The neighborhood sake bar you wish you had
Claim to fame: The perfect introduction to sake
Reason to go: Vividly personal takes on Japanese comfort food
To look out for: Kotaro Hayashi’s freshly made udon
Funky, casual, and always packed, Kotaro is the kind of laid-back sake bar you’d love to come home to. If only it were easier to get a seat. As a young man, patron-chef Kotaro Hayashi had wanderlust, and it shows in his cooking, not necessarily in flavor but in temperament. The food he makes respects tradition but is not bound by it, and Hayashi’s hipster-like affinity for the handcrafted comes through in every dish.
The signature potato salad is a great example. Hayashi mashes together two kinds of spuds with crunchy bites of cucumber, but what makes the dish is the soft-boiled egg, gently smoked over cherry wood, and the zesty vinaigrette, punched up with Dijon mustard. Then, there’s the deep-fried sanma (Saury) and satoimo (Taro), covered in a velvety sauce of seasonal mushrooms and crowned with a scarlet cap of spicy grated daikon, a minuet of textures. Charcoal-grilled anago sea eel comes unadorned, cut into bite-sized pieces that Hayashi instructs you to wrap in roasted seaweed with wasabi and simmered kelp. The meal ends on a high note, with hand-cut udon noodles the chef makes every day. They’re dense, chewy, and delectable, sometimes topped with daikon, crispy tempura crumbs, and a squeeze of lemon; or served alla Carbonara with raw egg, butter, and soy sauce.
Kotaro’s short but sweet sake list is as much of a draw as the food. Hayashi’s pairings are thoughtful and precise, but here’s a tip: ask to sample some of the strange and wonderful aged brews in his secret stash. Reservations are by phone only, and you’d do well to call a month in advance.