter.
Known for their extensive selection of Sake, we browsed through the long list, and then took the advice of our server. Several of the items on the menu were a bit different from what some of us were accustomed to sampling, but that we did. Together with some standards like edamame, we ordered numerous small plates and main dishes to share - chicken, beef, fish, including fried eel and fillet of salmon sashimi, udon noodles, spinach with a sesame paste, rice balls with miso painted on top and the show-stopper, mashed potato balls fried in a sweet donut batter. Different and delicious.
On more than one occasion, as we walked 45th, a long line snaked out of BentOn, a small takeout eatery. This tiny gem provides authentic Japanese bento boxes to the lunch crowd in Midtown, a welcome break from traditional American fare. When striking up a conversation with a Japanese businessman who had stopped by for lunch, he shared his opinion about the food, saying that he felt it had been modified a bit for American palettes, but was as close to authentic as he had tried in Manhattan. The bento boxes vary per day and are served alongside their specialty drinks.
Aburiya Kinnosuke itself seems to be a portal away from the midtown bustle into a quiet and elegant Tokyo restaurant. Seating is available in the main dining room, around the grill, and in small private rooms - one of which features tatami mats, where guests can have a more traditional Japanese experience. Focusing on the izakaya style of dining, the meal is usually comprised of several small dishes shared among a table (comparable to the Spanish tradition of tapas). The menu is extensive, featuring over 100 plates, most of which are based on robata grilling, another Japanese culinary tradition in which skewers are slow-grilled over hot charcoal. Arriving in time for lunch, two of our team were the eager enthusiasts willing to try the specials of the day - dishes prepared in limited quantities each afternoon. On this particular day, there was very fresh Bluefin tuna collar, followed by the Aburiya set – a dish that featured simmered fish, washu beef and sashimi – and then everyone's favorite, the bentou box set, filled with a combination of Japanese small dishes.
Dainobu is a small Japanese market filled to the brim with aisles of colorful packages of food. Fridges along the side walls house the day's selection of bento boxes prepared fresh in a small kitchen at the back of the store. When we walked 47th street, Maria and Jasphy, two of the summer interns, loved browsing the aisles, impressed by its authenticity – "Dainobu is the real deal, " they said. The girls picked up a daifuku each and left happy with their sweet treats.
“If you’re going to the theater, you go to Tony’s, ” said Dreni Kyqykaliu, the restaurant’s general manager. Those en route to a Broadway show are a good portion of their clientele, nearby office workers make up the lunch rush, and tourists pop in during breaks between sightseeing. “The blessing of being in Times Square is having all these groups come in. ”Anyone who has visited Tony’s will be familiar with their signature, massive portions of food that are meant to be shared family-style. This adherence to simple but hearty cooking is a trademark of the people that started Tony’s: the Wetansons. (They founded the now-dissolved 1950s burger chain, Wetson’s, which later merged with iconic hot dog vendor, Nathan’s Famous. ) Four generations of Wetansons have run this network of casual dining establishments that also includes Dallas BBQ. Unlike other large companies, however, Greg Wetanson, his father, Herb, and his son, Stuart, remain closely involved in the day-to-day operations and run things as a family business. Thanks to this amiable atmosphere, “Most of the management and the chefs have been here for twenty plus years, ” said Dreni, who joined Tony’s shortly after it opened in the 1990s.
When the City of New York acquired this lot to house Engine 65 in 1895, clubs and residents around the area feared it would disturb the peace. Having calls since their very first night on the job, and as the first responder to Times Square, it became clear that the service was needed and soon became wildly appreciated. One of the firemen, Chris, told me this was something he had always wanted to do. “I love the camaraderie between the guys, ” he said, a theme that seems to reoccur throughout all Manhattan fire stations.