You wouldn’t expect that from the proprietors, the Serafina Restaurant Group, who run a chain of forgettable Italian restaurants (ten outlets in New York and four other cities) and a mediocre French one, Brasserie Cognac.
Nor would you expect it if you’d visited the original Geisha on the Upper East Side, which opened in late 2003, and to which Amanda Hesser of The Times awarded one star. It was a big-box place, too crowded for its own good. Not even a former Le Bernardin sous-chef, with the Ripper himself consulting, could make it memorable. (I visited once, pre-blog.) The original Geisha is closed for now, while it readies “sleek new digs next door.”
Meanwhile, they’ve opened this adorable little izakaya, not at all in the mold of its predecessor (except that it’s still mainly Japanese). It has just 23 seats, all of them at the bar, a counter in back, or a communal table. It won’t attract the glam clientele that was the main appeal of Geisha on the East Side. The food actually matters here.
The menu features sushi, sashimi, rolls, yakitori, tempura, oysters, a few prepared entrées, and a generous listing of blackboard specials that changes frequently. Most individual items are under $15, and many are under $10; a chef’s sushi/sashimi selection is $25 or $45. It is probably better to just let the chef choose (as we did); nothing here is particularly expensive.
Disclosure: the staff recognized me, and our food bill, about $60 for two before tax and tip, was perhaps half of what one would ordinarily pay. For the alcohol we paid full freight.
Sweet corn tempura (above left) was as light as popcorn. This appeared to be a standard amuse bouche that went to every table. A black truffle tuna “sandwich” (above right) must have been a chef’s special—I can find no such item on the standard menu. It was one of the cleverest dishes I have had in a long while.
The chef’s choice sashimi platter had over a dozen items on it, all in pairs. We were charged just $45 for this, and I’m sure it is normally at least double that. Japanese trout (the pink fish in back), deep fried shrimp heads (on the right), and uni (in front) were the most memorable items for me, but it was all very good: one of the most varied and entertaining sashimi omakases I have had in quite a while, and certainly the best at this price.
We then switched to yakitori, including octopus (above left), chicken thigh (above right), and braised short rib (below left).
The chef finished with a deep-fried ball of pork belly (above right), which was insane.
Geisha Table is a single room, carved out of a larger space (formerly The West Branch) that is a 140 seat branch of Serafina. You can enter through the main restaurant on Broadway, or through a less conspicuous separate entrance around the corner, on W. 77th. Despite the shared management, they seem to have little in common. Reservations aren’t taken, but on entering a hostess offers immediately to check your coat, a trick the hostess in Serafina couldn’t manage.
The only drawback here is the seating: inflexible wooden stools, about eight inches in diameter. I felt a loss of circulation in my derrière about fifteen minutes into the meal. For an overweight person, it would be torture. But otherwise, Geisha Table offers a welcome escape from the city streets. It isn’t quite authentic, but in many ways it comes close. The service was wonderful, but I was recognized: you would like to think it’s the same for everyone, but I cannot say.
The executive chef here (Richard Lee) has the same title at Geisha on the East Side. It remains to be seen how he’ll cope with the dual assignment when the sister restaurant re-opens. But Geisha Table’s lilliputian proportions are a hedge against reversion to the mean. When you’re that small, it’s a lot harder to lapse into serving a mediocre product.
In some Tokyo neighborhoods, there’s an izakaya on every street corner, or at least it seems that way. In Manhattan they’re far less common, and I don’t remember finding one as good as this.
Geisha Table (2178 Broadway at 77th Street, Upper West Side)