A Reluctant Taste of Japanese Curry

Curry-ya exterior3Gloria Chung Curry-Ya, 214 East 10th Street.

I don’t like Japanese food. What’s worse, I suspect that I like not liking Japanese food.

Still, here I am in a neighborhood rife with Japanese restaurants, grocery stores, sake bars and, at least in the evenings, young people. In jaunts along East 10th Street between Second and First Avenue, I had often noticed a string of Japanese restaurants along the south side. I had a dim recollection that one of them included in its name a word with which I had positive food associations. When I returned to the block last week, there it was — Curry-Ya (214 East 10th Street). I adore Indian food. Maybe this would be Indo-Japanese.

Curry-Ya is a brightly lit, scrupulously neat place with a counter and a dozen or so wooden stools. I asked the young woman behind the counter if the curry was like Indian curry. She wasn’t sure. “Indian curry is like soup, yes?” Sort of, I said. She suggested we order the Berkshire Pork Cutlet Curry, which was everybody’s favorite. We did. A breaded pork chop, along with a beautifully mounded hillock of rice, came with a gravy boat. This was the curry. I would have called it gravy, though I recognize that I might not have walked into a restaurant called Gravy-Ya.

Everything else was more successful, though I remained confused about origins. Do they make mango lassi in Japan? The beef dried curry — spicy ground beef over rice — came with four discs of hard-boiled egg artfully layered over the top, with threads of crispy fried onion atop that, and a single fried shrimp, which we had ordered separately, positioned at the edge like the slash of a “Q.” It was a wonderfully artful composition for $10.

Curry-Ya turns out to be one member of a very crowded family. A firm called the T.I.C Groups owns the other two Japanese restaurants next door, as well as six more places on East Ninth Street between Second and Third. The establishments are highly differentiated, and include not only Curry-Ya but Cha-An, a teahouse; Decibel, a sake bar which I am told is the last word in cool; and Soba-Ya, a noodle restaurant. This strikes me as a remarkable strategy, though I have no way of knowing if it’s a successful one. (T.I.C. could not make an official available by press time.)

I did get a chance to go to Soba-Ya, which I think I would love if I loved Japanese food. My friend Carne, who eats there all the time, esteems it highly, though this may have something to do with the fact that he once sat next to – or maybe it was not far from – Natalie Portman. She wasn’t there when I went with Carne. He instructed me to order the lunch box, which seemed to contain multitudes in perfectly compartmented spaces – shrimp and vegetable tempura, salmon sashimi, lotus root, burdock, pickled yam in ginger sauce, shredded cucumber, mushroom, potato, rice croquette. It had the microcosmic quality of a Japanese garden, which I would also love if I loved things Japanese. Every once in a while we heard a thunk-thunk-thunk sound of a chef at a table in front cutting the plump and springy soba noodles that came in my soup. This is Soba-Ya’s special claim to fame.

Curry-ya interiorGloria Chung Curry-Ya is part of a family of nine neighborhood restaurants that are owned by the same firm.

For dessert, Carne ordered something extraordinarily beautiful – the Soba-Ya manju, red bean paste inside a ball made from soba, or buckwheat flower, which had been stamped with a delicate Japanese character, like a chop on a work of art. I had milk curd, a bland little custard. Our waitress, Togi, asked if I like my dessert. “It was fine,” I said.

“You didn’t like it?”

“Well, Japanese cuisine isn’t famous for desserts.”

Togi pouted. “That’s not very nice.”

“Well, I don’t actually know anything about Japanese food.”

Togi came back with a dessert menu and pointed out some other choices. “Next time you come you order these. You will change your mind, I promise.”

I said I would do my best.

Curry-Ya, 214 East 10th Street, 212-995-2877.