Prospect Heights: Bar Chuko
The new Barclay's Center has this odd ability to appear both hulking and invisible. On the one hand it takes over a massive swath of blocks in downtown Brooklyn, and on the other it recedes into the background as if it were a mirage.
Bar Chuko, the sister restaurant to Chuko, the excellent ramen shop on Vanderbilt Avenue at Dean Street, is just a stones throw away from the arena. I didn't have plans to drop in, but there was something about the light, and the hour, and the World Cup finally being over that I found myself looking over their izakaya style menu taped to the front window. The next thing I knew I was sitting at the bar. Really.
Like Chuko, Bar Chuko is easy on the eyes. There's a long bar on one side and heaps of blond wood tables, and brick on the opposite wall. At the far end is a tiny window where you can get a glimpse of a chef or two. The server's even wear the same deep v-neck t-shirts in both restaurants. I know because I have the same one. (Perhaps I should ask for a job?) Everything is understated and pleasant--not generic--but simple. I found it very soothing after several weeks of World Cup mayhem.
The menu is two-sided and densely covered in options. One side has almost anything you might want to drink: sake, wine, sparkling wine, beer, whiskey, Japanese whiskey, and the list goes on. I shared a glass of a sake that was reported to taste of melon. It arrived in a tiny little wine tumbler and it tasted like melon. Traditionally izakaya has referred to drinking establishments, but let's thank our lucky stars that Bar Chuko also exists for eating.
We weren't really hungry but we both wanted to try a few dishes to get an idea of what Bar Chuko had going on. After a few go arounds, and a quick decision not to order anything fried, we settled on the chilled fresh tofu, grilled shisito peppers stuffed with chicken and okonomiyaki.
Cold-pressed tofu at Bar Chuko: cucumbers, tomatoes, basil, in a ginger soy dashi.
When the chilled tofu was set in front of us it looked like it was nothing more than a sprinkling of tomatoes and broth. We looked at each other and back at the dish. Where's the tofu, we wondered. Underneath the tomatoes? The dish was a mystery until we plunged a spoon into the ginger-dashi broth to discover the tofu was there, hiding as if it was a savory flan. The flavor was summer at its apex. The cherry tomatoes burst in my mouth and tasted as if they had just been picked. The slivers of purple basil reminded me of the very best bruschetta. The cold tofu was a custardy compliment to the tangy sweet bites on top. I wanted to recreate the dish at home. Maybe as a serving of gazpacho on a layer of tofu? It's one flaw was that it was a teeny bit over salted. I survived.
Skewers are an izakaya standard and the menu details options like gizzards and hearts and skin, which I'm not scared of, but we opted for the vegetarian fake out: shisito peppers, splayed open to hold a chicken meatball-like filling. The peppers were savory and seasoned just right and the meat filling could be served with a red sauce and still succeed. They're emblematic of what is possible with this menu at Bar Chuko, a twist on the traditional.
Our last dish was okonomiyaki, a savory pancake made with a mix of whatever you have at hand. Of course there are some basics that it generally has, like flour, dashi, eggs, shredded cabbage, and on top some wiggling bonito flakes and squiggles of tangy barbecue sauce. Bar Chuko's version includes everyone's favorite: bacon. It's Japanese comfort food for sure. (I guess we didn't do a perfect job at eating "light.") The cabbage still had enough bite to make it feel like I was eating vegetables, and the egg, bacon and sweet barbecue sauce crafted it into a breakfast treat for dinner.
The light that comes into Bar Chuko makes you want to become a regular where everyone learns your favorite drink (whiskey, yuzu and a lemon peel ftw). The last thing I learned before we left was that in about a year there will be a looming high rise across the street, which means that golden light will be blocked and Bar Chuko will have to rely on their food to create that 5 p.m. magic. Thankfully we have one more year to enjoy it.