Style: Izakaya, Yakitori
Phone: (212) 749-5008
There’s something about some izakayas that make you fee like you’re sitting in someone’s home. Perhaps no place in New York has a stronger sensation of that than Sun-Chan. When you sit at the yakitori bar you’re in the kitchen being entertained by the co-owner “obasan” (grandmother) as she grills chicken, fish, onigiri (rice balls), and just anything else she pleases on her single small grill. She prepares the food by feel – touching the various meets with her bare fingers to test their texture and warmth. Through the curtain to the main kitchen you can often see her husband working away at one of the many, many non-grilled dishes.
When you’re in the main dining room, separated by a wall from the grill area, you feel like you’re in a family’s dining room. Granted it’s larger with more tables, but the homey atmosphere feels just right. The waitresses (all Japanese women) are warm and engaging. Several have been working at the restaurant for years. There’s relatively little turnover. The crowd is a mix of Upper West Side locals and Columbia students. A mix of Japanese and Westerners. All come back time and again for the home style food in a warm atmosphere. Over the past few years we’ve talked to so many friends from the neighborhood who “love Sun-Chan.” It’s a family.
Alcohol is not the focus at Sun-Chan so it feels more like a restaurant and less like a bar than other izakayas, yet customers, especially Japanese customers, will linger over bottles of sake or beer or shochu for quite a while. The nigori (unfiltered sake) in particular is quite popular among regulars. There’s never any rush. Ozeki box sake dominates the bar area behind the yakitori grill. All beer is by the bottle and all beer is Japanese. A surprising shochu selection is also hidden on the drinks menu. A couple highlights include Torikai, an elegant kome (rice) shochu, and Gankutuoh, an earthy kome aged in clay pots. Sweet potato, barley, and Awamori can also be found along with Beniotome, the sesame shochu. And yes, they have bottle keep.
The food menu is extensive with a specials list posted in the main dining room on a blackboard in neon marker. The discussion should begin and end with the yakitori grill, but there’s plenty in between. A wide variety of meats and vegetables can be had from the grill including duck, beef tongue, short ribs, and shitake mushrooms. Everything gets the smokey grilled flavor and it’s done just right almost every time (just don’t look too closely for the finger prints). Even Cherrystone Clams are available grilled. And they’re well worth trying.
The sushi menu is also long and by all indications very popular. The scallop sashimi and mackerel sashimi in particular are a treat. Tako wasa (raw wasabi marinated octopus) can also be had. Among other cooked dishes, the soups are particularly nice. The tonkotsu ramen is quite good as is the nabe (hot pot), which is available in a wide variety of styles. Perhaps their most popular dish is their Nagoya Wings, which are chicken wings prepared in the style of Nagoya – sweet and savory and crispy and juicy – delicious every time.
Perhaps the highlight though is the grilled fish (told you we’d end with the grill). Pacific saury, mackerel, smelt, and hokke are all available. The hokke in particular is done to perfection. Crispy on the outside with a warm, flakey, moist center. Hokke is available elsewhere in New York, but nobody does it quite like the obasan at SunChan.
The Verdict: Recommended
SunChan is never going to win awards. It’s never going to be a destination restaurant. But it’s the kind of place you wish was in your neighborhood. Or if they are in your neighborhood, you visit a lot. The decor is homey rather than stylish. The staff is friendly rather than cool. The old couple who run the place are adorable – but nobody will ever confuse them with celebrity chefs. In that way this typifies an izakaya. The focus is on making customers comfortable. On providing food and drink that can enjoyed among friends and family. Nothing else matters. Nor should it. Very glad to live in this neighborhood.
photo credit: © Claire Wang 2012.