Japanese Fast Food on Madison Avenue and Dreamy Gnocchi at L’Apicio

This week, Tejal Rao tries the pasta and polenta boards at L’Apicio, the new “glassy cathedral” on the Bowery from partners Gabe Thompson and Joe Campanale, where Rao says if you added a parking lot “it could be that one restaurant in every American town where the people with money come.” While she finds that the kitchen “tends towards overseasoning,” it also creates “esoteric pastas in unexpected applications” which are “perhaps the most successful and refined dishes on the menu.”

Our own Robert Sietsema explores the neighborhood around Madison Avenue and 41st Street, now specializing in Japanese fast food. He recommends venturing to the uptown location of Sunrise Mart for their rendition of “okonomiyaki–the gut-busting, mayo-squiggled pancake… stuffed with pork, shrimp, cabbage, and grated yam ($7.50).” Sietsema also snacks his way through Mai Cuisine and Cafe Zaiya.

NY Times critic Pete Wells has been actively covering the impact that Hurricane Sandy has left on the restaurant industry. This week, he heads down to Chinatown’s Royal Seafood Restaurant, and finds that “everybody was having lobster.” He awards the restaurant one star.

Adam Platt, at NY Mag, visits the modern, Midtown palace Sirio Ristorante, the latest venture from Le Cirque’s Sirio Maccioni. And, while the clientele is dressed to the nines, Platt argues that “the best things at Sirio are the more unadorned traditional dishes.” He also slices his way through Strip House Midtown, the latest outpost of the West Village restaurant. Platt is mixed on the food, but certain that the “menu is priced for the midtown expense account.” Both restaurants receive one star.

At the Post, Steve Cuozzo joins the “party scene” at El Toro Blanco, the inauthentic Mexican restaurant in the West Village. And while some might need earplugs to make it through an entire meal, Cuozzo suggests trying the “guacamole served with toasty-crisp chips” as it is “the spiciest [he’s] had in ages.

Bloomberg’s Ryan Sutton burned some cash at Blanca, the epic Bushwick offshoot of Roberta’s. The 25-course meal is built for those seeking a culinary adventure, as long as they’ve got the time. Sutton writes, “There’s no printed menu, and the bread course is timed to arrive around the 90-minute mark of a 3-hour grand tour through chef Carlo Mirarchi’s prodigious culinary repertoire.” He gives the restaurant four stars.

Jay Cheshes, at Time Out, visits the revamped “former den of New York iniquity,” The Beatrice Inn. But the party people have long since left and the reincarnated remains come together as a food establishment rather than a nightclub. But you’re there to bask in tarnished glamour, not to eat. Cheshes says, “the monochromatic fare is so tame you might call it postfoodie, and you might wonder if there’s a secret menu somewhere that plebeian diners don’t receive.”

Hannah Goldfield, at The New Yorker, visits Allswell, the Williamsburg gastropub from former Spotted Pig owner Nate Smith. She finds the food more delicate than the average “shire-in-style” bar. Goldfield writes, “A thin slab of gelatinous pork terrine, as beautifully translucent as stained glass, was served with a bright salad of crunchy celery, currants, and parsley; oysters, splashed with cream and prosecco, were flash-baked to an almost glittery sheen.”


Fast-Food Japan Is All Yours on One Midtown Block

For nearly a decade, a Japanese bodega named Yagura operated near the corner of Madison Avenue and 41st Street, on a block that runs directly east from the New York Public Library’s stone lions. In addition to groceries, a prepared-food operation in front with a raised seating area—like a cattle pen—became a lunchtime favorite of librarians and office workers. The menu extended to donburi, seaweed salads, ramen, broiled mackerel, homely yam dishes, and wonderful cream-squirting pastries baked by a crisply uniformed attendant.

Well, Yagura eventually inspired three newer and shinier Nipponese places, making the block christened Library Way into the city’s best Japanese fast-food strip. Most recently opened, Sunrise Mart (12 East 41st Street, 646-380-9280) is a branch of the long-running East Village favorite, boasting a substantial grocery display in the rear. Entering, you’ll see a small seating area; on the right, find a food-prep counter lively with the sound of sizzling fat. Small photocopied color placards hint at the vast range of dishes, most in an over-rice or hero-sandwich vein.

