When moviegoers saw Scarlett Johansson sing karaoke to Bill Murray in the 2003 flick Lost in Translation, everyone wanted to visit Japan, the new international capital of cool. We’ve adopted Yohji Yamamoto, Pokémon and Iron Chef. And there’s nothing we’d like to import more than Tokyo’s pulsing, neon-lit nightlife. With three recently opened restaurant/night spots invoking aspects of the new Far East, Philadelphia is joining other big cities in the quest to co-opt the cool factor of 21st-century Japan.
Azie opened on State Street in Media in the space that recently housed the dingy, dated West End Saloon. Owned by Win and Sudita Somboonsong, who also operate Teikoku and a clutch of other Asian-inflected restaurants in the western suburbs, Azie is billed as offering “global” cuisine, though the menu’s primary influence is obviously Japan. Both main players in the kitchen, executive chef Takao Iinuma and chef de cuisine Kazuyuki Mitsui, trained and worked there before coming to the U.S. to cook for Masaharu Morimoto at his flagship here in Philadelphia.
Azie’s stylish interior, complete with exquisite Italian chandeliers, white banquettes and natural stone details, is so polished and urbane that it’s easy to forget you’re in the quaint hamlet of Media. The suburban neighborhood is so excited to have access to this glam new spot that everyone is knocking back too many saketinis, and the noise roars. The revelry parallels Japan’s work-hard-drink-hard ethos, but it doesn’t match the restrained and dignified design.
Sushi rolls and appetizers are Azie’s best achievements. Tuna canapés sandwich a nori sheet between two layers of flattened and crispy sushi rice topped with silken raw tuna. The lean snap of the rice plays off the richness of the fish for a memorable mouthfeel. A yellowtail and salmon ceviche delivers velvety slices of fish in an intense bath of puckery jalapeño-spiked citrus. Shaved red onion, grape tomatoes and orange segments add even bigger flavor to the diminutive dish. The Azie roll is another raw-fish winner, with minced tuna and crackling bits of panko under sheets of thin-sliced avocado and a drizzle of spicy mayo.
Entrées are more subtle in their flavor combinations, but larger plates that hew to Japanese traditions are generally well executed. A honey-mustard miso-glazed black cod is served with a tangle of wild mushrooms. The fish is perfectly cooked, moist and soft, but the skin is flabby, and a few missed pin bones tarnish the overall dish. The yakitori bowl, a pillow of white rice and a few bland pieces of chicken, is dull by comparison. The Kobe hot rock features a meager portion of the prized beef, whiskered with thin veins of lush fat that’s all too easy to destroy with an extra split second on the sizzling rock. The accompanying soy-based dipping sauce all but obliterates the pricy meat’s flavor.
Attempts to bring a “global” sensibility to essentially Asian dishes — like the shrimp, chicken and vegetable tempura served with an off-putting cheese fondue — make the clearly skilled kitchen seem like it doesn’t know what it’s doing. Azie would do well to embrace its Morimoto pedigree and offer more sushi options — and include sashimi, which is conspicuously absent.
Japanese influence flowers in Center City as well, with the city’s first legit karaoke bar, Yakitori Boy in Chinatown. The restaurant’s cream and dark-wood interior, long sushi bar and moody hatbox lights set a scene that’s swankier than most Chinatown hangouts, but still dressed down. Servers dart around the room sporting identical karate-esque uniforms, heads encircled by cartoonish red bandanas that make them easy to spot even if they are hard to flag down. The aggregate effect is of a Stephen Starr dojo/nightclub.
When done just right, few bar snacks rival the effortless perfection of yakitori: bite-size hunks of simply seasoned meat threaded on skewers and quickly seared on the outside, leaving a juicy, tender interior. Here on 11th Street, though, the beef is gristly, the chicken is stringy, and nothing shows the burnished crisp of properly scorching heat. But there are bright spots on the yakitori menu, including the bacon-wrapped quail egg, a kind of breakfast classic on a stick, and the tiny, tender chicken meatballs. The hot-dog-like pork sausage skewers offer a guilty, greasy pleasure.
