Never trust internet reviewers, at least when it comes to restaurants, and certainly not for Chinatown’s Mika, a Japanese restaurant perched on the unassuming, yet very Tokyo-esque second floor at 150 Centre St. For one thing, the happy customers are probably drunk off their oshiri, if you get my meaning, on the excellent selection of sakes or Sapporo beer. Their private room looks perfect for drunken revelry. For another, the energy to type up a review generally comes from a bad experience- hard to believe, now I’ve tried Mika’s excellent Japanese dinner.
I wasn’t expecting too much, having questionable experiences in Japanese restaurants run by people who have never seen the urban labyrinths or pristine oceans of Japan. From the first taste of their chilled, lovingly garnished tofu, spicy jellyfish salad, and surprisingly fresh, still-warm edamame, my preconceptions started to shake. The excellent house genmai tea moved me yet further (a pet peeve of any Asian), and when their enormous sashimi platter arrived, I felt my mind exit Mythbuster-style from my ears. I hadn’t seen something this amazing since Hokkaido!
Mika seems confusing, and even for a Hong Kong native, I didn’t see the anachronism at first; everything became clear when I realized the front of house management is Chinese, while the back of house is run by a Japanese chef. The result is the uniquely Chinatown waiting experience, where the staff are briskly efficient and the management are hands-on with the order, suggesting the day’s specials or fresh seafood of the day. John would not be out of place two blocks down, getting chummy with regulars at the dim sum restaurants, while Winnie comes round expertly suggesting sake pairings or showcasing a particularly delicious sashimi. Friday night was filled with couples and local Chinese, evidently hoarding this gem to themselves.
Where Mika really shines is after 6 or so, Wed-Sat, when Head Chef Koba-san’s iron fist descends upon the kitchen. A 40-year veteran in NYC, his food is disciplined and perfectly executed in the true Japanese spirit, playing ninja under the unassuming menu names one might find at any neighborhood Japanese place. I still recall fondly the salmon skin hand roll, cooked to leave a juicy strip of fat in the skin, drenched in savory, spiced sauce, accentuated perfectly with fresh microgreens, cool cucumber, and perfectly balanced sushi rice. Not to say there isn’t a lot of flexibility and creativity; quite the opposite. Oddballs like tempura burdock root offer a refreshing change on a classic, while a simple, broth-based conch served on a flaming wad of parafin gel offers a smoky, savory counterpoint to all the fresh items on display.
There’s even plenty for the vegetarian: a tempura soba, wrapped in nori and doused in some of the best broth this side of Kyoto. Meat-lovers will be pleasantly surprised to find a filet mignon on the menu, appropriately done in a washoku style. Deep-fried cheesecake and the aforementioned sake selections round out the meal nicely; don’t be shy trying an unfiltered nigori with your dessert!
I’ve actually visited Mika before for lunch, and to be fair, all those Yelp reviewers who call the place “unremarkable” or “average” are right- you can find similar noodle bowls and lunch specials in any Japanese restaurant in the city, though not anywhere else in Chinatown. Come in for their dinner, or their special events like the remarkably culture-conscious maid cafe this Sunday, and I can guarantee you: under no circumstance should you believe everything on the internet. Mika is AWESOME.