The line between “bar” and “restaurant” is a happily blurry one in Philadelphia. It’s been that way since our gastropub revolution proved great drinking and thoughtful food were no longer mutually exclusive in a casual tavern setting. And it’s a big reason that Philly is a city of great neighborhood restaurants.
But the art of crafting an enduring identity for a new place can hinge, in part, on the creative process that balances those two forces. At Nunu, the new izakaya from the team behind Cheu Fishtown, that line is as thin as a skewer of chicken liver yakitori scattered with green apple relish. Delicate. Deftly grilled so the nuggets are simultaneously creamy and crisp. Delicious and intriguing … but also a little challenging.
Is Nunu — its 30-seat space moodily lighted by a blinking neon chicken and a ceiling forest of red lanterns — a destination for an interesting meal? Or just a cool cocktail bar with a blitz of simple Japanese-inspired bar nibbles to soak up all those fizzy mugs of Toki whisky highballs? Owners Ben Puchowitz and Shawn Darragh may not know that yet themselves, because it feels like this project is still in flux. So hold my katsu “sando,” please, while I digress. (Also, promise me you’ll never utter the word sando again. As though the already-banished sammy weren’t bad enough!)
Its curious name was a matter of timing. The space on Frankford Avenue was under construction while the duo was still putting the finishing touches on Cheu Fishtown in the old carriage house next door, so Darragh and Puchowitz always referred to it simply as the “new new” restaurant.
“This place was originally supposed to be a dive bar waiting room for Cheu with some weird stuff going on in an energetic space and some [yakitori] sticks, katsu sandwiches, and fries," Puchowitz said.
But then, inspired by a reconnaissance trip to Japan and their work with a star designer, the duo’s more ambitious restaurant DNA began to assert itself. As the name morphed into a sleeker version — the restaurant styles it all lowercase, nunu — the reversible letters became a handy motif both in graphics (nice chicken feathers!) and in the physical design by Kate Rohrer of Rowe Creative. She echoed the letters' curvy contours to wrap the cozy two-seat booths set into the back wall beneath arcs of hand-milled oak. Those n’s also shape the circular leather banquettes in the front. They’re roomy enough to accommodate Fishtown’s skinny-jean millennials, maybe. A more spacious capital U would have been more comfy for me.
Their initial dive bar vision gave way to a sexier izakaya look, with a sophisticated bar program to complement it led by beverage director Kelly Brophy, who’s crafted some wonderfully on-theme cocktails (the sparkly Jiro Dreams of Cuba; a matcha-infused frothy Little Green Monster) to go along with the smart collection of sakes, whiskeys, shojus, wine, and beer. And the menu’s initial simplicity has taken on more interesting angles, too, even as it became the most traditional interpretation of an Asian cuisine we’ve seen from Puchowitz, who’s better known for irreverent Jewish-Asians fusions like matzo ball ramen soup at Cheu Fishtown next door.
The first step was Puchowitz’s recognizing just how difficult hewing closer to traditional cuisines can be: “Putting things on sticks was definitely harder than I thought it would be — ‘Wow, there’s a lot to this!’ ”
The precision and shape of the cuts, not to mention a deliberate hand with marinades and garnishes, can drastically impact the satisfaction level of a skewer that demands efficiency of flavors and textures for success in four bites. Nunu’s kitchen, under the daily watch of executive chef Adam Taylor (ex-Brigantessa), is delivering those sticks with consistency.
Sweet sea scallops are roasted to juicy perfection, then kissed with miso-sweetened bacon jam. Smoky Brussels sprouts take on spicy dabs of peanut sambal. Hanger steak borrows the cuminy peppercorn Mongolian rub from Bing Bing, and it’s delicious topped with a mince of fermented butternut squash, even if red meat is not nearly as much of an attraction here as the organic whole chickens that Nunu butchers down into myriad tasty parts.
A marinade in fermented rice shio koji tenderizes and amplifies the natural savor of the simple chicken breast skewers, which get dipped in a sweet tamari-sake glaze for a final caramelization on the grill. My favorite skewers, though, come from the bird’s darker quarters, including the slivers of thigh meat pressed between crunchy scallions and the excellent meatballs seasoned with ginger and shaoxing wine that take on a smoky char before they’re served alongside a dip of katsu sauce with an egg yolk added for richness. The chicken liver skewers are one clear nod to to Puchowitz’s Jewish roots, along with the charred Japanese milk toast topped with chicken liver mousse spiked with sweet mirin and tamari. But the most memorable chicken moment was the hot shot of restorative chicken broth — steeped from the carcasses and tanged with a citrusy whiff of yuzu — that was a bonus offering to the yakitori tasting that brought six different sticks for $18. I could have drunk a bowl.
