Out of Town

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The New York Sun

A small slice of Japan has just dropped into the West Village. Japan’s Chanto restaurant group has 49 establishments in Asia; Chanto, which just opened on Seventh Avenue South, is the group’s first American venture. It’s authentic, not in the quaint homespun sense, but in the sense that it actually feels like a foreign country.

Occupying the three-story space that used to be the glamorous Moomba, the restaurant is flawlessly sleek and professional, but a few touches, in accordance with Japanese notions of fine-dining service, give it a feel of alien luxury. The restrooms are stocked with Q-Tips to promote proper aural hygiene between courses. The waiters wear earphones, presumably for communicating with Ground Control – I mean the kitchen.Meals start with a hand towel and then crudites,each individually tonged out and introduced (“This is celery; this is a carrot”). The large, translucent menus stand on their own in little leather stands, so we diners don’t have to soil our freshly-toweled fingers with them.

The food, veering unpredictably from West to East, can be similarly curious. On the starters list, a wasabi-tinged Caesar salad ($9.50) sits side-by-side with a fairly traditional sashimi salad ($18) and a foie gras terrine ($22): something for everyone, sort of. Tebagyo ($10.50) is a clever cross between two popular snacks: glazed chicken wings, stuffed with the oniony minced-pork filling that usually goes into Japanese dumplings. By and large, though, the dishes that adhere to a tradition – any tradition – tend to have a little more on the ball than those that don’t. A simple, rich-flavored soup ($9.50) plays host to numerous clams in their shells, in a broth that’s given a thick, slightly slippery texture with Japanese yam starch, and tuna carpaccio ($13) lightly dressed with miso sauce and adorned with garlic chips, is tasty, balanced, and uncomplicated.

But “King of Kimchee” ($16.50), a starter that’s flagged as a “Chanto signature” on the menu, is a poorly calibrated jumble of four kinds of raw fish, watercress, and nuts, drenched in gochujang chili sauce (a classic Korean condiment for sashimi) and wrapped up in kimchee cabbage leaves. A dutiful server snips the muddled bundle apart at tableside, but any delicacy or flavor that the fish may have is wasted in the deluge of spicy sauce.

Main courses, mercifully, include fewer experiments. Japanese classics – a typical sake-flavored black cod dish ($22.50) and a respectable pork-based ramen bowl ($19.75) – share the stage with a couple of steaks, as well as a wonderful shrimp risotto ($22.50) topped with grated cheese. A whiff of miso in the rice is the dish’s only Asian element. “Choki choki steak” ($21.75) is a take on Korean kalbi. Thin-sliced beef short ribs are given a sweet-salty marinade and grilled, then cut up and served with lettuce for wrapping. Oddly though for such a luxury-minded place, the trick of making the meat tender has eluded Chanto here: The flavorful beef provides a rather vigorous jaw workout.

The weirdest entree is a dish of rich toro tuna ($28.50), the buttery sort that’s perfectly delicious when raw and untampered with. But that would be too boring for Chanto’s kitchen, which instead cooks the fish to a supple rareness, wraps it in a tortilla,and tops it with gorgonzola cheese, while half a dozen ravioli, stuffed with savory greens and mushrooms in a miso-mustard sauce, loiter around the edge of the plate. The ravioli are winningly flavorful, if innocuous, but the fish roll, even if you think of it as an exotic sushi variant, seems designed to minimize its own main ingredient’s deliciousness. The kitchen’s strength lies in good solid cooking, not in these flights of imagination.

Along with starters and main courses,the menu disingenuously lists “third courses,” by which it means sushi rolls, and hopes that you’ll finish your meal with one. The rolls, which come with excellent fresh wasabi, include some straightforward options – a California roll,a spicy tuna roll – along with a chicken curry roll and, most impressive, a fishand-chips roll filled with batter-fried fish and studded outside with fragments of potato chips (each roll $6).

The kitchen’s struggling creativity wins out at last in the dessert arena, where watermelon balls float in cardamom-scented cream alongside a delightful buttery coconut cake ($9) and sweet adzuki beans and gingered blueberries top tofu panna cotta ($9).A few sweet cocktails made with shochu, the limpid Japanese liquor, stand out too, but it’s more interesting to sample Chanto’s shochu selection straight: Choices include distillates of dates, sugar cane, carrot, and barley. Spotlighted among a fine wine selection are some exotic if unprofound bottles from Chateau Mercian, Japan’s pre-eminent winery, which range from $45 to $250.

Chanto suffices as a quick substitute for a trip to Japan: Its customs will charm you, and the best of its food is excellent.Thinking of the meal as a voyage, in fact, is perhaps the best approach: That way it seems just amusing, not disappointing, when elements are lost in translation.

Chanto, 133 Seventh Avenue South, between West 10th and Charles streets, 212-463-8686.

The New York Sun

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