Restaurant Review

Izakaya

In Japan, everyone eats, drinks, and socializes at casual pubs called izakayas. During a year in Japan, chef Michael Schulson fell in love with izakayas. Now he has created an eye-popping one of his own at the Borgata.

"I like to get people to try things they haven't eaten before," says executive chef Michael Schulson.
Photo by Erik Rank.

You might recognize the handsome, sandy-haired chef from his Style Network series, Pantry Raid, or aspects of his food from the Buddakans in Philadelphia and New York, where he served as chef de cuisine and executive chef, respectively.

Now, for the first time in his peripatetic career, Michael Schulson is at the helm of his own restaurant. You can see him striding through Izakaya in the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa wearing his white chef’s jacket and True Religion jeans. More important, you can enjoy a dining experience that brings together Schulson’s background and influences—his C.I.A. training, his travels in Japan, his imagination, and his showmanship.

Izakayas are the pubs of Japan—casual places for kicking back with friends after work, perhaps grabbing the karaoke mike, and definitely enjoying plenty of sake and beer and a range of foods that complement them. “Some izakayas are ultra-designed, some are holes in the wall,” Schulson says. “Some are dives that look disgusting, but when you sit down and eat, you go, ‘Wow!’ Then you send everyone you know.”
Schulson’s Izakaya is of the ultra-designed school, which makes sense since it has to pull its weight in glitzy Atlantic City. The ceilings and music volume are high, the lights and necklines, low. But there’s ample substance behind the style.

“I spend half the day on the phone with fish purveyors,” Schulson says. “My wife is ready to divorce me.” He’s joking, of course, but not about his seafood fanaticism. Five different purveyors. More than a dozen fish deliveries a week. Everything arrives whole, to be broken down in-house. “Literally, my guys spend all day cleaning fish.”

Schulson, 35, grew up on Long Island, earned a C.I.A. degree, and cooked at the Waldorf Astoria and the Park Avenue Cafe in New York and Le Bec Fin in Philly before spending almost a  year (2001-2) as a chef at the Four Seasons and Spago in Tokyo.

He used the time to explore the world of izakayas. Some serve sushi, tempura, stews, and noodles—even Italian-style pasta. Some specialize in robatayaki, a small-plates cuisine of skewered grilled meats, fish, and vegetables.

There’s an anecdote or taste memory behind almost every dish at Izakaya, from the broiled miso-glazed cod (“It’s everywhere in Japan. If I didn’t have it at Izakaya, it would be like going to a diner and not being able to get a hamburger.”) to the Kinki chicken wings. (“Named for Kinki prefecture, about an hour outside Tokyo. When I had them there, they were the best freaking wings I’d ever eaten.”)

Those wings were so good that when Schulson was researching Izakaya, he went back to Japan to get the recipe, which he follows faithfully. The wings are rubbed with salt, sugar, and five-spice powder. After 24 hours, the mixture is rinsed off, and the wings are patted dry and slowly simmered in duck fat, turning them into confit. When ordered, they are deep-fried and lacquered with a sauce made with ketchup, rice vinegar, finger chilies, roasted garlic, cilantro, mint, and more than a dozen other ingredients. Schulson’s Kinkis will unkink your tastebuds—they are crispy, juicy, spicy, and the best freaking wings I’ve ever eaten as well.

Izakaya’s sushi bar is elevated a few feet above the dining room. Three-pound Japanese geoducks, a species of giant saltwater clam, are treated to a ten-second sake poach, which loosens the membrane enclosing the clam’s 10-inch-long siphon. Then the sushi chefs remove the membrane and whittle down the siphons for sushi and sashimi. These clam strips are unlike any clam strips I’ve had in Jersey. The ivory flesh is firm at first contact, but then your teeth sink into a surprisingly yielding softness with a delicate flavor.

“I really want people to be able to taste a clear progression of Asian ingredients throughout the meal,” Schul-son says. Take shiso, the mint-like Asian herb. It provides the green bits floating like lily pads in the signature gin martini; it is the edible leaf poised against the buttery sashimi of golden Thai snapper; minced, it is in the crust on a tender lamb chop served over soy-braised daikon; and it infuses a simple syrup that enlivens the seltzer splashed over seasonal sorbets.

You’ll find hand-grated wasabi in the sauce on the gorgeous Australian Tajima Kobe sirloin; in a wicked banana split; and in a dark-chocolate fudge streaking a trio of green tea ice cream sandwiches on dainty French-style chocolate macaroons.

Not everything was so fine. Service was sweet and friendly one night; rushed and impersonal another. The char siu buns, served with the pork belly BLT, were hard and flat instead of light and fluffy. Hamachi is one of the most luscious of all sushi fish, but the overkill of brining, smoking, and pan-searing did it a disservice.

Yet the good far outweighs the bad. Many pleasures lurk in the small-plates section: sweet Japanese eggplant, seared then tossed in red miso and mint; skewered king crab and woodsy sage-dusted chicken grilled at the robatayaki bar; and cloud-like yuzu soufflé. The gumdrop-sized edamame dumplings, Schulson’s self-proclaimed signature dish, float in judiciously truffled sake broth like little green buoys. They’re creamy, ethereal, and available for sale on MichaelSchulson.com and, improbably, the Home Shopping Network.

Tea at Izakaya may not be the classic Japanese ceremony, but there is plenty of ceremony to it. Servers arrive carrying a sleek, stainless steel and ceramic tea set by French industrial designer Guy Degrenne.  Brewed tableside, the teas include an invigorating Moroccan mint gunpowder, a cocoa-tinged Golden Monkey, and several other intriguing blends imported by Cynthia Wahl of Cynthia’s Premium Tea in Dublin, Pennsylvania.

“The beauty of Izakaya,” Schulson says, “is that anyone can come in here; you don’t have to be rich. There’s cheap items and expensive items.

“Hold onto your menu, eat, drink, eat some more, hang out, and have a good time. I guarantee you that people who think they hate Japanese food will find something they love here.”

Click here to read a detailed review of five of the fifty premium sakes offered at Izakaya.

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Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
    Asian - Japanese
  • Price Range:
    Expensive

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