First Impressions: Zutto

Zutto rebooted as a “Japanese American pub” back in October, but I only just made it there for dinner. I long meant to go, but my partner was hesitant (I’ve dragged him to too many places in Tribeca that he ended up not liking), and it didn’t seem reasonable to eat there alone and write about trying two, maybe three dishes. Last night, for whatever reason, Adam was willing, and we were off.

I find the room as appealing as I did in October, even if I pretty much never want to sit at a communal table. There were only a handful of diners—holiday lull?—which made the place feel relaxed, or would have if the music hadn’t been oversugared pop: Jennifer Lopez’s “On the Floor,” Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous,” Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women Part 1.” Eventually it switched gears, to “Sweet Child o’ Mine” and “Summer of ’69.” Perhaps I’m being ridiculous to list so many songs, but that’s how intrusive the music felt; when I visualize our meal, I find myself singing “All the honeys, making money….”

It was particularly off-key because the food is interesting.

In October, what caught my eye were the American additions: the lobster roll, “Kobe umami burger,” and the sweet potato tots. But the menu last night was far less American, and yet not always straight-up Japanese. One side of the menu listed sushi; the other had five types of steamed buns, six ramens, six small plates, and a couple of entrées (miso-glazed cod and steak frites). Adam ordered the portobello mushroom bun and the miso ramen; I got the edamame, the “silken tofu salad,” the Manila clams with garlic, and a side of Brussels sprouts. The doughy part of the bun was good, but steamed buns are sort of like tacos in that they taste far better with meat inside; the Parmesan tuile only made it taste like a Dorito. I liked the edamame more than any I’ve had: It’s charred and dusted with yuzu salt. Our favorite dish was the silken tofu salad, which we had been warned wasn’t a salad. Indeed: The tofu was tempura-battered and fried, and it sat in a slightly spicy, highly delicious sauce. I dredged the buttery Brussels sprouts—which had been shredded—until every drop of that sauce was gone. A little less successful were the ramen (which Adam couldn’t help but compare to ramen in Japan) and the clams. The dish is striking, clams sharing a bowl with enoki mushrooms and a white miso broth, but three of the clams weren’t open and four had broken shells.

For dessert, we ordered the fromage blanc “cheesecake,” which we were warned wasn’t a cheesecake. I couldn’t help pointing out that they should think about renaming dishes so as to avoid disclaimers; to the server’s credit, she laughed. The entire staff was amiable and outgoing. When customers walk in, the hostess yells “Party of two!” (or however many) to the room, and everyone yells, “Irrasshaimase!” By the time we reached dessert, we too were yelling “Irrasshaimase!”—or an approximation—and they rolled with it. Anyway, the dish was tangy and delicious, with a salty graham-cracker bottom. A little fruit on top would be nice, adding a touch of contrast and making it look less like a big blob of dairy, but I quibble.

I don’t generally “review” restaurants, preferring people form their own opinions. But I think Zutto is a special case, because it’s trying to update itself in an admirable way. Did I love everything? No, but I rarely do. Will I go back? Absolutely. This is the kind of restaurant—not fancy, but not unambitious—that I wish Tribeca had more of.

When you go, and you should, please share your thoughts on Zutto’s page in the Tribeca Citizen Restaurant Guide.


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