The okonomiyaki at Bar Chuko arrives still dancing. The savory grilled pancake is topped with shredded cabbage, bits of bacon, pickled ginger and Japanese mayonnaise, but most noticeable is the hefty pile of bonito—dried, fermented flakes of tuna so thin and delicate that, fresh out of the hot oven, they wiggle back and forth as if still alive. Of course, they’re long dead, with their fishy flavor well preserved, but once your food stops dancing, this is still an exciting dish.
Bar Chuko opened in June on Vanderbilt Avenue, just across the street from the excellent and always popular Chuko Ramen. The newer spot hasn’t generated much buzz among Brooklyn foodies yet, perhaps because of the misleading “bar” moniker, but Bar Chuko is actually more about the food than the drinks. It’s one of several new izakayas to hit Brooklyn, inspired by a very social type of Japanese drinking establishment where after-work business-folk stop in for lots of sake and (often) all-you-can-eat small bites of food. Of course, New York restaurateurs have translated izakaya the same way they did tapas, taking it to mean “tiny, expensive plates.” Yes, here’s yet another spot where you can easily drop $40 a person on food and drinks, but still wonder where your entree is. Not a bad business plan by the Chuko folks, who have filled their new Bar Chuko with hungry patrons waiting for their tables at the ramen shop across the street. (For less spendy izakaya fare, head to Sake Bar Hagi in Manhattan–it’s nearly impossible to spend more than $30 a person here, and you’ll leave drunk and stuffed.)
Several of the dishes here hit it out of the park flavor-wise, but the portions at times make tapas plates look Texas-sized, with relatively low prices belying the fact that when they list “bites” on the menu, they really do mean “bites”—and don’t expect more than one or two per dish. Grilled green beans are topped with a tangy sesame-lemon sauce; for $7 you get exactly seven string beans, which seems like a bit of a reach for about 40 cents worth of ingredients. A Wagyu short rib skewer is tasty enough, but for $5 you’re offered three measly little chunks of beef. I couldn’t help but compare it to the best skewers I’ve ever had, at Flushing’s amazing Biang, where the same $5 nets you three skewers, each filled with five to six pieces of delicious cumin-scented lamb; I’m no math wizard but piece for piece, I believe that makes Bar Chuko’s version five times more expensive.
But I’ll end that rant since, judging by the crowds filling Bar Chuko, prices don’t matter much in Brooklyn anymore. That dancing okonomiyaki was among the best things we ate; even if you’re turned off by the overflow of fermented fish flakes, it’s worth digging through for the pancake—crisp on the outside, soft and gooey inside. Elsewhere, glutinous little balls of rice cakes are a bit over-chewy, but they’re topped with melted mozzarella and kimchee, for a gloopy, melty mess of carbs that’s something like an Asian take on poutine.
Dairy shows up again on the crispy potatoes, little wedges mixed in with melty cheese curds and mentaiko, a rich, marinated fish roe. That’s a good example of how Bar Chuko starts with traditional Japanese fare, often adds in some Korean flair and then adapts with American flavors—in this instance the result is a creamy, indulgent delight. Speaking of indulgent, I’m not sure the world needed bacon-wrapped mochi, but I’m also not about to complain. Other options here range from Brooklyn standards like fresh oysters and a pickle plate, to more adventurous bites (cartilage skewers, crispy sweetbreads with wasabi ranch) and fusion-y fare like scotch bonnet jerk quail.
You could certainly find a worse way to wait for your table at Chuko Ramen than sipping a sake and nibbling on the very tasty small plates here. I’d warn you not to fill up, but that would be difficult to do anyway.
Bar Chuko, 565 Vanderbilt Avenue (at Pacific); 347-425-9570