New York’s hodgepodge of restaurants, secret supper clubs, bars, speakeasies and food trucks is a reflection of the city itself: spirited, diverse and seemingly endless. In homage to the city that never stops eating, we take a Selectism-slanted look inside some of NYC’s most interesting restaurants. We’re not in it strictly for the food; we specifically searched for thoughtfully-designed spaces with menus that act as a natural complement to the restaurant’s overall aesthetic. Welcome to our new series, “Bites by Design.”
In Williamsburg on North 8th, sequestered just off of the main thoroughfare of Bedford, is Cherry Izakaya. Conceptualized by Eugene Morimoto and Jonathan Morr, and realized with the assistance of Brooklyn-based design studio Home, the cheery-and-chic space is Morimoto’s Brooklyn-centric take on a traditional Japanese izakaya. Historically, izakayas are recognized as casual, drink-focused establishments that also serve up straightforward food. Because of the culture of informality surrounding izakayas, it was important to Morimoto that his own riff felt effortless, a bit whimsical and very relaxed.
It begins at the entrance, which boasts a painted brick facade that is precisely on-tempo with the easygoing surrounding neighborhood. The brick is juxtaposed by a series of large windows that come together to vaguely resemble some sort of swanky garage door. They are rimmed with patinated-metal and can be opened outward to create a quasi-outdoor space.
Inside a small, curtain-partitioned vestibule, a vintage yet still fully functional pachinko machine sets the tone for a playful eating experience. Morimoto, who believes a restaurant’s design, layout and food share equal significance, has thoroughly considered what he refers to as “the flow.”
“Someone should always be there to greet the customer,” he says, while indicating to a space just outside of the vestibule where the restaurant’s host and guests first meet.
A charming bar area with upward-soaring shelving creates a division between the restaurant’s upper and lower levels. Looming handsomely above the bar are concave, wood-detailed ceiling panels and specially-designed lighting fixtures. All of Morimoto’s establishments have three levels of lighting; it’s a subtle touch that adds an incredible amount of ambiance. In Cherry Izakaya he employs the actual bar top to accomplish a secondary level of light; there, a trio of industrial banker-style lamps is a modern addition to the bar’s rusticity.
On the second level reclaimed wood is a recurrent theme. Morimoto, who dabbles in real estate development — along with practicing muay thai, DJ’ing, and a number of other hobbies — actually harvested aged wood panels from another project to use as floor timbers. Wooden tables and bench-style seating, most of which have been handmade to Morimoto’s specifications, further imbue a feeling of home and comfort.
To bring brightness and whimsy to the windowless upper level, Morimoto hired a local artist to paint fanciful animal-themed illustration on the walls. He also strategically placed patinated mirrors to reflect, diffuse and soften all three layers of lighting.
Tucked just beyond a service station is yet another flight of stairs; they lead up to a cozy, secret enclave. The previous restaurant owners used the space purely for storage, but Morimoto has converted it into a private dining area that feels slightly claustrophobic until you’re seated in one of the two wooden booths. The booths face toward reclaimed shutters, which open and close for privacy, allowing guests the option of an uninhibited bar view or a quiet, more intimate experience.
Bolstering the comfortable neighborhood drinking hole vibe is chef John Keller’s take on izakaya-inspired casual dining. Since his arrival, he’s worked on updating the existing menu, and has also developed a brunch menu ahead of the introduction of weekend brunch (there was a soft debut this weekend, and this writer personally recommends the cornflake-crusted French toast).
Another one of my favorite dishes was a rather surprising find for a decidedly Japanese-themed restaurant: A satisfying dry-aged beef burger with onion compote. Swaddling the burger is a brioche bun, freshly prepared by a bakery just across the street.
Paired with the burger is a personal menu favorite of Morimoto’s: french fries. They have the addictive, crunchy exterior anything fried deserves, and a soft, creamy interior that is achieved through a three-step cooking process and two rounds of freezer time. The fries are served with citrus aioli and Sriracha, rendering them really, really difficult to stop eating.
On the less meaty side of the spectrum is Keller’s tuna tart with creamy ponzu and white truffle oil (affectionally dubbed “fish yum yum” by our resident photographer). Topped with fresh chives and a light dusting of sea salt, it’s bright, fresh and an ideal portion for small plate sharing. This particular tart is one of Cherry Izakaya’s most popular dishes, and across town at its decadent, subterranean lounge-themed sister Cherry at the Dream Hotel (to be featured soon), there’s another, less casually plated version of the tart on the menu.
Such overlap is very intentional — the mentality being tasty food will always be well-received. In Keller and Morimoto’s opinion, the important part is how each dish is presented with respect to what the restaurant represents. Small touches like plating Cherry Izakaya’s fries in a miniature fryer basket or serving food on plates one might find in a home kitchen, even offering novelty “one-cup” sake bottles; these details combine to create exactly the type of relaxed, unpretentious experience diners crave.