As befits a place surrounded by water, Long Island does not want for sushi. Rare is the town without its own neighborhood sushi bar or sushi chef wielding a high-carbon sashimi knife.
Yet while Japanese food might be synonymous with raw, finely cut seafood, the Japanese do not live by hamachi alone. Like people the world over, they like to drink — often sake, the ubiquitous rice wine — and have developed an entire body of bar snacks that complement sake with aplomb. Some snacks are battered and fried, others raw or barely seared, and many of them lurk undiscovered on the menus of sushi bars.
In Japan, these small plates are found in drinking establishments called izakaya — bars where beer, sake and shochu are consumed, but always alongside an array of bar snacks.
“When you’re drinking in Japan, there’s always food,” said Harris Salat, co-author (with chef Tadashi Ono) of the 2013 book “Japanese Soul Cooking: Ramen, Tonkatsu, Tempura and More From the Streets and Kitchens of Tokyo and Beyond.” “There’s an entire menu that revolves around drinking, umami, rich and savory foods that open your palate for sake.”
Salat, who owns a Brooklyn ramen bar called Ganso Ramen, 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, fried chicken; yakitori, skewers of grilled meat and seafood.
“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 and 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.”
While Long Island doesn’t have a dedicated izayaka bar, a handful of the island’s Japanese restaurants have robust menus of tasty nibbles, from skewers of grilled eel to takoyaki, Japanese-style wings to tempura local fish.
Torigo Japanese Restaurant
Torigo Japanese Restaurant (196 Jericho Tpke., Floral Park): Torigo feels like a romantic Japanese bistro, and while chef-owner Tony San is almost fanatical about sourcing uber-fresh fish for sushi, ease your way there with Torigo’s excellent hot, salty or barely seared snacks, such as isomaki fry — fluke and slivered scallions rolled into seaweed, battered and then lightly fried. It’s akin to a tempura sushi roll, but more delicate. There’s gyoza, yakitori skewers and kara-age. More info: 516-352-1116, torigorestaurant.com
Isomaki fry, a deep-fried seaweed roll filled with white fish and scallions at Japanese Torigo Japanese Restaurant in Floral Park.
Takumi (149-03 Veterans Memorial Hwy., Commack): Japanese-owned restaurants are rare on Long Island. A Japanese-owned restaurant with its own Tumblr, even more so. Takumi, owned by the husband-and-wife team of Yukio and Kiyomi Okamura, hits both points with their decade-old spot. Yukio Okamura began working as a chef at age 15, apprenticing with other chefs and working at Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji fish market. And while he can assemble some mean sashimi, order some hot dishes and Okamura will dash into the back to cook them himself. The izakaya-style dishes — such as chewy takoyaki showered with bonito flakes, or unagi kogushi yaki, skewers of grilled eel slathered in house-made eel sauce — whet the appetite for more, or even just some sake. Kiyomi Okamura will ask your preference — dry, sweet, milky — and then bring out a few bottles for you to choose from (there are at least 25 types of sake in the back). The Asabiraki Suijin sake, from Irate, is very dry but with a touch of umami funk that elevates all kinds of food, such as the menu’s Yuki’s pizza, a giant shrimp-cracker that’s topped with raw fish, wasabi salmon roe and drizzled mayo. More info: 631-543-0101, takuminy.com
Unagi kogushi yaki, or skewers of barbecued eel, with a house-made eel sauce at Takumi in Commack.
Stirling Sake (477 Main St., Greenport): Befitting its name, Stirling Sake’s list of rice wines is encyclopedic, hopscotching through multiple styles and dotted with unusual choices such as red-pepper-plum sake and an earthy, gently sweet sake from Hiroshima called Kamoizumi Kome Kome. You can sample three in a rotating sake flight or choose from nine types of shochu, a liquor distilled from rice, sweet potato, barley or sugar cane. Before you dive headlong into Stirling’s sushi or ramen, don’t overlook chef-owner Yuki Mori’s unusual raw and hot snacks, such as kaburamaki, slivers of salmon, shiso and avocado wrapped in paper-thin turnip and dotted with a spicy miso sauce or tiny, plump shumai stuffed with pork. If fortune is smiling, one of the night’s specials might be featherlight tempura cod. More info: 631-477-6782, stirlingsake.com
Tempura cod, an occasional special at Stirling Sake in Greenport, comes with a spicy-sweet dipping sauce.
Koiso (540 Westbury Ave., Carle Place): While sushi devotees have flocked to Koiso for decades to indulge in owner and sushi chef Kikumatsu Mitsumori’s beautifully cut fish, he puts equal care into Koiso’s hot small plates. Mitusmori makes seared, oversized gyoza from scratch and draws on a long-standing family recipe for its filling of pork, cabbage, leek, scallion and ginger. And Koiso’s nasu shigi is exquisite: Small, slivered jewels of Japanese eggplant tumbled in a miso sauce and showered with finely cut scallions and ginger. Koiso has only one cold sake on the menu, Kizakura Pure, a medium-bodied junmai sake with litchi notes that gracefully complements the food here. More info: 516-333-3434
Homemade gyoza filled with minced pork, leeks, scallions, ginger, garlic and cabbage at Koiso in Carle Place.
Koi Kokoro (501 Main St., Islip): Sake bottles line the wall ledges of this cozy Islip spot, the creation of chef-owner Don Im. Im was born in South Korea and cut his culinary chops at a Japanese bar-food restaurant in Fukuoka, in western Japan, as well as in several New York City restaurants before opening Koi Kokoro three years ago. While Im trims and plates plenty of sushi, he also plates an eclectic mix of small plates that, he said, “look Korean but taste Japanese,” meaning they have more layered, delicate flavors — such as crispy local bluepoint oysters sheathed in fried kataifi, shredded phyllo dough, then drizzled with a Malaysian hot sauce called Lingham’s. A citrusy house yuzu-infused sake pairs well with chewy wedges of tempura tofu, which come with a trio of sauces. The comparatively quieter, barely seared salmon tataki plays well with Hizo Otokoyama sake, a junmai ginjo style that’s round and fresh, with hints of cucumber. Some of the three dozen or so sakes here come in wine-sized bottles, but Koi Kokoro offers its own spin on a wine locker: Customers can leave unfinished bottles for safe keeping, and finish them during their next visit. More info: 631-650-0307, thekoikokoro.com
Owner and chef Don Im prepares an order of fried bluepoint oysters at Koi Kokoro in Islip.
Ippon Cuisine (6 Bond St., Great Neck): The menu at this Japanese-style gastropub is sweeping, from ramen to sushi to poke bowls to izakaya-style bar snacks. Bite into a fried black croquette ball stained with cuttlefish ink, and its crisp armor gives way to a gooey core of chopped cuttlefish, shrimp and mayo. Ippon’s chewy takoyaki which comes with dashi-spiked butter, and yakitori are penultimate sharing food, whether jagged chunks of chicken thigh, hunks of peppery beef or bacon-wrapped mushrooms and zucchini. There’s plenty of sake on hand, too. More info: 516-829-3811, ipponcuisine.com
Assorted cold and hot sake at Ippon Cuisine in Great Neck.