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Itadaki refreshes itself for al fresco dining

birdcage lights
birdcage lights
Sandi Miller

Japanese Restaurant

Rating:
Star5
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Star
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For fans of al fresco dining, you may know that it’s usually difficult to get a patio seat on Newbury Street on a weekend, but during the summer, while the students are elsewhere, now’s the time to catch a summer breeze while sipping something cool.
Just in time, Itadaki recently refreshed its patio and interior. When you dine outside with an absurdly huge Day-Glo Scorpion Bowl to share, you’re in front of lovely brownstone walls and below a canopy of leafy trees, surrounded by shrubbery that adds to your relaxation but doesn’t obscure sidewalk people-watching. On patio speakers, the music — fun classic rock such as Thin Lizzy and Lynyrd Skynyrd — wasn’t too loud at the dinner hour. The patio was busy, but not squeezed-tight.
If it’s too hot or drizzling, downstairs there’s a comfy bar with banquette seating and three large communal tables great for large groups, several large sports screens next to a drawing of the God of Thunder above the glossy bar. The space is all rich wood tables, red leather seating, and brick walls.
The more formal dining is upstairs, where the 10-seat sushi bar is. It’s more of a Japanese feel upstairs, with artwork, light fixtures inspired by wooden lattice birdcages, shade screens and bamboo sticks.
But it’s not just a sushi restaurant. This is a spot that serves food to accompany drinks, not the other way around. Boston's only completely owned and operated full-service Japanese restaurant, by owners Lena Kikuchi and Yujin Kawakami-Hess, this is also one of the only Izakaya restaurants in Boston. An Izakaya is a gastro-pub with a huge sake and shochu selection, perhaps the largest in the Boston area. It’s where, said Kikuchi, “You can sit and hang out and drink for a while and also enjoy great sharing plates with family and friends. We wanted to create the best Izakaya restaurant in Boston and offer Bostonians a bit of Japanese culture right in their own city, and with a very ‘cool’ vibe.”
Their Executive Chef Kaoru "Fuji" Fujishiro trained at the Shinjuku Culinary School of Tokyo in Japan before moving to the United States to work at top Japanese restaurants in NYC, Philadelphia and Boston. At Itadaki he creates Izakaya-style small plates as well as more traditional Japanese cuisine, with an emphasis on seasonality, freshness and quality of ingredients as well as presentation.
The dinner menu includes a wide variety of Japanese fare.
There’s nigiri, sashimi, sushi rolls and hand rolls; we were invited to try out some of their dishes, so we left it up to the chef when we ordered and we were served a dragon roll with eel, seared machi yellowtail and sweet potato maki, and white tuna, salmon, and sweet omelet tomago nigiri. We also were encouraged to order the crunchy Bonsai tree roll, a cucumber maki without the rice, wrapped instead with scallions, and topped with ponzu sauce. Another night, we tried the Rising Sun, with salmon, avocado, cucumber, shiso, tobiko, and lemon wedges; a mango roll, with sweet potato tempura, cucumber, cream cheese and mango; the spicy tuna roll and a wasabi leaf roll: pickled wasabi leaf, with cucumber, kanikama (crab stick), kaiware (Daikon radish sprouts), and lettuce. All delicious and fresh.
For a treat, we tried Itadaki’s inspired sushi pizza, which was panko’d rice cake topped with sashimi (we chose the tuna), aioli, capers, shiso, and tomato sauce. It was so rich, so it’s best to share among friends. A tip: it takes some time, so order it early.
Sushi prices vary between $6 and $15 for most dishes, with some sushi entrees in the $30s and $40s.
Izakaya small plates include the traditional like steamed shumai, fried calamari, panko fried oyster, twists on the usual, like Monteroa Japanese spicy fries and Chamame, which is a deluxe variety of edamame with a nutty flavor; there’s also the not-so-traditional, such as Kaki mushi steamed oysters in Japanese sauce, Kushi-Katsu skewers of asparagus, shrimp, chicken, pork, beef or combo, with onion, panko, and tonkatsu sauce; and Renkon chips, a Lotus root fried like potato chips to add the perfect crunch to go along with our drinks, served with three dipping sauces. Cheese gratin, AKA Japanese mac and cheese, ($14) would be great on a cooler day, and you can add chicken, shrimp or lobster.
