In his famous classical-conditioning experiment, Ivan Pavlov proved it’s physically impossible for a Russian scientist's mouth not to water when it says the words “hot udon.” Moisten your own noodle receptacle with today’s Groupon: for $20, you get $40 worth of Japanese cuisine and drinks at Zenkichi in Brooklyn.
Zenkichi treats diners to Japanese fare centered around Tokyo-style tapas paired with a selection of 50 different sakes. The menu eschews sushi for small plates—three or four make a meal—such as the cold fresh tofu in a light dashi sauce ($7.95), or the salty and sweet grilled miso oysters with red miso sauce ($10.95). The kurage suits adventurous tastes with jellyfish in white sesame sauce ($5.95), and the bonito shuto ($5.95), a delicacy of aged bonito fish, is best eaten in tiny tastes and digested by the mind. For a heftier craving, a plate of tsukune chicken fills patrons with its Japanese take on the meatball ($10.95). The lamb chop tataki ($15.95), seasoned with rock salt and coarse black pepper, offers up a dining experience more rugged than eating with a shovel and chainsaw.
The intricate environs of Zenkichi set patrons amidst semi-private booths and bamboo fixtures. Beneath warm lighting, patrons pair their plates with selections of more than 50 types of sake. Zenkichi specializes in handpicked sakes made from pure rice, rice yeast, and water, with no additives or illegal multiplicatives. The knowledgeable staff of matchmakers is on hand to recommend marriages between eligible dishes and charming sakes.
For most Americans, Japanese food simply means sushi. Zenkichi defies this narrow definition by eschewing sushi altogether and serving contemporary, Tokyo-style small plates inspired by the homesick restaurant owner’s native city. The elaborate dishes, which feature lavish ingredients such as homemade creamy tofu, all-natural filet mignon tataki, and grilled saikyo black cod, have turned the restaurant into a New York magazine Critics' Pick and earned impressive Zagat ratings. Cooks prepare an à la carte menu that changes every three months, as well as omakase—the chef’s tasting menu—that changes every six weeks to eight weeks to incorporate the season’s freshest vegetables and seafood. Raw jewels of the day with super-fresh sashimi or a sweet duck salad with baby greens pair with more than 50 varieties of Zenkichi’s pure, all-natural rice sake.
To actually get into the restaurant, guests must seek out an unmarked, nearly invisible door in a massive, wood-paneled building. Inside, lantern-lit corridors forested with bamboo and lined with flagstone pathways lead to booths with adjustable shades that can unroll to conceal diners as they gaze at each other romantically or prove that they do in fact have two belly buttons. A buzzer summons the waiter whenever guests want more sake or innovative desserts such as a grapefruit agar gelee made with Japanese seaweed or a frozen, chocolate-based black-sesame mousse.