Many of the offerings are extremely oddball, proving Sunrise Mart one of the most ambitious innovators in East-West fusion Gotham has yet seen. This is not necessarily a commendable thing. A cheesesteak hero ($6.75) substituting lamb for beef and Swiss for American is not a bad idea, reminding me of the Weezer lyric from Maladroit, “Cheese smells so good/On a burnt piece of lamb.” But though the smell might entice, the meat is as tough as rhino hide. Another item that sounds good is the so-called rice burger. Unfortunately, only the bun is made of rice, and it falls apart when you take a bite. In addition to the standard beef patty, seven permutations include things like pork kimchi and teriyaki salmon.

But much of Sunrise’s food is great, especially when it stays close to convention. If you’re a fan of okonomiyaki—the gut-busting, mayo-squiggled pancake—the gigundo version here will be more than satisfying, stuffed with pork, shrimp, cabbage, and grated yam ($7.50). The place also excels at donburi, especially the one featuring fried shrimp, onions, and egg over rice. Another advantage at Sunrise is that you can grab a Japanese beer to wash your meal down—even at breakfast. For that meal, a separate counter slings tortured but tasty renditions of French pastries, including a chocolate croissant that also oozes banana.

Moving east, next is Mái Sushi (16 East 41st Street, 212-400-8880). Operating under the slogan “Mái Sushi, My Way,” it sports a full-blown sushi bar in the rear that’s now inactive, serving only as a seating area. However, the sushi pulled from the refrigerator cases is better than you’d expect. An 11-piece assortment that includes half of a tekkamaki roll will cost you only $6.50. But the co-strength of this pleasant spot, laid-back compared with the frenetic Sunrise Mart, lies in its handful of special hot dishes offered every day. These can run to simple assortments of steamed veggies, “hamburg” bento boxes, and, best of all, a pig-foot tonkotsu ramen ($9.50), beige and opaque. It falls only slightly short of Ippudo’s. Another time, there was a refreshingly light udon soup floating lily pads of sweet fried tofu.

Café Zaiya (18 East 41st Street, 212-779-0600), itself a branch of another East Village spot, sits next door to Mái Sushi. Check the signboard out front for daily specials, which can be mind-bogglingly cheap. Once there was a rice bowl topped with cubed bean curd in a ground-pork sauce (mahbo donburi) marked down from $5.49 to $4.49. On another occasion, a chili-shrimp donburi was reduced a similar amount. Note that the sushi sold here is not as pristine as Mái Sushi’s, but adequate nonetheless. The inside will remind you of a mini-food-court, with separate registers for sushi, pastries, and hot food. An airy seating area in the front window allows you to ogle passersby scurrying with their holiday packages.

The tiny Japantown on Library Way buzzes with activity from breakfast till late afternoon, after which it begins to slowly shut down, with kitchens closing around 6:30 p.m. A desiccated selection of leftovers remains available until a half-hour or so later. For supper or evening carryout, arrive early.

I visited all four spots on a daily basis for several weeks. On my last visit, I discovered that the lowliest and earliest, Yagura, had shuttered, perhaps as a result of competition from its newer neighbors. Which is sad, because with a buffet of fried things under heat lamps, cheap and fortifying noodle soups, and cream puffs stuffed as you watched, it was the quirkiest and most charming of all.


Best Place To Buy Pocky

Pity the poor fool scarfing Subway over on St. Marks, when snappily-packaged-snack mecca SUNRISE MART lies just around the corner. Proffered Pocky biscuit sticks range from coconut to mousse, with suave Men’s Pocky recommended for post-pubescents (but where’s Womyn’s?). Other standouts include various Collon permutations (Spastic not recommended) and—Dirty Southerners take note—Crunky chocolate bars; for a more personal nosh, try Kasugai Peanut and You. Wash it all down with a cool can of Qoo, and take those quail eggs to go.