Sunday, September 19, 2010

Umi No Ie: A Hidden Beach House in the East Village

Umi No Ie, a quaint Japanese bar and restaurant that feeds patrons home-cooked specialities from the Goto Islands, is supposed to be an East Village secret. It's tucked along a side street without signage and is easily missed if you're not looking for it. Because of its intimate setting and extensive list of obscure quality shochus, we'd like to keep this place to ourselves, but it seems like the word is already spreading.

This relaxed spot is run by friends Mika Okui and Mutsumi Tanaka, who is from the Goto Islands, located west of Nagasaki in Kyushu Prefecture. Umi No Ie, or "Beach House," is home-like and unpretentious in every way, from the DIY beach-themed decor of fishing nets, surfboards, and straw mats, to its simple, honest food and service. Visitors can seat themselves at the bar and easily chat up the bartender/cook. It looks and feels like someone's house.

Goto Island cuisine is characterized by the use of agodashi, a broth made with dried flying fish as opposed to dried bonito and konbu used in the common Japanese dashi, ichiban-dashi. We ordered the Goto Udon, a simple bowl of udon that swam in an agodashi soup. Handmade by Ms. Tanaka's father in the Goto Islands, these were special thin udon noodles that were about the same thickness of lo mein noodles with a distinct al dente texture and a fresh flavor. The kakuni (pork belly) tasted like it was also simmered in agodashi, and it was tender enought that it easily fell off our chopsticks. We also tried the dried manta ray (eihire), one of the more exotic items on the menu, and it became our favorite because of its snackability; we couldn't get enough of it. It tasted like dried cuttlefish but meatier and was great with mayo.

The menu also had a handful of the usual Japanese food suspects such as edamame, gyoza, karaage, hijiki, and onigiri, and the portions are generally small. If you're up for surprises, get the tasting menu for $35, which is about seven dishes of whatever the cook feels like cooking that night. 

We can't talk about Umi No Ie without mentioning the bar, the focal point of this narrow space. They have one of the largest selection of shochu that we've seen made from such grains as potato, rice, soba, and sugar. There's even novelty flavors like carrot, sesame, date, and citrus. Hama no Imota, a sweet potato shochu, is the star of Umi No Ie's drink menu that is made by Chiyomusubi Shuzo Co., a 120-year-old sake brewery. It has a chameleon-like quality that accompanies any food well, with a sweetish taste on initial sip and a slightly alcholic aftertaste. Hama no Imota is requested so much that it is even kept in Umi No Ie's special bottle given to them by Chiyomusubi Shuzo Co. Another great thing about the bar is that if you can't finish your bottle, they can keep it on the shelves for you to finish at your next visit.

At the Soul Food Festival, they'll be serving their special Goto Udon, grilled corn, Japanese snacks, and grilled skewers. If you're in the neighborhood and looking for somewhere low key and a home-cooked meal, remember to drop by Umi No Ie!

I forgot my camera when we went to Umi No Ie, so here are some photos of what we ordered borrowed from Yelp:
Goto Udon
Kakuni (pork belly)
Eihire (dried fin of manta ray)

Some shots of the restaurant:

Umi No Ie at previous JapanTown festivals:

Umi No Ie
86 East Third Street
New York, NY 10003
(between First Avenue and Second Avenue)

Monday through Thursday, 7 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Friday and Saturday until 2 a.m.


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