food

Royal Izakaya isn't your parents' Japanese restaurant

Craig LaBan, Food Critic

Updated: Saturday, December 9, 2017, 8:06 PM

Jesse Ito behind the sushi bar.

Look for the glowing red lantern. It hangs like a mysterious beacon in the quiet heart of residential Queen Village, the only sign that something might be happening behind this nameless brick facade at Second and Fulton.

But something is definitely going on behind the innocuous blue door of Royal Izakaya.

Something very special. The land of the “shiny fish. ” A sake lover’s dream. A gastropub pioneer’s vision for a tavern where Tokyo meets Philly over chashu pork wrapped in pillowy buns, grilled skewers, and karaage chicken wings that crackle with serrano heat in tangy vinegar and soy. Royal Izakaya also features the legacy of a Japanese master chef passing the spotlight and torch to his talented son. Literally.

Boosh! A jet of blue flame blasts from a canister in Jesse Ito’s fist as he flashes the skin along a slice of raw “kinki,” a rarely seen scorpion fish imported from Japan for the rarefied omakase tastings he serves in the new sushi room. Heat brings the oils to the surface of the skin, which puckers with smoky char and snaps beneath a pinch of chives against the dense white flesh.

We’re tucked behind a curtain in a small room at the back of the izakaya, where eight lucky souls have secured a reservations-only seat around the gorgeous mahogany sushi counter. There’s chatty fish talk between Jesse and his guests as he works away, plating fish with a finishing brush of soy before handing each piece over individually. But, mostly, this room is serene, punctuated by exclamations of pleasure as people wrap their lips around sweet ivory discs of truffle-dabbed live scallops or the luxury of Turkish bluefin tuna belly so marbled with fat it dissolves into an Omega 3 hum at the warm embrace of a bite.

The deep orange plumes of plump Hokkaido uni? They’re firm for a moment then melt into a briny-sweet cream that triggers a giddy shudder, then a silent nod between me and my guest.

The energetic pulse of ‘70s glam rock and a boisterous barroom filters in as the curtain to the front room is pulled back, and I’m reminded Royal Izakaya is really a multifaceted project. In fact, it’s two restaurants in one: the recently opened sushi room, a reservations-only haven where the prix-fixe menus go for $125 (18 pieces) and $65 (10 pieces); and the much larger, far more casual no-reservations izakaya pub up front with a massive menu of cooked small plates that comes with a more limited selection of sushi. It’s also one of the most interesting new places to drink in town, with a deep roster of premium Japanese whiskeys, myriad sakes, shochus, and craft beers, both Japanese and Japan-inspired locals, like the house lager from Tired Hands made with Royal Izakaya’s sushi rice and yuzu.

It might take a few shots of top-shelf Nikka whiskey — and a sense of culinary adventure — before it all comes into focus, this darkly lit tavern space clad in century-old red tin ceilings and exposed brick, where Japanese anime cartoons flutter across the walls to the bopping tunes of Van Morisson and the tables are covered with skewers of grilled chicken thighs snug between charred scallions, sake-splashed clams, and stacks of deep-fried Miyagi oysters.

But one thing is clear: This isn’t your parents’ Japanese restaurant. No rice paper walls, Kabuki sound track, or samurai swords in frames. None of the understated elegance that characterized Fuji, the beloved South Jersey institution, first in Cinnaminson then Haddonfield, where Jesse’s father, Masaharu “Matt” Ito, wowed fans for 37 years with exceptional kaiseki menus of cooked Japanese cuisine.

Matt and his ex-wife and partner, Yeonghui Ito, sold Fuji at the end of 2015. But he is very much involved here as a partner with Jesse, along with Steven Simmons and David Frank, owners of Khyber Pass, Royal Tavern, and the Cantinas, who have cultivated the idea of a Japanese pub in the former La Grolla space for six years, and who were simply waiting for the right chefs.

Matt oversees the hot-food kitchen, and though he’s not cooking the creative fine-dining fare he was known for (“maybe one day again”), his experienced hand ensures this is some of the best Japanese comfort food around. True to izakaya form, the menu offers too many options to eat in just a couple of visits (80-plus in all), but virtually all of them were delicious.

Among my favorites were the crunchy burdock root salad glazed in sesame oil and soy, as well as the blanched spinach over sweet black sesame and dashi. I loved the tender pads of ginger-sauced pork, and a kinoko soba noodle soup steeped in a deeply woodsy mushroom broth. There is an array of both fried and steamed items — try the kushiage sticks threaded with panko-crusted cipollini, quail eggs, shiitakes, and kabocha pumpkin. But I was drawn to heartier compositions, like the perfectly fried Berkshire pork tonkatsu cutlet, those zesty chicken wings (among the best in town), and the fried agedashi cubes tiered up into a tower of crispy tofu power.

For more adventurous eaters, the ankimo sunomono monkfish liver pâté is like a ponzu-splashed slice of liverwurst from the sea. Fatty strips of kurobuta pork jowl are seared with lemon and soy into savory nuggets of uncured Japanese bacon. A roasted yellowtail collar, meanwhile, remains an underappreciated pleasure, a big triangle of downy, moist flesh still on the bone. Only the extra-rubbery chew of an octo sunomono salad left me cold.

It’s all great fun when paired with the right things to drink — something our outstanding servers carried off with lucid and enthusiastic advice, offering tastes of various spirits before we commit to an Otter Fest junmai daiginjo, or the punchy Bushido on draft over rocks, or an earthy shochu made from sweet potato.

Jesse’s sushi, though, is the best reason to come. He started as a 5-year-old washing the rice in his father’s restaurant, eventually taking over as head sushi chef. The prices at Royal Izakaya may be startling, but they’re on par for the quality with, say, Morimoto, where seasonal omakases can hit $150. If you have the cash and the craving, this experience is worth it, as Jesse’s omakases reveal not just artistry and pristine ingredients, but also a compelling vision for the order of tastes, where the often subtle differences between one raw fish or another are suddenly vividly clear.

It begins with the leaner fish, which vary in the density of snap (the kinki and striped beaked bream, ishidai, were my favorites). Then the buttery richness of Ora king salmon belly. An entire chapter of “shiny fish” whose silvery skins and dusky flesh ratcheted intensity up from delicate sayori needlefish to gizzard shad, then tiny iwashi sardines tempered in a wash of vinegar and soy. Three distinctly different cuts from the same bluefin tuna, all sublime. And then a rousing final parade of rich, raw seafood — the geoduck clam’s massive organ humbled into a crunchy fringe over rice, a Stellar Bay oyster with caviar — and then that gorgeous uni and truffled scallop.

A silent nod. A splash of sake. And we rose with a sushi buzz that left us aglow as we headed out past the illuminated red lantern and off into the Queen Village night.

Craig LaBan, Food Critic

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