These small plates are meant to accompany alcohol, and Itadaki’s selection doesn’t disappoint. The owners say it’s the only Japanese-owned Japanese restaurant in the area with a full liquor license, including a generous selection of Japanese beers, including four on draft; whiskeys, Japanese-inspired cocktails such as the Sake Margarita (Sauza tequila, Ozeki sake, Grenadine, Lemon juice); and giant scorpion bowls for sharing: Red) Rum, Dark rum, Gin, Vodka, Fruit Juices and Grenadine (Blue) Blue Curacao (Green) Sake, Tyku Liqueur, Vodka, Lemonade and Lemon lime soda; a full is $49, and half is $30. I tried a Shiso Mojito Bacardi, Splash of Ginger ale, Shiso-leaf and lime, which was refreshing and light. Other interesting cocktails included the Cucumber Sake-tini (Effin cucumber, Reiko Sake, St Germaine, ginger ale); Geisha’s Kiss (Bacardi Dragonberry, X Rated, Peach Tree, cranberry). Cocktails are between $10 and $14. Also try their signature red or white Itadaki Sangria that comes in a glass, pitcher, or jumbo size, for $7, $23, or $35 respectively.
The owners say Itadaki is also home to the largest shochu and sake selection in all of New England. Sake is a Japanese rice wine that comes in sparkling and other varieties, served from cool to hot; and shochu, Japanese vodka, a distilled liquor that has half the calories and twice the taste of vodka. Shochu is often made from barley, sweet potatoes or rice. Very smooth, sip it chilled or in a lower-calorie cocktail. The menu for the sake and shochu selections is highly detailed, with information on sake classification, origins of the sake, and explanation of over 30 types of sake and over 15 types of shochu. It’s a mecca for the experienced shochu and sake drinker and a place for those who want to learn. The highest-quality selections are first on the sake and shochu menu, and Alex, our waiter, was very helpful in offering suggestions. He said that their Japanese customers favor the Otokoyama ($8), a chilled, very dry sake, with their sushi. But for our American palates, our waiter steered us toward the Snow Beauty Nigori Sake, a cloudy unfiltered sake more traditional to the Japanese, at $7 a glass. It’s creamier and sweeter than the sakes I‘ve had, and also served chilled.
We tried our first-ever shochu from an iced flask, the Chiyonosono 8000 ($8), which was said to have “crisp and clear rice notes. Hints of honeydew on a medium body finish as clean and neat as it begins.” It’s .25% alcohol by volume. It was smooth sipping, and as we got used to it, we liked it more and more. Shochu is often served with soda water in Japan, but here it’s so strong that it’s often used for mixed drinks, said our waiter. One mixed drink, the Nama Orange Sour, features freshly squeezed orange juice with soda and Shochu, and it was like a vodka drink. “The Japanese drink more shochu than sake,” said Kikuchi.
There’s salads and soups, including miso, Itadaki Clam Chowder, and Ocha-Zuke, a rice soup with salmon. There’s also the new trendy dish, ramen. The new chef is known for his ramen (four choices, along with numerous additional toppings that can be added according to preference). It’s authentic Tonkatsu Shoyu Ramen, a thick porky soy sauce-based or miso-based broth with toppings. The Itadaki Shoyu Ramen includes roasted pork, hardboiled egg, spinach, fish cake, wakame, bamboo shoots, green onions and nori, to make for a rich, flavorful soup that wasn’t too heavy. For a special combo menu, eat at the bar.
It was too warm to taste it, but come fall, I’ll be trying the Itadaki Signature Doria entrée, a casserole of rice topped with white mushroom cream sauce and cheese, baked until golden brown, and topped with chicken, shrimp or lobster.
The lunch menu includes Bento sushi lunch boxes, with choices of teriyaki chicken, grilled salmon, unagi or sukiyaki with sonnyaku noodles, along with salad, rice, fruit and miso, for $14.25; Donburi Rice Bowls include Kaisenbara Chirashi Don (mixed sashimi chunks of tuna, salmon, white fish, ikura, and unagi) mixed with tamago (sweet cooked egg) with cucumber and avocado on a bed of sushi rice; the tekka don is maguro tuna, and the oyako don is a “pairing of parent (salmon) and child (ikura or roe) on a bed of sushi rice” with a side salad and miso soup.
There are also “Japanese-style” sandwiches for $12.75, with fries and salad or miso: chicken teriyaki, chicken katsu or pork katsu, which you can have for lunch… or for brunch! The brunch menu offers American brunch items with a Japanese twist, such as Fuji’s Old-fashioned French Toast and Chef’s Sweet Crepes of the Day served with fresh fruit and a choice of Nutella or Japanese Sweet Red Bean, both for $11.50. There are also traditional American options like Make-Your-Own Omelets for $10 and traditional breakfast (two eggs, sausage or bacon, with home fries, fresh fruit and toast) for $13. Sushi’s also available.
We split a Japanese Style Crème Caramel, served with Whipped Cream and Fruit ($6), very much like flan; there’s also several flavors of mocha ($4.50), and Dorayaki, a Japanese Mini Pancake Sandwich ($6) filled with sweet red bean and whipped cream and fruit on the side.
Other tips:

A new look for the downstairs bar
Sandi Miller
  • Happy Hour menu between 4 and 6 PM, with prices between $3 and $8 for small bites both from the kitchen and from the sushi bar
  • Thursdays is jazz night, 5:30-8:30pm with the Tokyo Tramps
  • The menu has labels like V for vegetarian and PES for pescatarian.

Itadaki
269 Newbury Street, Boston
617-267-0840