As with all the Puchowitz-Darragh restaurants, Nunu is a great value, with almost every dish under $15. But the company’s best drink program to date is also one you can settle into (try the excellent flight sakes, or even one of the great draft beers from Oxbow or Tired Hands) curated by an impressively knowledgeable staff. And the crowd has reciprocated by lingering here longer than at any of their other restaurants (a 90-minute average stay vs. less than an hour at the Cheus). It’s the menu’s limitations that shortchange Nunu’s real potential as a more ambitious dining destination.
I loved the additional small plates that bolster the yakitori. The confit-cooked chicken wings, cloaked in an addictive heat that I’m told descends from Kevin Sbraga’s hot chicken, are hard to stop eating, even as they numb the lips and fall off the bone. The grilled avocado, dusted with charred bread crumbs and bejeweled with smoked trout roe, was a mesmerizing combo of creamy, smoky, and salty pop. The mustardy beef tartare and spicy tuna dip with puffed rice crackers piqued the taste buds as only saucy mounds of punchily spiced raw meat can do.
And then, just when you’re ready to turn the corner and dig into a heartier plate, Nunu’s culinary ambition bumps up against the old “dive bar first" guardrails and takes a left turn into the deep fryer.
I love a fried cutlet and french fries as much as the next guy. But the entire back half of Nunu’s menu revolves around some unexciting variations on that theme, with katsu-fried pork, chicken, or vegan Impossible Burgers offered as either sandwiches or curry plates. As a rule, the chicken here was significantly more juicy and flavorful than the pork (which may be the first time I’ve ever said that). Squished with slaw between two overly thick slices of soft Japanese milk bread baked by the Lost Bread Co., that pork cutlet practically disappeared into a generic stripe of white meat.
I much preferred the cutlets as a platter over rice and Nunu’s excellent Japanese curry gravy, a thick tan flow enriched with caramelized onions and grated apples that’s more aromatic than spicy. It’s also gluten-free (thickened with corn starch in lieu of flour) and vegan (made with veg stock), so the kare kare gravy fries can be enjoyed by all. (On that note, the restaurant uses gluten-free tamari and is meticulous about keeping the tare-sauce dips for veggie skewers separate to cater to dietary preferences.)
I’m intrigued by the increasingly popular vegan Impossible Burger as a meat alternative. But I didn’t appreciate the katsu-fried Impossible patty any more than I’d like the juice-stifling crust of a deep-fried beef burger — which is not at all. Even without such a prompt during our interview, Puchowitz indicated the Impossible katsu might be short-lived as his crew sought a healthier approach to that unique product, which, like beef, turns from pink to gray as it cooks. Maybe even “like an actual burger” over the grill.
“We are thinking about doing more and trying to expand the menu on the entrée side, because the downstairs kitchen is big and we can do more,” he said.
He did mention the P-word (pastrami), among other ideas. But I’ll trust one of the city’s most distinctive creative chefs to figure out the rest. I’m at least glad to know that the line between “bar” and “restaurant” is still on the move at Nunu, and that, with a stellar drink program already in place, it’s heading toward more kitchen ambition.
1414 Frankford Ave., 215-278-2804; nunuphilly.com
Hot yakitori skewers, fizzy whisky highballs and crisp katsu cutlets are at the core of this whimsical izakaya in Fishtown from the crew behind neighboring Cheu, which sits on the opposite side of a shared patio. Cozy booths and dangling lanterns keep the red-lit vibe intimate and cool, while the affordable menu veers more traditional than this team’s usual Jewish-Asian fusions. The notable draw here is the distinctive bar program driven by Japanese spirits, sake and shochu, with well-crafted, on-theme cocktails and a personable staff that really knows and loves what it’s selling.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Yakitori (chicken thigh-scallion; chicken meatballs; liver; scallops; mushrooms; Brussels sprouts; hanger steak); hot wings; grilled avocado; beef tartare; spicy tuna dip; chicken katsu (curry plate or sandwich); kare kare fries; ice cream of the night.
DRINK Great Japanese booze — sake, shochu, whisky — anchor an outstanding drink list with personality and the service to back it up, as diners draw fizzy mugs from the chilled Toki whisky highball machine, try a diverse flight of excellent sakes or dip into the earthy subtleties of Japanese shochu (try the sweet potato). The on-theme cocktails are excellent, with Japanese touches to an Old Cuban (Jiro Dreams of Cuba) and the obligatory matcha cocktail (Little Green Monster.) There is also a small but well-curated beer and wine program keyed to pairings that work well with fried food, from Oxbow farmhouse ale to dry Riesling.
WEEKEND NOISE Nunu is a bar first, with loud music, so conversation can sometimes be a challenge, especially right under the speaker above the front booth. Volume level seemed slightly more manageable toward the middle of the room.
IF YOU GO Dinner Monday-Wednesday, 5-11 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, until midnight; Saturday, noon to midnight; Sunday, noon to 11 p.m.
All major cards.
Reservations Sunday to Thursday, with limited availability weekends through the Resy service.