Zenkichi: Winner of Billyburg’s Most Romantic
Too bad my good friend Daryl and I aren’t madly in love because we accidentally stumbled upon the most romantic restaurant I’ve been to yet in New York City. Williamsburg’s traditional Japanese brasserie Zenkichi is modeled after popular Tokyo dining destinations, complete with semi-private dining booths, authentic Tokyo-style tapas/small plates, and an extensive sake menu.
The maddeningly seductive space is dark and warm, coccoon-like, and parsed into individual dining boothes separated by walls and roll-up screens. The close quarters can be a bit cramped, yet definitely encourage conversation and interaction over food and drink. The tatami-like screen shields you from neighboring conversations, loud music, or any other distraction – and from attracting servers’ attention. To solve this issue, a small buzzer is at your disposal to call waitstaff at any point (and they are remarkably responsive). Soft lighting casts shadows over the dark wooden booths, and only the hum of distant talk (or in my case, the screams of a recently-engaged couple) interrupts conversation.
The menu is small-plates focused, seafood-heavy, and tantalizingly unusual. Zenkichi does not purport to be your typical sushi or yakitori joint; in fact, it strives to differentiate itself from the horde of upscale sushi spots that litter Manhattan and the outer boroughs. There is not a single sushi roll on the menu, and many traditionally European ingredients such as Camembert cheese make cameos. The staff recommends 3-4 small dishes per person; however, Daryl and I were satiated with just 2 dishes each (and 1 dessert for both).
We sampled the Scallops & Uni Gratin, the seasonal Grilled Rice Balls, Chazuke with Grilled Salmon Belly, the Honey-Ginger Duck Breast, and the Kabocha Chocolate Pudding. The Scallops & Uni Gratin tasted remarkably like the potato gratin my mother used to make with dinner: creamy, cheesy, and decadent. Perhaps the least favorite dish of the night, both Daryl and I wished for more uni and less cream. The grilled rice balls played to my own love for everything rice and grain; the savory tennis ball-shaped bites of sticky rice were texturally exciting and reminiscent of hearty chicken and mushroom soup. The chazuke course, made from a marvelous dashi broth, can only really be described as tasting exactly like the ocean; it was briny, fresh, and salty (in a good way).
The star of the night, the duck breast, added some much-needed heft to the otherwise light meal. Sweet and packed with umami, the delicate slabs of medium-rare duck breast were perfectly cooked and packed with flavor. Lastly, the dessert course proved that Asian desserts can in fact be just as delicious as fancy French concoctions. The multi-layered parfait-like dessert had a bottom layer of silky smooth dark chocolate pudding, a middle layer of earthy Kabocha pumpkin paste, and a crunchy top layer of what looked to be nuts. Delicieuse, bien sur.
Zenkichi wowed me not only because of the atmosphere’s general novelty factor but also because the food is just really really good. Totally unique from any Japanese restaurant I’ve ever been to, Zenkichi oozes personality and romance, offering a private and supremely intimate dining experience. It comes down to you, your date, and the marvelous food you’re eating (well, and the sake). Note: for your own sanity, only venture out to Zenkichi with someone you really like, whether its a date or a quiet night with your best friend, as you will be stuck in close quarters for quite awhile.