Butai: Underappreciated Japanese Grill in Gramercy

Butai is not what it appears. Belying its modern, bilevel space, it specializes in traditional robata-style grilled dishes. “We loved it. They are cranking out really good Japanese bar food with very few missteps,” marvels kenito799.

In addition to grilled stuff, the menu offers hot and cold appetizers, sushi and sashimi, and a couple of noodle dishes. Except for a few fusiony sushi rolls, they play it fairly straight. kenito wonders if that’s one reason business appears to be light at this sister restaurant to Hapon and Maxie in Midtown: “It doesn’t seem to be getting the appreciation it deserves. Maybe it’s not westernized enough for that neighborhood.”

Upstairs is the serene main dining room; downstairs is the bar and a small counter that looks into the kitchen, affording a view of cooks working the grill. Service is friendly and attentive, and ambience is cozy, comfortable, and chic without being pretentious, says cinnamon lover.

Some recommended dishes (many from the specials menu):

- Kushiyaki (grilled skewers): In the same league as city front-runner Totto, says kenito. All excellent: chicken thigh, wing, skin, gizzard and hip, skirt steak, squid tentacles, kabocha, duck with scallion, pork belly with ponzu, bacon-wrapped shishito peppers. Skewers are $2 to $5–and half price on Monday nights.

- Grilled whole saury from Japan ($15): A good-sized (11-inch) fish, cooked so the skin is crispy and the flesh succulent. You can eat all the bones except for the spine, and the delicious liver is left in place.

- Grilled short rib: Meaty bones are served alongside juicy rare slices. Grilled meats can be ordered in entree or “tapas” portions; even the $13 tapas portion is pretty big.

- Tempura of shiso-wrapped chicken with green tea salt ($7): Four large, tasty pieces with lots of crispy shiso leaf.

- Chawan mushi ($6): The traditional steamed savory custard, packed with good stuff, including two big gingko nuts and a shrimp with real flavor.

- Agedashi tofu ($6): Commendable texture, well-balanced flavors, and sufficient seasoning.

- Sashimi: kenito reports perfect yellowtail “toro” ($4) and mackerel ($2.50), and deeply flavorful uni ($4), but says toro was a bit off. Wasabi is fresh.

- Desserts: Lily bulb soup is flavorful but heavy on the red bean paste. Black sesame pudding is drizzled with caramel; the pudding is not too sweet, so the caramel complements it nicely.

Butai Restaurant [Gramercy]
115 E. 18th St., between Park Ave. S. and Irving Pl., Manhattan
212-387-8885
Locater

Yakitori Totto [Clinton]
251 W. 55th St., 2nd floor, between 8th Ave. and Broadway, Manhattan
212-245-4555
Locater

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Butai-A Great Find!