Wednesday, January 07, 2009
Linn Restaurant - great Japanese food in Astoria, Queens
You may be under the impression that all the great New York restaurants are in Manhattan. Wrong! Some of the best ethnic food exists outside of Manhattan, in tiny little restaurants run by immigrants. One of the best outer borough neighborhoods for this kind of food has always been Astoria, Queens, which is traditionally a Greek neighborhood but also has a great selection of Italian and other Mediterranean food. There are probably more restaurants per capita in Astoria than anywhere in Manhattan. I've actually lived in Astoria twice, and it is one of my favorite neighborhoods in New York. Great food, great people, and while a lot of Manhattan has been on a gentrification spree, Astoria has always maintained a balance between tradition and trendiness.
One thing the neighborhood never had before was a really authentic and really good Japanese restaurant. Well, that's changed.
Astoria, NY 11106
There are two kinds of Japanese restaurants in New York City. There's "New York style" Japanese (some high-end places like Megu and Nobu fit that definition) and then there are restaurants that are really like walking into Tokyo. They may be trendy or rustic, expensive or cheap, but they have in common the fact that you might expect to find a restaurant exactly like that while strolling through Akasaka or Shibuya or Ebisu or wherever your favorite Tokyo neighborhood happens to be. Linn is in that latter category, though it is on the trendier side. (Tokyo's a pretty trendy city too.)
Linn actually used to be a different Japanese restaurant, called Shima. I ate there once, and that was enough. This is not Shima, which closed some time ago. Linn is 100% new and different, just occupying the same address.
My wife and I ate there last weekend because she knows the owner and head chef. So, call this a biased review if you want. But if I didn't have a good experience, I just wouldn't write anything. So the fact that you're seeing this here at all means something.
Photo shamelessly lifted from the restaurant's web site (as are several others here):
This photo was actually taken from the seat where my wife sat. I would have been just to the right.
The chef's name is Tanaka Shigenori, and before opening this place, he was a chef at Morimoto and Masa, two of New York's most famous Japanese restaurants. He was part of the reason for their success. He told us a story - and I can't vouch for the accuracy but I have no reason to disbelieve him - of how he had a run-in with one of the managers at Morimoto and quit. Well, Masuharu Morimoto himself fired the manager and re-hired Tanaka. Assuming that's true, it should tell you a little bit about this guy's skills.
We sat at the sushi counter, where we could talk to him and watch him work. Obviously my wife did most of the talking as I ate, translating for me when needed. (He does speak English, but obviously not to a native Japanese speaker.) We ordered beer to start and then on Tanaka's recommendation I settled on the beef teriyaki while my wife ordered up the chirashi - a dish she gets almost every time we have Japanese (not to mention when she actually lived there), so she's got a good basis for comparison. If you've never had it, chirashi is basically just a big bowl of sushi - the rice is at the bottom of the bowl, with various kinds of fish and other sushi varieties on top.
The counter area:
We ordered Sapporo, as we noticed it was available on draft, and I was shocked by how different it was from literally every other Japanese restaurant that serves Sapporo in this city. It tasted as good as the stuff we got fresh from the brewery in Tokyo. Even the texture was different from every other restaurant, with tiny Champagne-like bubbles. You may remember that Japanese beer in the US has been a sore spot with me for a while - even high-end restaurants in New York just serve a terrible glass (or bottle) of Sapporo.
I told Tanaka this and he explained that for Sapporo beer, maintenance is very important. He cleans the entire draft system every night. He knew exactly what I was talking about when I said the Sapporo I'd gotten at other restaurants - including four-star places like Megu - tasted skunky and nasty, even on draft. He said it's because they don't clean the tap and kegs. He even told us that Sapporo themselves have to go around inspecting restaurants these days because they get complaints from Japanese customers about this. He has never failed an inspection.
My beef teriyaki was honestly the best I have ever had. Most Japanese restaurants will use poor-quality beef and attempt to cover it up with the sauce. Not at Linn. I've had Kobe beef, and this was actually more tender than that (admittedly, I've only had the California variety of "Kobe beef"). I could literally cut it with my chopsticks. And I could taste it; it wasn't just doused in an overwhelming teriyaki sauce. It was served pretty rustically on a heavy and still-searing cast iron pan, which gets extra points from me.
Apologies for the poor quality cell phone pic, which I know does not do his food justice, especially in color:
Here's a better picture of some of his food, just to show you something a little more artful (not my photo):
My wife similarly said it had been a long, long time since she's had chirashi as good as what she had at Linn - and as I said, she gets it almost every time we eat Japanese. I asked Tanaka where he gets his fish, and he replied "Tsukiji".
That's a pretty significant fact. Tsukiji is the main fish market in Tokyo, not New York. He actually has someone buy his fish for him there and ship it fresh to New York. It really doesn't get any more authentic than this - most Japanese restaurants in New York (including at least a few of the famous ones) get their fish from the Fulton Fish Market. You're eating a Japanese dish with American fish. Not the case at Linn. This is 100% Japanese sushi, both in the raw materials and the preparation.
I was somewhat disappointed that they were out of the black sesame ice cream I had ordered for dessert. This is something I've found in only one other restaurant in New York - Sakagura (as part of their unbelievable black sesame creme brulee) - and I don't get to eat it very often. I settled on the fried ice cream instead, which is something I've never actually had before but always associated with cheap Chinese restaurants. But it was amazing, with a really crispy/soft pastry shell, lots of fresh berries and two sauces (chocolate and I believe raspberry). Again, my cell phone really makes kind of a travesty out of the photo:
This is probably the most "western" dessert they offer, actually - if there's one thing I still have a hard time with in Japanese cuisine, it's the desserts. Lots of tofu and red bean and whatnot. And that's most of the dessert menu here.
We were there on a Saturday night and it was packed by the time we left, with a line waiting to be seated. This is a new restaurant, but it looks like Tanaka's already making a name for himself. He explained that he was originally closed for lunch and on Mondays, but that now he's open 7 days and all day long to meet demand.
The prices are reasonable. Our total for two, including drinks, entrees and dessert, was around $70.
One more dessert shot to leave you with:
I'd love to know where he gets those berries. I never found anywhere in Astoria that sold anything that fresh.