A quick glance at Y Canteen on Sixth Avenue
would lead one to believe that the eatery is another slick, Park
Slope sushi bar. All the elements are there, from the bar where
a chef slices and rolls to the rows of wooden tables with benches.
Look a bit closer, though, and you’ll notice that Y Canteen, the second Park Slope restaurant opened by Nana owner and chef Eric Ong, offers much more than standard sushi and sashimi.
What you’ll sense first is the quiet. Walk into the restaurant and the din of noisy Sixth Avenue, where Y Canteen opened 15 months ago in the old Olive Vine space, is shut out. So serene is the room that you have to listen carefully to hear the elegant jazz riffs playing softly.
Stroll through the dining area, and you’ll find an outdoor garden surrounded by a tall wooden fence. Bird cages hung with tiny white Christmas lights descend from the trees, and a huge clock with a slowly moving second hand is projected onto the brick wall giving the experience an amusing, surreal edge. As quirky as the ambience is, it is not the reason diners visit Y Canteen.
The hook is the "yakitori."
In fact, the "Y" in Y Canteen stands for "yakitori," a Japanese kebab of sorts. Short skewers hold small slices or cubes of meat, seafood and vegetables seasoned with a sweetish soy-based sauce ("tare") or salt ("shio") and then grilled. Each serving is about two bites worth of ingredients.
"In Japan the ’yakitori’ is street food," says Ong, "meant for snacking."
One can order the little bites singly or in pairs with an imported beer, the "Gingersnap" (a cocktail made with a puree of fresh ginger, sake and "soju" - a strong, transparent, distilled liquor - that may be the best palate refresher to come along since lemon sorbet), or one of 25 different sakes served cold.
At $2-$2.50 a pop, you won’t go broke filling up on "yakitori," but nibbling your way through the kebabs will have its ups and downs. Some are simply "eh" (their flavors too subtly seasoned to add up to much), while others, like a beef with pineapple, are wildly delicious.
I’d pass on the bland "chicken loin," its basting of soy and wasabi barely making an impression on the white meat, and skip the oddly flavorless skewer of shiitake mushrooms, for the luscious quail eggs wrapped in bacon. The strip of lightly salted meat adds richness to the creamy-centered eggs. I could have downed 10 of them.
Big prawns rubbed with curry were sweet and hot, the grill leaving its impression on the delicate shrimp. Slices of eggplant possessed a nutty, sesame-laced tang. And there’s the rib-eye steak with pineapple. The small squares of decadently fatty meat, sweetened by the fruit’s juices, were so luscious that eating just one serving felt like a tragedy.
At the request of his customers, Ong added sushi and sashimi to the menu a couple of months ago. The fish is impeccably fresh, as are all the ingredients the restaurant utilizes. But, neither of the rolls I tried - the "Crazy Shrek" (rice surrounding a filling of raw salmon, tuna, tomato, egg and avocado) and the "Norwegian Roll" (slices of salmon skin and avocado layered around rice, with a center of salmon skin, cucumber and a hit of wasabi) - were especially satisfying. While their ingredients created an interesting medley of soft textures and crunch, the delicate combination of tastes needed a spark that even the wasabi of the "Norwegian Roll" didn’t provide.
Vegetarians will appreciate the "Vietnamese Vegetables Spring Roll" or about five little, deep-fried wrappers filled with cellophane noodles and chopped vegetables and served with a light and refreshing lime sauce. There are also vegetarian versions of "yakitori" including assorted vegetables, or, in a mockitori of sorts: shiitake, vegi-chicken, vegi-beef, vegi-duck and miso rice. Mock duck makes an appearance in teriyaki, too.
As for dessert, there are three choices: house-made green tea or red-bean ice cream, and molten chocolate cake.
It doesn’t matter where I’m dining - a Japanese restaurant, French bistro or Italian trattoria - there’s no escaping that chocolate cake. Ong makes a fine rendition of the dessert; it’s not too sweet, perfectly liquefied in the center and it’s served with a big scoop of slightly bitter green tea ice cream that amps up the flavor of the cocoa.
I’d have loved it if it were the first - or even the 10th time - I’ve tried this dish. Being that the number is closer to 1000, the thrill is gone for me.
There are so many things to like about Y Canteen. The first would be the "Gingersnap." Then there are the kebabs, of course, but what makes Y Canteen a pleasure is its tranquil, quirky ambience. This restaurant is an original.
Y Canteen (131 Sixth Ave. between Sterling Place and Park Place in Park Slope) accepts MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $9-$18. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner daily. For more information call (718) 230-3935 and (718) 230-3936.