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Japonica, 100 University Place at Union Square - Casual, Bountiful Japanese since 1978

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Looking for a last minute, good quality, moderately priced sushi place in NY isn't an easy task. There are so many in the mid range. And, most of those are pretty bad, comically overpriced, or both. And, we had an additional constraint of neighborhood.

darkstar965 had the constraint of neighborhood, driving him to Raku II, we had the constraint of a late (3 PM) lunch - most places in town had closed, but Japonica was serving until 4:30.

Japonica opened in 1978, and has received more than its share of press in its decades of existence - if you go to their website, you'll see plenty of rave reviews, including some "Best Of" mentions, but they're undated, and my how standards have changed in the past thirty years.

I made the mistake of thinking I'd walk from Columbus Circle to Japonica in about an hour. Doable, of course, but not walking smack dab through the middle of Times Square the week between Christmas and New Years. Bad, bad, idea, Don, and for block after block, the crowd density was such that I was barely moving. Fifty minutes into my walk, I wasn't even halfway there, and got a text message from Sasha saying, "I'm at a table." Whoops, time to cab.

After that hectic walk, walking into a nearly empty Japonica was exactly the comforting experience I needed, its well-worn but attractive feel just oozing comfort - I apologized for being late, and immediately ordered a cup of tea. Sasha used to work in this neighborhood, and knows the restaurant well, having been here many times. 'You can always find something good here,' was the distillation of his thoughts.

And we sure did: an appetizer of Yasai Tempura ($13.50) was, for me, the highlight of the meal. "It's all Japanese pumpkin," our server advised us, and when it arrived we dug right in - an ample portion of perhaps eight wedges, perfectly fried in clean oil, brought to life by its dipping sauce. It was just the heat and the bulk we needed to round out our sashimi and sushi (it actually more than "rounded out" everything; we over-ordered, plain and simple).

Sasha had ordered a favorite of his, a plate of Yakko-Tofu ($6.00), served unadorned except for some scallion and some soy sauce. This was a satisfying dish - for me, there are "different tofus for different situations," but if I had just one texture and prep to have for the rest of my life, this would be it. Plain, unfussy, and of pretty good quality - this type of presentation is in danger of being served too cold (often pulled from a 40-degree refrigerator), but this was merely cool, and correctly so.

The raw fish arrived next, a mixture of Sake Maki ($9 + $2 for inside-out), and our guilty luxury, two pieces each of sashimi from the daily-special list: Yellowtail ($5.50 each) and Blue Fin Tuna (a painful $7.75 each). While I was disturbed at the price of these, I was equally astounded at the portion sizes - the roll was very large, really too large for single bites, and the sashimi was larger still, absolutely a double portion. I understand that people have primal cravings for massive amounts of raw fish (and I do, too); Sasha mentioned he brought a Japanese friend here a few years ago, and the critique was that the fish was cut too large, tilting things out of balance. I agree (though the caveman in me really did appreciate the quantity, I must admit).

There's no doubt about it, we ordered too much for a "light lunch" - the tally, before tip, was just under $70 which was fair value for what we had. We both left happy, sated, and more than just a little primed for eight hours of wine tasting and dining soon to follow.



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Back when I worked in this neighborhood, one of my favorite items to order from the daily-specials menu was bonito. Don't know if they still serve it regularly, but it was exceptional when they did, and the portions were not too large in this case.

And the fish was best on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays back then. Go figure.

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