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Ariyoshi, New York – An introduction to the Japanese Drinking Culture

The best new alternative to sushi isn’t a slab of $100 Kobe beef but the Japanese small-plates style of after-work/late-night dining called izakaya. Arisyoshi is a good example of such in Manhattan’s East Village and this is where we found ourselves at after a Thursday-night concert at the Carnegie Hall. It must have been at around 10:30 pm, two friends and myself wanted to go to a place where we could have a few drinks, grab a late night-snack, and unwind leisurely. We figured, Ariyoshi Izakaya was just the place for this.

An ‘izakaya is primarily a drinking joint, or a sake shop (sakaya) where you sit (the letter ‘i’ means to sit in Japanese) and sip your sake (or Shōchū or beer, if you must) and food is served to accompany the drink.  Hence, you don’t come here to gobble your sushis and nigiris down.  Instead, this is a place to slowly have your sake, chat with your friends and satisfy your taste buds with the small, mezze/tapas like dishes that the chef serves. The process takes longer than a dinner in a restaurant usually takes, and drink and food are ordered throughout the course of ‘the sitting’, as desired. The main thing is that you don’t feel you are rushed to eat and leave.

In Ariyoshi, the emphasis is on the cozy and the convivial. The room is small; it has 7-8 tables and a 4-seat bar, quite reminiscent of its counterparts in Manhattan and Vancouver, with its maple color palette and low hanging light fixtures over tables and paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling. The food is prepared with simple ingredients, it comes quickly while your sake is still cold and is comforting. There is no sushi here; just a bewildering array of small dishes ranging from grilled squid with teriyaki sauce to deep-fried, bite-size chicken; from mackerel blowtorched table-side to beef tataki; and from kushiyaki/yakitori ( grilled meat, vegetable or chicken skewers) to chilled tofu. We sampled such well-known items of the izakaya menu but also focused our attention to Ariyoshi’s specials menu. Monkfish liver pate, for instance, was just delicious. It comes steamed and sliced (rather than grilled), with daikon (Japanese radish), lemon slices, ponzu sauce and seaweed. It was a very welcomed dish by us as it cleaned our palates after a rather heavy version of takoyaki (deep fried octopus balls). Another great dish was the sea bass pickled in sake residue, a seasonal delicacy and a must-try specialty. That sea bass was supposed to be our last dish.

However, a nice surprise came right after mid-night. After several flasks of sake (we had started with high-quality sake and then slowly graded ourselves down to hot sake), our waitress must have noticed that we were winding down (and yes, a bit tipsy) and brought us a steaming bowl of meat broth-based house ramen, flavored with pork slices and greens, and was accompanied with pickled ginger. I would take in this ramen any time, anywhere, not matter if I am drunk, full or both. It was very satisfying.

Overall, I enjoyed the hours we spent in Ariyoshi very much. Would it have been different in another izakaya joint, I don’t know, I would have to try more izakaya joints than I already have to answer this, but the Japanese drinking culture originated in once smoky taverns frequented by businessmen and its New Worldly repercussions in the form of Ariyoshi are definitely worth a try. And unless you indulge in high-quality sake, the izakaya cuisine won’t break the bank, either.

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