Karasu Japanese Speakeasy in Fort Greene

Everyone likes being in on a secret, so here’s a juicy one for you. At Walter’s, a very American and Brooklyn-esque restaurant in Fort Greene, there is a door that leads to Karasu, an elegant Japanese speakeasy hidden in the back. Out goes the scrappy bearded hipster hangout, and in comes the sleek and beautiful black-and-gold cocktail lounge. I felt like I was back at the Hotel Okura in Tokyo, only I was surrounded by white people wearing normcore clothing instead of businessmen wearing suit-and-tie. Different people, similar ambiance.

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dippermouth cocktail in the front, ginger baker drink in the back

Karasu is more of a cocktail bar with small plates to accompany your drink and not the other way around. The drinks list is an extensive and interesting one. You wouldn’t expect anything less from Thomas Waugh, who is the head bartender and made a name for himself at places like ZZ’s Clam Bar and Death & Co. We ordered the Ginger Baker, a refreshing and fruity drink made with ginger and tequila flavored with oolong tea; the Thrice Rice, a smoky and savory cocktail made with Dewar’s infused with rice cakes, and the Dippermouth, another smoky and manly concoction of bourbon, black walnut and creme de banana. All three cocktails were excellent, but if you want something simpler, you can also order some sake, shochu and Japanese whiskeys. We had two cups of the Kamoizumi Summer Snow Sake, an unfiltered and sweet sake that was simply delicious.

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crudo featuring kampachi, koji and shiso
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karaage duck wings with spicy sesame and scallions
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miso potato salad
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tagliatelle pasta with uni and smoky butter

The food features Japanese izakaya favorites like pickles, karaage, sashimi and potato salad, although with a Western twist. One example is the karaage, which is normally prepared as fried chicken, but Karasu re-interprets it as soft duck wings in a spicy sesame sauce that feels more like a teriyaki. There’s also the inventive tagliatelle pasta with uni, which is not something you’d find in any Japanese bar, and the heavy flavors of smoky ham and butter that dominate are very much American. I thought the best dishes were the ones that stayed truest to the Japanese flavor profile, the refreshing and clean crudo of kampachi with shiso and the miso potato salad with sesame and nori.

My favorite moments at Karasu are on the earlier side, when there aren’t as many people and the noise level isn’t so high. You can comfortably carry on a conversation with your dining companions while enjoying the jazzy music in the background, but after 8 pm or so, that becomes harder to do. But after a few drinks, and when owner Danny Minch chats you up with fun stories about his travels to Tokyo and Kyoto, that becomes less of an issue, and you’re more focused on when you can drop by again to pick up from where you left off.


Karasu, in the back of Walter’s
166 DeKalb Avenue (and Cumberland St)
Brooklyn, NY 11217
call 718-488-7800 for reservations

Izakaya in East Village

St. Mark’s draws a raucous late night crowd for the many casual izakayas that line the street. The quality of food tends to be hit or miss and the wait times are way too long, which is why I’ve avoided the area, even though the cheap Asahi pitchers at Kenka are very enticing.

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welcome to izakaya
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the menu
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kagua beer, an extremely popular brand in japan that sells out quickly

I recently discovered that a little removed from the central hub of little Tokyo, farther out east on 6th street, exists a much more low-key and higher quality place called Izakaya. It’s a small and cozy restaurant that feels like someone’s dining room, with bottles of sake lined up along the shelves to give the room some quirky character. The wait staff is very helpful and thoughtful, making sure to steer you to the right beer or sake that will pair well with your meal. During our visit, one of the servers took the time to explain the history behind Kagua, a Japanese Belgian beer that was specially created to pair well with Japanese food. Apparently the brand is so popular in Japan that it always sells out, and you can only have your friends in the States get it for you. The beer is very crisp and mild without being boring, absent of the hoppiness inherent in many brews, and it did pair very well with our food.

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cold tofu

We ordered the cold tofu, which arrived plain with a side of soy sauce and grated ginger. I’m always unsure of how to judge plain tofu, as the absence of flavor has me looking to other cues for quality. I suppose it’s the texture that should be a leading indicator, something creamy and soft that are signals of its freshness. In that case, this cold tofu fulfilled that criteria.

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addictive cabbage

The addictive cabbage was much more interesting and lived up to its name. It was such a simple dish, consisting of sliced cabbage in a soy sauce and pepper marinade, but it was an extremely satisfying one, probably the crunch being a key component, and the intense pieces of dried nori being the other.

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chicken nanban
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skirt steak

The clean, healthy starters prepped our palate for the juicy segue into the chicken nanban, a fried chicken coated in a sweet, crispy batter that was simply perfect. You could dip the chicken in a tartar sauce for an extra satisfying creamy layer. We didn’t experience the same revelation with the skirt steak, unfortunately, which was a little too peppery and overcooked. But despite this small misstep, our impression of Izakaya was a very favorable one, and we felt very much at home here. “Izakaya” literally means “stay sake shop”, and we were definitely in no hurry to leave this cozy, comfortable place.


Izakaya
326 E. 6th St (between 1st and 2nd Ave)
New York, NY 10003
(917) 475-1284

Izakaya