Japonais, a big-box Asian restaurant that once dispensed fruity saketinis, closed last year, making way for a big-box Asian restaurant with a DJ booth and "zero-calorie" noodles.
This is Kibo Japanese Grill, the latest New York offering from Stephen Hanson, the private equity-backed restaurateur behind chains like Bill's Bar & Burger, Dos Caminos and Strip House. Will there be more Kibos? Perhaps, if they're smaller. The Gramercy Park spot was half-empty at 7:30 on a Saturday night. Opening a 299-seat venue in post-recession New York may be the ultimate hubris.
Robuchon signed off?
Kibo's chief draw is that the Japanese offerings were "designed" by Joël Robuchon. Did he really sign off on the sriracha spicy tuna rolls, which taste little different from the maki I used to eat at a Columbia University cafeteria?
Kibo's crispy shrimp ($12) could easily substitute as an appetizer at the Outback Steakhouse. Bland chicken teriyaki with asparagus ($14) proved to be a breast doused in what tasted like KC Masterpiece barbecue sauce. Sushi was prepared with overcooked rice.
Cod is $28, and it's pretty great: silky flesh with a sweet hint of miso. Just as good is sun fish with shallots and peas in ponzu broth ($24). Tofu, crunchy on the outside, oozes like good ricotta. Beef tartare is soft and creamy, with a gentle zing of wasabi and chili-and-fava bean paste. Curried cauliflower with fresh coriander is flavorful enough to satisfy the veggie phobic.
The room's "coup de theatre" is a glass cube in which a man plays with fire, placing skewers of meat, chicken, fish and vegetables over the robata grill. "Boneless chicken wings" pack twice the flavor of regular fowl; branzino skin is gently crisped.
Cocktails taste like sugary college bar creations; some are spiked with the likes of Hawaiian-punch syrup. Try Kibosake on draft, an assertive, almost spirit-like rice wine that cleanses the palate, only $10 a carafe.
Zero-calorie diet noodles are served in fatty ramen broth. Instead, order the regular noodles in a restorative coriander-shellfish broth. Pork ramen is generic, with too little pork flavor, too much ginger. Ho-hum short ribs and forgettable crab rice also are skippable.
Tiny pineapple sorbet ice cream cones come in threes. There were four of us. Could the kitchen send out a fourth cone for a few extra dollars? The server shook his head.
WHERE 111 E. 18th St.
PRICE Most dishes under $30
INSIDE TIP Nice yogurt mango parfait for dessert
SPECIAL FEATURE Great miso soup
INFO 212-824-2770, kibonyc.com