We're not an izakaya culture, here in North America. We drink at cocktail bars or beer taps, eating first so we can chug more, then stop on the way home for eggs, or a stale, sour-smelling 7-Eleven sub. But enduring five hours of drink and talk, vivid-tasting little dishes washing in and out like the tide? Not many of us have the patience — or the stamina — for that.
My friend Masumi grew up, sort of simultaneously, in Southern California and Japan. Most summers she flies to Tokyo, leading Japanese grad students through a three-week intensive in rhetoric. Nightly izakaya is a de facto part of the course (the university gives her a budget for drinks). "If the students miss the last train they just have to stay and sit there," Masumi says, "trying to sleep for a few hours till the first train in the morning."
She says this seated at the bar at B-Dama, Piedmont Avenue's six-week-old izakaya, as we sip hoppy-tasting Yebisu beer from cold clay cups. She says this with something like relief: Besides Ippuku, this is the only place around here Masumi knows offering anything like a recognizable izakya experience. Unlike Ippuku, though, the food at B-Dama isn't particularly precious, which feels more like izakaya in Japan.
B-Dama's food may not be precious, but much of it is really good. Maybe that's no surprise, given what feels like owner Chikara Ono's pent-up desire for a place like this.
For the past eight years Ono has rolled sushi at Geta, the bathroom-size sushi bar two blocks down on 41st Street — he helped open the place with his brother-in-law, Kosuko, who's co-owner here. Now, after cranking out as many as six hundred maki a night at perennially thronged Geta, Ono has created a fertile place to nurture more nuanced skills.
B-Dama's menu sprawls, izakaya-style. There's yakitori — you tick off selections via Ikea-size store pencil on a printout — a short list of sushi, a board with scraps of paper listing daily specials, and the primary menu, listing dishes by category and from lightest to heaviest: sarada (salads), sunomono (vinegared dishes), aemono, nimono, etc., rolling to a thud with shime (literally, "wrapping up loose ends"), the filling, starchy dishes like udon designed to fortify you for that sprint to the last train.
If you want something that skews more authentically izakaya, stage your drinking in ascending order of damage: beer first with lighter dishes, sake with slightly heavier ones, alcohol-heavy shochu with stews and fried food, and finally — when you're good and hammered and the noodles arrive — tea.
It's clear that the beanie'd Ono has a crackly sense of humor. He says he named the place B-Dama (in Japanese, "marbles") partly as an alphabet riff on Geta (most English-speakers pronounce it "Get-A," long terminal vowel rather than short). Partly also to reference an old-fashioned kids' toy from the dark time before Game Boy — indeed, the Japanese pop trilling softly through the tiny, table-packed dining room is vintage Sixties and Seventies.
Pay attention, and it's easy to cop a flash of Ono's playfulness. The little gift he drops over the sushi counter at Masumi and me as soon as we sit looks like a pair of tiny tofu cubes flecked with panko. In fact, it's cream cheese, shaggy with bits of kasu (sake lees). The effect: sticky milk sweetness with a yeasty, bitter shadow, a small, inspired gesture.
Inspired, too, was Ono's tomato salad, one of many seasonal dishes on the menu. Slices of firm, semiripe tomatoes had the virtues of crunch and acidity, under a crisp ruffle of onion slices teased into submission by long leaching in cold water, threaded with strips of shiso leaf.
Even if you just stick to yakitori — chicken and other skewered stuff, grilled over ogatan (Japanese lump charcoal) — you can't really go wrong. The delight of these is mostly textural. Negima, plush bits of chicken breast threaded with green onion, came off the grill juicy, while butabara (the menu calls it "black pork belly" — I think that means the super-marbly breed known as Kurobuta, aka "black pig") offered up the lusciousness of animal fat. My incisors glanced off whitish nubs of chicken cartilage (nankotsu) before breaking through with a sensation half gnaw, half crunch. Hatsu (chicken hearts) were firm and faintly liver-y, while kawa (chicken skin) was chewy, soft, crisp, and fatty all at the same time.
One thing no carnivore should miss is gyutan stew, beef tongue simmered over the course of two days till it's as soft as the meat that clings to long-braised short ribs. (Softer, actually, since the fibers in tongue are so fine and dense.) The pieces were embedded in a sort of pulpy gravy, a reduction of cooking juices and flavoring elements like carrot and tomato.
Beef tataki wasn't at all what we were expecting. Instead of raw (or all but) beef pounded thin, Ono presented a huge plate of half a dozen cold slices cooked medium-well. They were from the cap of a cow's rib (trim from a prime rib roast, in other words), whorled with creamy fat — not bad, in their pool of ponzu sauce and those same leached onions. But the portion? Big enough for six — Ono's bid to please protein-loving non-Japanese, perhaps. A heap of vinegared magurokawa — stiff, pewter-colored strips of tuna skin in ponzu, under matchstick strips of Japanese potato (nagaimo) — would have been better shrunk down, too.
We pushed the bowl aside and waited for our finisher, takikomi gohan, a homely rice casserole — unusual on menus here — cooked in dashi, studded with bits of burdock root and the starchy jelly konnyaku, with chewy gnarls from the bottom of the cooking pot. After all the pointedly textural dishes we'd put our chopsticks to, it was the edible equivalent of a bed pillow — I swear if I'd been drunk enough I would've wanted to lay my head down and wait for the first train.