Hakata Tonton is a discreet wonder not too far off from the Christopher St subway station.
Like other unimaginative Asian restaurants, its interior is dominated by a sprightly flaming red color, while the rest of the space stays modest with a mediocre wood set-up. But don’t be discouraged by the bland interior, for a cursory glance at the restaurant’s eclectic, well-balanced menu will immediately convince you that this is not your typical izakaya eatery. I ordered a small selection of dishes that would fulfill my penchant for the exotic and flavorful.
The monkfish liver and caviar gave me a heady start. Fishy and complex in flavors like uni, the dense and decadent monkfish liver did not need more than a dash of ponzu sauce and bits of scallion to flatter its richness. My friend who was visiting from Boston found it too heavy to stomach, small as it was. But it was definitely not the case for a foie gras fetishist like me.
Monkfish Liver with Ponzu and Cod Roe
The weight picked up with our second small plate dish, the fried pork tonsoku with spicy garlic sauce, one of the restaurant’s signature dishes. For those of us who don’t watch enough anime or grow up with Japanese food, tonsoku is just an unknown word with meaningless syllables spoken by faraway people. I confess I was not aware what tonsoku was, until three of it arrived on a hot plate in front of me.
Tonsoku is pig’s feet (that’s pied de cochon for those of you learning French). Yes. Feet. Chef Himi Okajima created Hakata Tonton with a cultlike devotion to pig’s feet, pig’s feet carbonara, pig’s feet gyoza – all make for scrumptious dishes that would charm the most fervent admirers of pork (like me) as well as its bitter skeptics. First opened in October 2007, Hakata Tonton offers delicious renditions of authentic Kyushu Japanese Soul food from Hakata, Japan, that often specializes in pork, collagen and cod roe.
The fried tonsoku is a refined version of chicken’s feet you find in Sunday afternoon dim sums – the skin is shimmering white gold, doubly-saturated in fatty goodness and has a clean, sharp taste from dried chili and garlic oil; the fat insulating the bone is clear and gelatinous, but lighter and more ebullient than, say, that of a nicely cooked korubuta kakuni (braised pork belly). One juicy bite and I was a believer.
The showpiece of the menu is the Hakata Tonton hot pot – a large stone pot of tofu, dumplings, vegetables, Berkshire pork belly and tonsoku sitting atop the collagen broth. I enjoyed every bit of the hot pot, for each element adds to the collective flavor and retains some of its own sweetness. Exquisite Goji berries agreeably infused the broth, and the broth infused the scallions and vegetables to tender sweetness.
The broth has such a distinctive taste compared to any other broth I’ve tasted, it made the hot pot arguably the best I’ve had in years. It was a value meal ($13/ person) considering the generous servings of pork dumplings and pork belly and pork’s feet. My friend and I considered stopping halfway down the pot. But it was all too much of a temptation, and we relished everything down to the broth.
Happy and overwhelmed by the experience, we left, lest we pass out on the chairs and never return to our everyday lives. But apparently not before the waiter handed us some Pez to go.
61 Grove St NEW YORK, NY 10014
(between Bleecker St. &7th Ave. )
Hours: Mon-Thu, 6 pm- 12am, Fri-Sat, 6pm- 1 am
Phone: (212) 242-3699
Nearest Subway: 1 at Christopher St.-Sheridan Sq.; A, B, C, D, E, F, V at W. 4th St.-Washington Sq.
Prices: $4-$24; tasting menu, $38-$45
Reservation: Highly recommended
The Glutton is a column about navigating the vastly epicurean New York City and finding enduring pleasure and fulfillment in small, savory bites along the way.