Where Is Mark Bittman’s Secret Japanese Restaurant!?

Last week Mark Bittman took on white table cloth restaurants in the New York Times, an article that wouldn’t normally catch our attention. Except for the fact that he spent the entire second half off the article extolling a Japanese hole in the wall in Midtown that he loves so much he refused to tell anybody what it was called. Thankfully he leaves enough clues that we should be able to figure it out…

My place right now is a Japanese hole in the wall. (I’m keeping it that way by not naming it. Sorry.) There’s no celebrity chef, no publicity, no hipness other than that exuded by the young servers. It couldn’t be less trendy and to prove it, I’ll tell you that: a) it’s in Midtown, and b) it’s populated almost exclusively by expat and visiting Japanese. I suspect it’s in a Japanese guidebook to New York.

How did I find it? It’s across the street from the back door of what was once my building. It’s ugly: the tables are Formica, with standard cafe chairs; the napkins are paper; and the cash register, which is at the back of the kitchen, is wrapped in plastic to keep the grease off the keys.

More, after the jump…

But I’ve never taken or sent anyone there who didn’t leave happy. The food is quite good (I can’t cook it nearly so well), although you wouldn’t call it mind-blowing. The chef has not changed in the six years since I started going there, and he makes a monstrous vat of what I think is pork-bone stock every day (I don’t ask questions; I just want to enjoy). Its texture glazes, and its flavor pervades many of the dishes. There is wonderful ramen.

There are even better rice dishes, really glistening bowls of sweet short-grain rice piled high with curry sauce (not my thing) or fried pork (better) or chop suey (a stir-fry of about 30 little bits of things, from cabbage to squid to shiitakes, all with thickened pork broth), which is pretty much what I order. The gyoza are better than average, and there’s a dish of chicken livers and leeks that’s quite nice. There is a great little sake list, so that at night you can linger a little while — maybe an hour, total, as opposed to the 30 minutes it takes to eat lunch — and do some giggling.

The servers know me as the non-Japanese guy who comes in often and doesn’t like to sit in the front; they say hello and send me to the back. The chef and cooks nod. They cook their fine food. The servers bring it. I eat it. A server comes and refills the water glass; she might ask if I want more sake. (They never ask how things “are tasting.”)

Eventually I pay the bill, without regret ($29 for two the other day, and that was four dishes), and I go home happy, satisfied and full.

What more do you want, really?

What more could we want!? The name of the place, naturally! Men Kui Tei (on 56th btw. 5+6th) has all of those things on their menu… but there are just as many Midtown Lunchers in that place during lunch as expats and visiting Japanese.  Any other guesses, or have we found our place?


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