Restaurant review: Ninja New York

23 July 2008

As you'll recall from a couple of months ago, I presided over the wedding of Elwing and Irregular Expression in exchange for going out to dinner at some point in the future. Because Elwing was presenting at The Last HOPE and I was there as a guest, we arranged to go out for dinner while in New York City. Elwing had organized an outing to a restaurant called Ninja New York (25 Hudson Street; New York, NY 10013; phone 212-274-8500; open 1745-2300 EST5EDT). With a name like that, I just had to go to see what it was all about.

The crew met up in the lobby of the Hotel Pennsylvania around 2000 EST5EDT on Saturday and we trooped across the street to the subway station to pick up riders' passes and hit the tube uptown. Oddly enough, a pair of tourists who were on their way out of the city handed Katie and I a pair of day passes, so we didn't actually have to pay for transportation to and from.

John C. Lilly, thou art avenged. Again. After a bit of a hike from the subway station, we discovered that Ninja NYC was, in fact, as stealthy as the warriors it was named after. It's a small, unassuming glass door with a Japanese lantern outside two or three blocks from the subway station (what, you expected me to actually know where it was?) and a small diamond-shaped insignia. After entering we discovered that they kept the air conditioning running full blast to keep the sledgehammer of hot, humid NYC air from knocking everyone flat whenever the door opened. The walls, floor, and ceiling of the foyer are painted a slightly glossy black color, with occasional splashes of color coming from the t-shirts on the wall (black (naturally) and white only), which I briefly considered purchasing for a friend of mine who has remarked from time to time that she needs a proper mask and people's hair.

When our table was ready, our waitress lead us down two flights of (black) stairs, where a member of the waitstaff, dressed like what most people tend to think a ninja not on a mission looks like jumped out at the first person in the queue to scare the hell out of them, and then lead us inside the restaurant proper. Seating at Ninja NYC is broken up into smallish rooms with European-style tables divided up by (black) lacquered sliding partitions, and it appears that there are several different sizes of them. The table we were seated at was large enough for a party of twelve. The lighting is variable and artfully concealed by tubes of bamboo that cover the power tracks of small spotlights.

The waitstaff seems to enjoy sneaking into and out of the rooms to take orders and surprise people, so be prepared to jump at least once. The menus are printed on what appeared to be a paper-like sheet of Tyvek (judging from the texture and how it unravelled at the edges) and rolled up into (yes, black) scrolls, which the waitstaff snap open just shy of your face, a nice touch, I thought.

"Hi, my name is Amanda, and I'll be your ninja tonight." (name changed because I actually didn't catch her name.)

Polite chuckles all around that were taken in good humor; after observing the waitstaff (there were three or four people who took care of our party) they seemed to enjoy their schtick immensely, which really added to the experience. Everyone involved seemed to have a good time, which I really appreciate in a restaurant setting.

In addition to the four dinners (Kunoichih, Sasuke, Hanzo, and Saizo) it is also possible to piece together a dinner ala carte, which was a great relief because I'm not really a fan of steak, as a main course or otherwise. I ordered the dancing plantain (which was fried and served with steamed vegetables) as my appetizer and sushi (spicy tuna roll and the jalapeno star) for the main course. Dessert was a confection called the rose chocolate, which consisted of a layered pudding of chocolate flan, chocolate cream, chocolate sorbet, and caramelized mousse served with a fresh red rose frozen upright in a glass filled with water and dry ice (after dinner, I cut it loose and wore it in the breast pocket of my waistcoat as a souvenier).

I'm not going to break down each dish because they were all excellent - no elaboration is necessary. Afterward, I heard good things from the others in the party about the spicy salmon roll, the umaki, the batto jutso (Thai style roasted duck), ninja star dessert, clam bombshells (set aflame with flash paper and vodka ninja magick), and t-bone steak. No complaints and smiles all around.

After dinner but during dessert we were paid a visit by another member of the waitstaff, a guy whom I've dubbed the Ninja Surfer Magician because he had a classic surfer's haircut and accent. Different than the sort of magician I usually hang out with, he performed a couple of close-up illusions for us that were greatly enjoyed (as we told him, if we were quiet we were still figuring out how he did them), especially one which ostensibly involved solving a Rubik's cube in mid-air and then causing it to duplicate. His close up card tricks were extremely well done, and his card force is impressive to watch in action. He also had a snappy patter that kept us involved and amused - he's the sort of guy your brother would hang out with that kept you in stitches as a kid, you know?

Tip that man well.

My overall rating of Ninja NYC?

Wait for it...

Zero flareguns.

Yes, that's right. Zero flareguns.

If you go to New York City for longer than a day and you happen to like Japanese food, you really, really need to get dinner at Ninja NYC. Make reservations two or three weeks in advance so that you are certain of getting a table. The food is nothing short of excellent, the service is incredibly attentive, speedy, and well-rehearsed, and the ambiance of 80's ninja movie kitsch is enjoyable by most everyone. The food's expensive but you're paying for the experience just as much as you are the food.

I'll be going here the next time I'm in the Big Apple. Count on it.