There's much more to Japanese food than raw fish. Hiroyuki "Zama" Tanaka is determined to make that point at his new CoZara in University City, where he's skipped the sushi bar and fired up the grill and deep-fryer to conjure some of his favorite homeland comforts for an izakaya-style gastropub.
"Japanese food in the U.S. has to be updated," says Tanaka, who has already done much to upgrade our sushi scene with creative maki artistry at Zama, his restaurant hit near Rittenhouse Square.
The real question is whether Philly - and this student-centric spot, in particular, overlooking campus from Drexel's new Chestnut Square development - is willing to gather around bowls of cold green tea noodles and deep-fried anchovies to get CoZara's sake party started.
It's premature to know for sure, as the summer term's sparse crowds have left CoZara's rambling bi-level space, trimmed in modern red, gray and black, feeling a little lonely. I can certainly imagine the fun on CoZara's breezy balcony alcove overlooking Chestnut Street. With its red lantern strings glowing bright, the bar flowing with shochu cocktails and Hitachino Nest ales, and a hungry crowd of international students munching their way through giant whole squids and slabs of sun-dried mackerel - it would be a statement that West Philly's cool-food axis has tilted away from Penn toward Drexel.
It hasn't panned out that way quite yet. Without the draw of rainbow rolls and his signature "Bronzizzle," Zama's izakaya vision isn't going to be as easy a sell as Shake Shack burgers or the Neapolitan-style pizzas Zavino is pumping out of twin ovens around the corner in Chestnut Square.
But just because CoZara isn't the Zama West many might have hoped for doesn't mean it doesn't have its charms - including a small-plate menu built around authentic flavors, adventurous bites, and grilled skewers that are considerably more affordable than a sushi meal. The lunch menu, focused on yakitori combo plates, rice bowls, ramen, and "maki wraps," is clearly an accessible overture to a mainstream crowd.
The nighttime menu, though, is closer to Tanaka's desired concept. And in true izakaya form, CoZara was also built with drinking in mind. While most of the Japanese-themed cocktails I sipped were just OK (too sweet or too bland), there's a solid Japanese beer selection, and also one of the more intriguing sake collections in town. Many of those sakes are served in the single-serving glass cups that are dispensed in Japan from vending machines. And our servers were impressively versed in the details, directing me toward several I loved - a junmai ginjo "Kitaro" homage to the Japanese cartoon by the same name, and some Kikusui canned sakes that are unpasteurized.
CoZara's menu also has plenty of dishes that could become draws on their own. None are more eye-catching than the whole chicken yakitori, an entire bird deconstructed into skewers then reassembled over the fried carcass like a boat, a crisp sheet of skin billowing out front like a sail.
The meat, brined for a day with togarashi peppers and ginger, is moist and flavorful, even if the lack of a better grill, like a charcoal-fired robatayaki (which Tanaka considered but rejected for logistical reasons), would have given the dish more depth. Even so, at $39, it's a fantastic sharing centerpiece for a table of four to get rolling.
There are a number of others - chamame edamame, a black bean (still young and green) with more flavor than the usual edamame; crispy lotus chips and burdock roots for dipping into creamy edamame hummus; skewers of grilled cherry tomatoes wrapped in salty-edged bacon - that are, not surprisingly, delicious.
Some of the best Asian bar food requires a willingness to chomp on heads and seafood parts most Westerners might discard. But after popping CoZara's whole fried anchovies into my mouth, the little bony fish softened into a sweet-and-sour Nambanzuke marinade, I was just one sake swig away from devouring a whole school. The head-on soft-shell shrimp were addictive in a different way, with a still-warm crispness and delicate spicy crunch reminiscent of Chinatown salt-baked seafood. And the simply broiled baby yellowtail kampachi collar, a wing of moist flesh sliced from behind the gills, is so juicy and tender, it's a shame we don't see it more often. (High Street on Market is one notable exception.)
CoZara's menu is perhaps too large, because a number of dishes fell flat. The diced raw octopus is a taste I haven't acquired, slimy and overwhelmed by the spice of fresh wasabi leaves. The grilled baby octopus was bland and paired with sausages that tasted like Japanese hot dogs. The skewered cubes of duck yakitori were dull. The grilled flank steak was chewy. And while Tanaka deliberately chose tiny chicken wings to replicate the one-bite wonders typical of his wife's home city, Nagoya, these otherwise tasty black-pepper-and-sesame-crusted flappers weren't hot enough.
The Japanese "cheese" board (miso cream cheese, Brie spring rolls, etc.) is completely missable.
For every stumble, though, there were several good dishes to compensate. There are just a few worthy sushi-bar echoes here to sate anyone going through withdrawal - a spicy miso tuna tartare served Hawaiian poke-style, with a mango salsa and seaweed sheets to pinch into mini-tacos. Seaweed squares topped with rice and barbecued eel in truffle sauce is basically a deconstructed dragon roll.
But CoZara's heart is in the hot kitchen. Smoked paprika in the teriyaki beneath lent the tender pork negimaki rolls stuffed with scallions a creative whiff. The excellent dumplings made with kurobuta pork, lotus root, and ginger are among the few homemade gyoza in town.
CoZara also makes numerous variations on ramen. Some, like the salty chicken-shoyu or the unexpectedly bland ramen glazed in pork fat, were so-so. But others were quite worthwhile, especially the dry "mazeman" tossed Italian-style with truffled mushroom cream, or the cold ramen topped summer picnic-style with shredded ham and veggies in tangy soy-vinegar. Similarly, I found the green tea cha soba noodles incredibly refreshing with a dab of wasabi, preferable to the more elaborate soba with kani, pears, and sesame dressing.
CoZara excels in those simple Japanese comforts done right - a griddled rice ball lacquered in teriyaki, a hearty braised beef and potato Niku Jaga stew (which I'd return for - in winter), the thick chunks of velvety white salt-braised pork belly posed over dark ponzu. And there was something so soul-satisfying about the purity of the ochazuke, a chunk of broiled salmon over rice that almost turned to congee when the server poured dashi broth from a teapot overtop, that I could understand that taste of home Tanaka is going for here.
Even so, I'm not convinced Tanaka's concept for CoZara is compelling enough to become a citywide destination without the added lure of sushi. As an intriguing new draw for University City? Perhaps.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Volvér. Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.