I recently had dinner at Yopparai (a Sake bar and restaurant) in the Lower East Side. I remember having heard about the sake and the wonderful, funky cocktails there. Having been to Yopparai, I think it has the most unique dishes among Japanese restaurants in NYC, besides the usual items. We relished most if not all dishes there and will be back there for more. I loved Yopparai not just for its unique menu and delicious dishes, but also for its wonderful and friendly service.
The menu ran into four pages besides the daily special. It was tough to decide which dishes to order. The sake menu is two pages long as well. We got seated at the bar right across from the grill, so I had a great time watching how different dishes were being created on the grill. In most restaurants, there are coat hooks right underneath the bar. In Yopparai however, there was a small shelf / closet under your seat to place your coat and other winter accessories – what a cool idea!!
I was intrigued by a sign that I saw right across from our seats.
Turns out that the restaurant has a great sense of humor! (No Smoking?!)
We had the black daikon radish, tofu skin with pounded rice cake, tomato salad, roasted spicy marinated cod roe, octopus sashimi, scallops grilled with butter sauce, a chicken skewer, crunchy grilled rice balls, and almond tofu. This seems like we ate a lot, but the portions are small and so, we left the restaurant not feeling stuffed.
The black daikon radish and the tofu skin with pounded rice cake were served together although they were listed as two separate dishes. The “black” daikon radish was pickled daikon radish served in soy sauce (hence “black”). I have always seen daikon radish sliced or shredded, so I had no idea how it looked whole. The daikon radish was about the size of a tangerine – bigger than I thought it would be. It was not tart or tangy as one would expect a pickled vegetable to be, but very crunchy like a radish. The tofu skin with pounded rice cake (called Mochi Kinchaku on the menu) was not something that I appreciated very much, although my friend was very happy with this. I thought that the tofu skin was bland and the pounded rice cake (mochi) did not add much by way of taste. The blob of yellow paste on the side if the bowl turned out to be potent mustard!! I have a problem with something that is crisp / crunchy being dunked into a bowl of sauce – the dunking in liquid takes a lot away from the crispy / crunchy texture. Dipping is fine, but not dunking / submerging. My friend, however, liked this dish a lot.
The tomato salad was a dish that I liked very much. The salad was just sliced tomato, topped with finely diced onions, placed in a bowl of dashi sauce and topped with a brown blob of something that I assumed was wasabi without its green color. I loved this dish. The tomatoes were very fresh, and were very tasty in the dashi sauce and with the raw diced onions. The brown blob was Japanese mustard again, and was potent stuff. I had assumed that it was wasabi, and tried the smallest amount I could take on my chopstick, I felt like I was breathing fire from my nostrils, but I loved this tomato salad. For those wary of spicy things, stay away from Japanese mustard sauce. Am not sure if this dish is vegan, because the dashi sauce smelled like fish broth / as though it had some seaweed in it. It was perhaps made from dried kelp (one of the most common ways to make dashi – according to Marc of No Recipes). I will be sure to find out the next time I go to Yopparai.
We ordered the octopus sashimi because it was listed as an item on the day’s menu and that it arrived from Tsukiji market. We assumed that this would be fresh. We got six thin slices – three raw and three seared. The raw slices came with a tiny blob of plum sauce while the seared slices were topped with some wasabi and had some soy sauce as well. The server told us that we did not need soy sauce as these pieces were seasoned already. And he was right, we did not need any soy sauce. I loved the flavor of these slices (raw and seared), but not the texture, which was too chewy for me to appreciate. My friend, however, was super happy with this octopus sashimi.
Lightly roasted spicy marinated cod roe was also listed as a day’s special. I was very excited to try this dish, but was not incredibly thrilled when I ate it. It had too strong of a smell for me to appreciate it. The taste was slightly salty, and slightly tangy, the texture was somewhat like fine sand (it tasted better than fine sand, for sure), but this is not something that I would order again.
As I was sitting right across from the grill, I was watching many dishes being grilled. I was intrigued by something being cooked in what looked like a clam shell to me. I have never seen that before. It took me a while to realize that the item being grilled / cooked was the scallops that I had ordered. In most non-Japanese restaurants, I have usually had seared scallops. This was a delicious dish – you will enjoy it too, if you like scallops, and if you like clams / mussels cooked in white wine, butter, and some parsley. The scallops were slightly chewy in places, but overall, had a wonderful texture with a buttery soft feel that most scallops usually have. And yes, it was served in the same shell that it was cooked in (or perhaps lived in!)
The organic free range chicken was listed as chicken Negi. Since we did not know what Negi meant, we asked our server for his inputs. Negi is Japanese scallion that is bigger than regular scallions and sweeter too. This was a very well-prepared skewer. The chicken and negi pieces were brushed with soy sauce and grilled perfectly! A must order dish if you go to Yopparai.
Now comes my favorite dish of the evening. Grilled crunchy rice balls with Sekigahara soy sauce. Now, I did not know that Sekigahara this is a premium soy sauce that is denser than regular soy sauce and slightly sweeter too. Thanks to our friendly server, we go to know this too. We could see the triangular slabs of rice (not balls of rice, really) being grilled and brushed with soy sauce as it was being prepared. While the rice triangles were fairly large (we ordered one piece each not knowing how large the piece would be), the triangles were super crunchy outside, and had soft rice inside. The crunchy cover was very much like the socarrat in a paella. The slightly sweet soy sauce brushed on to the rice triangles were well caramelized on the grill adding to the crunchiness of the rice exterior. This is a must-order dish if you ever go to Yopparai.
The almond tofu was listed as an item on the daily menu, and as a limited quantity item. We had a late reservation, and did not know if the restaurant had run out of it already. So, we wanted to make sure we ordered it as soon as we saw it on the menu and ordered this as one of the first few items. The server had a strange look on his face when we said that we wanted this and later explained to us that this dish is a dessert!! Well, we wanted this anyway, especially if Yopparai had not run out of it.
The almond tofu arrived in a bowl – there were cubes of slightly sweet almond tofu, floating in almond / soy milk, along with cubes of pink agar jelly, and with sake ice cream at the bottom. We were thrilled we that got sake ice cream without asking for it. This is a mildly sweet dessert with a distinct almond flavor. The agar jelly was also slightly sweet, and added some much needed color. The sake ice cream was sweet in taste, and slightly grainy in texture, but overall great with the cubes of almond tofu, and the agar jelly. A must order dish for the uniqueness of this dessert.
Why would you go to Yopparai?
- To enjoy delicious and unique Japanese dishes, in addition to the regular ones that you would find in any Japanese restaurant in NYC
- To enjoy a range of delicious vegan and vegetarian Japanese dishes
- To enjoy a range of sake
- To enjoy their sake ice cream and almond tofu
- To eat their grilled crunchy rice balls
Related post on Not Just Vegetarian:
- Fresh housemade tofu and delicious sweet potato cake at Kyotofu (sadly, Kyotofu closed in May 2013)