“For fans of the thigh skewer, you have to try our bicep.” As was a frequent late-night ritual, I was scrolling through Instagram, scanning suggestive photos of izakaya. The caption, a haiku of sorts underneath a photo of charred chicken on a stick, was posted by a bar on the other side of the world. I crushed hard on this, followed by photos of fried horse mackerel on sticks and grilled prawns in miso butter.
We all have our preferred food fetishes, and I discovered one of mine when I fell for izakaya, a style of Japanese cooking and eating that originated during the 18th century in the sake shops of Japan. What began as small bites offered to customers blossomed over centuries into the tapas-like dishes in Japanese gastropubs, also called izakaya, where friends might linger for hours, eating and drinking.
Much more recently, as izakaya spread to the United States, I’d ranged far and wide to find it — to Bushwick for skewers of grilled rabbit tsukune (meatballs), or to a San Francisco izakaya for silken house tofu doused in soy milk and shoyu (Japanese soy sauce). One December, I trekked deep into an iffy Providence, R.I., neighborhood after midnight for elusive chicken-skin skewers, glistening with fat and audibly crisp.
I hadn’t been able to indulge much on Long Island, though, where the appetite for sushi is epic, inexhaustible and knows no seasons. Tracking down izakaya was like chasing pieces of a disjointed puzzle. There were crunchy shards of kara-age, or fried chicken thighs, at Torigo in Floral Park, and takoyaki, or fried, battered octopus balls, at Takumi in Commack, where owners Yukio and Kiyomi Okamura pour a super-smooth Asabiraki Suijin sake to complement skewers of barbecued eel. At the adorable Shoshaku in Great Neck, an array of sakes are on hand to drink alongside small bites such as creamy mentai udon, noodles slathered in butter and mayo and laced with mentaiku (cod roe). To find nasu shigi, slivered jewels of Japanese eggplant slathered in miso sauce and inlaid with wispy scallions and ginger, I could go to Koiso in Carle Place. And for crisp Blue Point oysters armored in shredded phyllo dough, fried and drizzled with Malaysian hot sauce, down to Koi Kokoro in Islip, where chef-owner Don Im’s buoyant cooking is backed by a supporting cast of dozens of sakes that snake along the walls of the room. Out East, there is the delicate steamed ankimo (monkfish liver) at Stirling Sake in Greenport. All these places have something in common: They are thought of primarily as sushi restaurants, where these snacks only serve as a gateway to raw fish and specialty rolls.
Then, earlier this fall, it finally happened — Long Island landed two dedicated izakaya. One, Meet Izakaya, began offering yakitori, sake and a few Americanized appetizers in Rockville Centre. The other is a long-anticipated reinvention of a former Quiznos place (and, later, a pizzeria) in Lindenhurst, done in reds and blacks, metal and cherry blossoms, and almost illicit charm. Named Bakuto, for the itinerant Japanese gamblers of the 19th century (and decorated with the tattoo designs that covered those gamblers’ backs), it’s a years’- long dream realized for chef-owner Zach Rude.
Earlier in Rude’s career, he caught the same izakaya bug I did. “I fell in love [with izakaya] immediately and played with Japanese food for a really, really long time,” said Rude. That early obsession lasted through stints cooking on Fire Island and elsewhere, only to be followed by a “hard and fast” fall into regional Mexican cuisine (the theme of his first restaurant, Verde, in Bay Shore), but Rude always knew he would come back to izakaya. “I was dying to get back to it.”
The heart of Bakuto’s izakaya approach is robatayaki (fireside cooking), composed skewers that Rude sears over Binchotan charcoal on an imported Japanese grill. The chef works this searing-hot monster of steel and flame in an open kitchen, turning out duck tsukune with deep grill marks, chicken wings brined in green tea, soy and honey, and tilefish with puréed charred leeks and dashi butter.
Izakaya is, at its core, a celebration of food and camaraderie. Most of the food is meant to be shared alongside free- flowing sake and mixed drinks (at Bakuto, those come from bartender Patrick Capellini). That said, there are traditional well- trodden ways in and out of the meal. Harris Salat, who once owned Ganso Ramen in Brooklyn and co-authored a book on Japanese soul food, said a night of drinking and eating in a Tokyo izakaya might start with a Japanese lager, then segue into sake and finger foods — dishes such as tatsuta-age (chicken that’s been marinated in soy sauce, then coated in potato starch and fried) and yakitori, skewered chicken. “In an izakaya, you might drink a lot, but there’s usually a huge menu of all kind of stuff that’s raw, deep-fried, grilled, steamed or simmered, and goes well with sake, shochu and beer,” Salat said. “Foods come out as they’re prepared, and you keep ordering a procession of dishes, and discovering all of these flavors.”
At Bakuto, a delicate porgy crudo with slivers of crisp garlic and shiso might pave the way for more electric flavors, which in turn may lead to a bowl of housemade udon noodles, or pork ramen in a broth that’s taken two days to cook.
Rude doesn’t see a deep difference between Mexican and Japanese food. At the heart of both is vibrancy and ebullience. “Robatayaki is open and primal, and the Japanese tinkered with it and refined it over centuries,” Rude said. “We wanted to break the rules a little bit, and put our spin on it.”
BAKUTO: 121 N. Wellwood Ave., Lindenhurst; 631-225-1760, bakutobar.com
KOI KOKORO: 501 Main St., Islip; 631-650-0307, thekoikokoro.com
KOISO: 540 Westbury Ave., Carle Place; 516-333-3434
MEET IZAKAYA: 216 Sunrise Hwy., Rockville Centre; 516-618-9190, meetizakaya.com
SHOSHAKU: 68 Middle Neck Rd., Great Neck; 516-780-0677, shoshaku.com
STIRLING SAKE: 477 Main St., Greenport; 631-477-6782, stirlingsake.com
TAKUMI: 149-03 Veterans Memorial Hwy., Commack; 631-543-0101, takuminy.com
TORIGO JAPANESE RESTAURANT: 196 Jericho Tpke., Floral Park; 516-352-1116, torigorestaurant.com