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Tanuki Tavern: Very Kooky

Tonight, I had a bizarre experience in a pink-hued funhouse, otherwise known as Tanuki Tavern. Tanuki, the replacement for Ono in the Gansevoort Hotel, is pretty much nothing like I expected. While the downstairs bar is dimly lit and sufficiently trendy, the rest of the bi-level space looks like it was decorated by a schizophrenic Anime character from the retro 70s. As one of my dining companions remarked, it’s like you’ve stepped into the That ’70s Show. Very low to the ground dining tables of flimsy light wood and similarly low benches of polyester orange pop out against a strange background of stylized pink flowers. As the night wore on, I found the strange wallpaper dizzying and off-putting.

Despite my dislike of the decor, the food was surprisingly good. My initial worry was that it was going to be over-priced, under-seasoned ‘club-restaurant’ food with poor execution. While there were a few bobbles, most of the 8 dishes were very tasty. The concept of the menu is essentially Japanese small-plates or tapas (a fact that was never adequately explained to us by our waiter and that I only knew from my prior reading on the place). My party of 4 ordered 2 plates each and found that number to be just right. Between us, we opted for the King Crab Dynamite, the Lobster Dynamite, the Wagyu Tartare Roll, the Spider Roll, the Clam Linguine, the Oxtail Fried Rice, the Crispy Rice with Spicy Tuna, and the Lobster, Avocado and Fried Tofu.
The Oxtail Fried Rice, Wagyu Tartare Roll, the Little Neck Clam Linguine, and Lobster Dynamite were by far the highlights of the meal. The Fried Rice was addictive – I could eat it every day. The Wagyu Tartare roll was unlike any sushi roll I’ve ever had (probably because it wasn’t based on seafood) and absolutely worth the obscene $21 price tag. The Lobster Dynamite defined decadence: a Maine lobster shell stuffed with steamed lobster meat, rice, and spicy sauce. The Clam Linguine, while a strange menu item for a Japanese tavern, was pure garlicky goodness – sensuous and savory.
The King Crab Dynamite wasn’t as successful, being much sloppier than its lobster cousin. I couldn’t enjoy the crab because it was just too fishy and doused in a thick spicy sauce. The Lobster, Avocado and Fried Tofu lacked a flavor boost – it fell flat when combined with all of the other savory dishes on the table. Each part of the dish muddled together to create an entirely unforgettable dish. The Spider Roll was similarly unforgettable – good but not good enough to truly stand-out. I didn’t enjoy the Crispy Rice with Spicy Tuna – mostly because the rice was MUCH too sweet. It entirely over-powered the tuna.

Unfortunately, it was the service that really sunk this ship. I don’t know what I expected from a notoriously snooty location, but the general treatment of our party was really deplorable. To begin with, both the host and hostess had serious attitude problems (what is with that? no need to be rude.) Our waiter a) barely spoke English, b) neglected to explain the concept of an izakaya which every other waiter around us seemed to do, c) failed to offer us a dessert menu, and d), most ridiculously, asked us to leave immediately after we paid our bill, cocktails unfinished, because another party was waiting. This entire situation was offensive, rude, and irritating. Despite protests from the General Manager that he had no idea this was happening, I am shocked that a restaurant as new as Tanuki Tavern and from such a seasoned restauranteur as Jeffery Chodorow would treat diners that way.

Our fellow diners ranged from curious foodies checking out Chodorow’s new trendy endeavor to gaggles of girls who clearly haunt the Meatpacking Distrcit regularly. Older couples, after-work imbibers, and even families were also in the mix. I definitely expected the scene to be snootier and trendier than it was. Disappointing, I (shamelessly) love people-watching.

I’m on the fence about Tanuki Tavern. The food was above average and very creative, but the general scene rubbed me the wrong way. All in all, the downstairs bar is great for after-work drinks, first-date cocktails, and boozing with buddies, and the food is great for sharing with large groups. However, don’t go here with someone you’re looking to impress or with those finicky about service. Hopefully, the service issues will improve once all the starter kinks are out.

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