Friday, July 15, 2005
Restaurant 51: Kenka
Clockwise from top left: Pork Pancake with barbeque sauce; Spring Rolls; Crab Omelet; Ginger Pork.
LOCATION: 25 St. Marks Pl. (E. 8th St, East Village)
DATE: July 10, 2005
FOOD: Pork Pancake; Egg and Crab Omelet served over Rice; Miso Soup; Japanese Pickles; House Salad; Ginger Pork with Rice; Spring Rolls
BEVERAGE: Sapporo; Tap Water
Walk down the stairs from St. Marks Street and you enter a different world. A world with many of the characteristics of a typical Japanese restaurant, but in which everything is slightly askew. It’s a world that starts to come to life at 10 pm, but doesn’t hit full swing until after the witching hour. The aura of inebriated weekends and endless nights coalesce, loading the air thickly with drunken possibility. And throughout the glam music, the excited conversations, and beer bottles, wafts the smell of enticing Japanese food. A minute ago you were in the East Village, now you’re in Kenka, which Bloomberg should declare a separate city within this city, like Vatican City in Rome. Kenka is the Bizarro World of Japanese food in New York. And like watching Seinfeld, it’s something everyone must try.
So order a Sapporo and saddle up, for though you’ve graduated college, late night eating shouldn’t be something that stopped once you received a diploma. Kenka is a late nighter’s paradise, serving the type of dishes intoxicated stomachs beg for. And with prices indicating the Yen still hasn’t recovered, there’s every reason to order a lot. Salty and sweet Japanese pickles, at a dollar an order, provide the added sodium to further the dehydrating effects of the alcohol, sure to enhance the hangover of tomorrow’s morn. But they’re worth it, crunchy and addictive. In lieu of French fries or another donor of craved for grease, the spring rolls were a nimble adaptation, filled with vegetables and adequately satisfying. Ordering one of the house special entrees entitles you to both an excellent, if traditional Miso soup and a lettuce salad coated in a sickening amount of ginger dressing, which if used in more controlled quantities, might have been pleasant. As it was, the dressing made the lettuce limp and soggy, neither of which sounds appropriate for a body craving bold and greasy tastes.
Luckily, the salad is an afterthought, the main dishes the Murikami imagination of the experience. Even the most casual viewer of Iron Chef will notice Chef’s Masaharu Morimoto’s love of thin Japanese omelets, but few normal sushi-dominant restaurants offer the crepe-like eggs. Kenka is an exception and their omelet, though it would be unappealing as a breakfast food, is simply marvelous for a post-midnight feast. Loaded with enough crab to keep Maryland’s crabbing industry in business for years to come, everything about the omelet flashed with the same fluorescence as Tokyo’s neon signs. Steamed white rice contributed a wholesomely grainy base, to contrast the feathery egg and crab mixture placed on top. Perhaps it was the alcohol, but one almost expected the omelet to scream, in the words of the band Franz Ferdinand, “Ich Heise Super Fantastic”. Oddly, the eggs remained silent.
Silence was not a problem, however, for the ginger pork. Brash and forceful, the flavor of the ginger flirted with the perfectly browned pork like a university coed attempting to solicit an A from a professor. In appearance, this pork seemed like something you’d find at a Chinese restaurant, but the splendid layering of ginger with the pork fat, made this a distinctly Kenka-Japanese wonder.
The pork pancake was less Tokyo, more Texas. With the same level of reserve and nuance you’d expect to find in a Bush State of the Union Address, the egg based pancake was slathered in a bum steer sized quantity of American barbeque sauce. Barbeque sauce?!!!! On a Japanese pancake?!!! That’s right, barbeque sauce, and far too much of it. For the rest of the pork pancake was a supple study in contrasts, the delicate nature of the pancake and crunchy fish flakes responding well to the weight of the meat. But the barbeque sauce, like other things from Texas, invaded all else around it, overwhelming and finally turning the dish to saccharine failure. While it’s outstanding that Kenka is willing to take risks and remodel Japanese cuisine, it shouldn’t forget the austerity and reserved preparation of its heritage.
If all innovation requires a bit of lunacy to succeed, Kenka does to Japanese food what Einstein did to Newton’s Laws. Kenka is your crazy uncle, the guy who knows he’s too old to be hitting on 20-something girls, but who does it anyway, the guy who you know you shouldn’t encourage, but the spectacle he provides is so entertaining, you keep volunteering your friends as test cases for his “game” anyway. Kenka serves Japanese food seemingly prepared by chefs as drunk on novelty as the majority of NYU students, East Village hipsters, and misplaced Yuppies who make up the restaurant’s clientele are on Beam and Cokes. Nothing is as it seems. If Willy Wonka made sushi and ramen instead of candy, Kenka would be his laboratory. Though nothing at Kenka evenly remotely resembles an Oompaloopah, the meal does end with a trip to the cotton candy machine by Kenka’s door, one more carnival aspect for the night, the logical conclusion to the fun and irresponsibility felt while eating.
Posted by Vincent Rossmeier at Friday, July 15, 2005