Yakitori Boy’s laminated (and color-photo-illustrated) diner-sized menu goes far beyond meat on sticks, which might explain the kitchen’s inability to do any one genre really well. Sushi is served in three-bite half rolls, encouraging diners to taste a wider variety in the spirit of japas, Yakitori Boy’s too-cute nickname for Japanese small plates. A tasting spree would be appealing if the sushi were more so; a recent yellowtail specimen was carelessly rolled and so icy cold it may have just defrosted. Two deep-fried dishes — rubbery squid and spongy shrimp — coated lackluster seafood in a greaseless, light batter. But some of these small plates succeed, like the buta kimchi, a plate of sour-spicy cabbage and too-few slices of flavorful grilled pork, and the dumplings, including the crispy pork, skull-tingling wasabi and crunchy vegetable.
But as any late-night dinner concludes, you’re likely to see the secret to what will be Yakitori Boy’s real contribution to the city scene: tipsy groups and twosomes headed up the elevator to the private karaoke cocoons to croon Elvis tunes and call down to the bar for another round of beers.
Pearl, a new Rittenhouse resta-club by the owners of Red Sky, also has a strong nightlife focus. Outlets like this aren’t known for their food, but Pearl’s credentialed chef, Ari Weiswasser, formerly of Striped Bass, plans on plying the dance-floor-bound crowd with serious pan-Asian cuisine. Sampling his dishes will require you to work your way through the overcrowded bar area where lawyers and analysts swarm, buying $14 cocktails for the false-eyelash set.
If you sit in one of the dining room’s cushy faux-suede banquettes, separated by twinkling beaded curtains that are one part hippie, one part Mardi Gras, the stereo’s bass will pulse your chair. Designed by DAS Architects, the room does dazzle from a distance. Place mats sparkle as though they are woven from silver filaments. Servers wear glossy black neckties; managers patrol the room in sharp power suits. The space is suffused with a blue glow from the moody lights.
Close up, though, those place mats are plasticky silicone, and the low-pile rug recalls a Denny’s, especially when a manager whips out a sweeper to spot-clean a spill. Toward the ceiling, gaps in the design reveal bare fluorescent fixtures; look closely, and you might spot the curling black tails of their wires. Under a little sober scrutiny, the whole thing looks hastily tacked together, like it might be a shoe store by day, restaurant by night.
As at Azie, the smaller plates offer more creative and better-executed dishes. A presentation of yellowtail sashimi, sliced thin, kissed with citrus and fine pink salt, tastes clean and balanced. A hefty spring roll capitalizes on duck’s unctuous texture by enveloping it in a crispy shell. Flash-grilled hamachi emerges from the kitchen a bit more cooked than expected, but the accompanying emulsion of nori and cumin rescues the dish. Pork pot stickers are held together with a veil of dough so thin, it’s transparent.
Servers rightly tout these small plates; the kitchen has clearly focused its attention for a club crowd that craves lighter bites, and entrées here feel like afterthoughts. Go with the flow, or you may end up with a salmon pad Thai that combines an overcooked fillet with fettuccine-like noodles and a thin sauce that lacks the complex pungency of lemongrass, tamarind, dried shrimp paste and fish sauce. Flavorful but overcooked five-spice duck breast, served with coins of peppery daikon, fares slightly better but is markedly less delicious than the pork rib appetizer, fragrant with cilantro soy sauce.
After 10 p.m., the crowd is herded upstairs, where DJs and dancing reign. Here, on the dance floor and in private booths with bottle service, is where the club emerges from its restaurant shell. The right mix of people, favorable mood lighting and another cocktail or two might make Pearl seem hip enough to be in Tokyo.
Average entrée price: $20.
Best Beverage Bet: The Morimoto-ish saketini.
Go For: Small plates with big flavor; a chic oasis in the strip-mall-crowded ’burbs.
Average entrée price: $15 for a cluster of “japas.”
Best Beverage Bet: Sapporo beer.
Go For: The private karaoke rooms.
Average entrée price: $25.
Best Beverage Bet: The light, crisp and gingery Kakujo sake.
Go For: Light bites followed by drinks and dancing.