It seems like only yesterday every new place wanted to be a tapas bar, I mean, a gastropub, I mean, a craft brewery. Now chefs are channeling their creative forces into bar bites for an izakaya, a Japanese tavern of sorts. Not a sushi bar, or a restaurant, izakayas are more like Cheers, the fictional small-screen Boston pub where folks gather after work.
Izakayas date back to the 19th century, an outgrowth of sake craft brewery tasting rooms. In fact, the word izakaya comes from the combination of the words "to stay" and "sake." In other words, the point at this establishment is to drink slowly for a long time.
Nationally, restaurateurs and entrepreneurs are finding the intersection of Japanese and American bar food invigorating, even profitable. The newly opened Yama Izakaya in Plaza Midwood is, perhaps, Charlotte's first traditional izakaya, but not so traditional as to have the thin cushions and low tables. Other spots such as Minoda's Japanese Steak House, Sushi Bar & Izakaya (446 Tyvola Road) has featured izakaya-styled dishes since 2011, and CL-award-winning Musashi Japanese Restaurant (10110 Johnston Road) has had izakaya dishes on their Japanese menu for a decade.
One way to tell if the izakaya is good, of course, is follow the crowd. This is informal dining, and if the dining room looms empty right after work, something is amiss. Izakayas should rock.
New to izakayas? Here are a few tips. At an izakaya, you order a beer before you sit down, before you look at the menu. While sipping that cold beer, munch on hot edamame. Then decide whether to stick with beer or switch to cocktails or sake. Sake is surprisingly versatile with a range of taste profiles. Some sake lists will offer a taste profile and region to help guide you.
Navigating the menu requires some help. While not the old English bridal rhyme of something old, something new, and so on, the scheme to order food at an izakaya is similar: something raw, something pickled, something fried, something simmered — and in that order. Some izakayas offer sushi, some do not.
To sample the essence of the izakaya repertoire, begin with the chinmi, or raw delicacies. Items like raw octopus marinated in wasabi come alive with the right sake, as does a sublimely fatty, finely chopped mound of Bluefin tuna. Then as the next round of drinks approach, plunge into the palate-cleansing oshinko pickles — or anything pickled — before indulging in the forthcoming crispy treats. Quenelles of deep-fried shrimp and black cod, or fried tofu or lotus root, or seared pork sausage gyoza are handily shared by a table. The most fun dish, though, and quite common, is the okonomiyaki, a savory pancake with thinly sliced bacon and feathery flakes of dried bonito that actually move — like a tiny wave — from the heat of the pancake.
But keep ordering more. The dishes are small, so you can try a variety of textures and flavors. In fact, playing with ingredients and flavors is what draws most chefs to the izakaya kitchen. In many Japanese eating establishments, the dish must be "just so" with little variation. Not true here. An izakaya chef can use non-Japanese ingredients as long as they are fresh. Southern-styled fried chicken in ramen? Bring it on. Mixing local beers with Japanese brews? Why not? After all, the essence of the izakaya is to reflect the place and to be fresh.
The feasting continues with grilled skewers and finally some form of rice or noodles. Hours drift. Some places will offer dessert, others ochazuke, a simple light rice dish with dashi broth. But even the cool tartness of a sip of sake is the perfect coda to an izakaya night.