Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto rescued Japonais from obscurity in 2014. He did it by modernizing the space of the contemporary Japanese glam magnet with an elevated sushi bar and a canopied shochu bar serving his own line of the spirit. He also brought the playful approach he uses everywhere from Mumbai to Waikiki.
The new name, Japonais by Morimoto, sounds chosen by committee and is your first hint that the reboot has multiple personalities. The menu announces that dishes are prepared in three separate areas. Not all of it makes sense together, but the whimsy trumps the disconnect.
You’ve got pipettes of arugula oil and red and yellow pepper, yuzu, and unagi sauces that you squeeze onto a clever sashimi terrine with five strata of immaculate caviar-dotted fish. There’s a crafty take on Buffalo wings involving rock shrimp tempura, a spicy kochujang sauce, and wasabi aïoli. Morimoto’s sharp staff turns the production of simple tofu into high drama by pouring salt water into a hot pot swimming with soy milk, then covering it and walking away. When the waiter returns 12 minutes later to lift the lid: tofu. (Fun? Yes. But in the end, it tastes like tofu.)
The menu covers more ground than a Murakami trilogy. That includes Morimoto masterpieces such as Angry Chicken: a half bird marinated in spiced yogurt, pan-cooked, and served with puffed rice curlicues and blistered shishito peppers. In the tremendous ishi yaki buri bop, yellowtail sears before your eyes in a stone bowl with crunchy rice, royal fern, spinach, and an organic farm egg. But the triumphs rub elbows with half-assed misfires such as a bland sashimi Caesar salad and preposterous “concepts” including toro tartare shoved into a petri dish with toppings like nori paste and horseradish spread in more petri dishes, all of which you’re meant to eat with metal paddles that get washed in a giant ice bath. (Even more embarrassing to navigate than it sounds.)
All this makes the decision to focus on throwback sushi somewhat odd, like a Tarantino flick shot as a silent movie. Sushi and sashimi combinations run between $40 and $160; an $80 assortment of 20 pieces plus two rolls served in a large wooden oke (sushi rice tub) feels loose and tired and is no better than scores of cheaper options around town. Smarter to go with maki rolls such as the crispy salmon skin topped with kaiware (sprouted daikon radish seeds) and itogaki (shaved dried bluefin tuna). Or skip raw fish entirely and save space for a strange-looking but wholly satisfying honey tamale with a mess of crispy rice, gelato, kumquats, and honey-rosemary powder.
Later the action heads down to the Blue Room, a neon lounge that opens to a luxe riverwalk in more forgiving months. Think Japanese whiskeys and sakes and superserious managers wearing earpieces. It’s a completely different vibe and crowd. But that’s Japonais by Morimoto. If you’ve got enough points of entry, you can make a lot of people happy.