A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Friday, March 25, 2005

Mar. 25.


Win49 - 205 Allen St., Lower East Side
Chirashi sushi, Udon noodle soup, hijiki salad

Sometimes I go out with a plan and sometimes I just like to wander. Today was a wandering day as I set out south to see what I could find. With nothing in mind but a cheap lunch, I traveled down Clinton St. and came up short. I went east across Rivington and briefly considered ‘Inoteca, but I knew I’d overdo it there. So defeated and hungry, I turned north onto Allen and rewound back toward the East Village. Then spotting the bright pink sign of Win49, I realized I’d stumbled upon my place.

I’ve long been meaning to check out Win49, won over by its sign with the odd pig logo and the promise of “homey Japanese food.” Going in only made me more curious, as I learned that it specialized in kushikatsu, which are fried and breaded Japanese skewers of various vegetables or meats. I wasn’t in the mood for that today but the expansive variety of snacks for the tasting did plenty to stoke my appetite. Salads, soups, sushi, shumai, donburi and bento boxes, among other tasty treats, all begged to be picked like puppies at a pound. Of course, being magnanimous, I did my best to oblige as many as I could.

I started with a tray of chirashi sushi from the refrigerated display. What could have been a boring, stale Daikichi assortment was delicious and well-prepared. The fresh tuna, yellowtail and salmon sashimi came on a layer of sticky white rice, but it was the extras that distinguished the chirashi. The fish was decorated with three soybeans. It came with a small scoop of terrific and unexpected spicy lobster salad. There were even enoki mushrooms and vegetables waiting on the other end of the tray. Best of all, it was a bargain at $4.50.

The next item I tried was the udon noodle soup. This too wasn’t anything radical but it was well-made. The soup base was salty and had a soy flavor, very reminiscent of miso, which contrasted well with the thick, subtle udon. I was also given the choice of topping, between bean curd and vegetable tempura. I went with the former, but found it too sweet and cloying, out of place in the salty soup. Next time I would try the tempura.

I finished with a hijiki salad. This again was unsurprisingly delicious, with the dark seaweed, carrot slivers and chunks of bean curd full of strong and rich flavor. Fitting in with the other items I’d tried, it was merely a great rendition of a typical Japanese food but that was all right by me. After all, this is what Win49 aims for, with its self-proclaimed focus on homey foods. In a land where too many chefs are derailed by Icarus ambitions, it’s refreshing to see a place that may not be a destination but is easily deserving of a wander. 7/10


Tab Tos - 543 E. 5th St., East Village
Octopus Salad with Spicy Lemon Dressing, Spicy Tab Tos Roll, a can of Pokka green tea, a green tea mochi ice cream

Blame it on Masa (see Feb. 2). Since going there, I've barely been able to eat sushi. Any other place just suffered too much in inevitable comparison. That’s the only reason I haven’t been back to Tab Tos in so long, and today, I decided it was time to break the streak.

Ever since Tab Tos opened, with four tables in a tiny space in Alphabet City, I’ve been there to enjoy it. For the first few weeks, I’d sometimes go three nights in a row, because there was so much to try. When it closed for a month after Thanksgiving, I felt like a baby left on a doorstep. When it reopened at year’s end, but there was no room to eat in the restaurant, I literally ran back to my apartment with takeout in hand because I was so excited.

Tab Tos actually has much in common with Win49 (see Lunch today) in that it aims for hominess. The walls are decorated with ears of maize, overalls, branches and other country tchotchkes. The restaurant is run by a family, with the father cooking and the mother and two young daughters alternating as waitresses. At the end of the meal, they bring you Japanese chocolates or a bowl of grapes or, today, two buttery sugar cookies. In short, it’s the kind of place you really root for.

That isn’t to say the food isn’t of great quality too. Considering the minimal prices, the amazing specials and the proportionally high level of fish, Tab Tos is perhaps the best Japanese deal in town. For example, I ordered my usual, the Spicy Tab Tos roll, which also comes with the choice of accompanying soup, salad or maki. And I’m not talking about wimpy Iceberg lettuce doused in carrot-ginger dressing salads. I’m talking about a hulking bowl of superb greens, carrots, cucumbers, buckwheat noodles, spicy lemon dressing, and slabs of octopus big enough to be the villain in the next Peter Benchley novel. This salad alone could make for a terrific meal.

The maki too is quite special. If it were up to me, I’d just call it the Tab Tos roll, because it isn’t spicy. But this giant creation filled with tuna, cucumber, avocado and asparagus is worthy of being the house roll. Its outside features a dusting of some green and red herbs and all in all, it’s quite a great treat. I’m still not totally sold on the massive size of the Spicy Tab Tos (one piece is as big as two normal pieces) because it can be a challenge to eat for newcomers. I’ve long since learned how to do it – put the first half in your mouth and then use the chopsticks to nudge in the second half – but sometimes I also wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to just make a regular-sized roll. (My other pause came with my choice of green tea, which canned and cold, was not a good call.)

Even for all of its homey touches, Tab Tos likes to stand out though. Like Jewish grandmothers, they want to give you big bowls of great soup on top of the main course. They want to give you as much value for your money as possible. They want to put in extra touches of effort that you’ll never witness at a chain. And while they’ll never earn four stars, Tab Tos was thirty-seven times less expensive than Masa but showed a hundred percent of the love. 8/10


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