525 Frenchman Street
New Orleans, LA 70116
Napoleon's Ratings - ***/*****
Our expectations for Japanese food here in New Orleans tend toward the sushi bar, or maybe those restaurants combining sushi bars and hibachi tables. But Yuki Izakaya is something quite different. There is no sushi bar here, but rather a drinking bar and a kitchen turning out small portions of Japanese bar food, soups and appetizers. It's tempting to call this tapas-style dining, but in fact the "izakaya" is its own well-established genre. An izakaya is essentially a type of tavern or bar and grill that is common in Japan. This tavern's owner and namesake is Yuki Yamaguchi, a New Orleans transplant from Shizuoka, Japan, and many of the recipes come directly from her family overseas.
Yuki Izakaya's primary identity wavers between eatery and Frenchmen Street nightspot, and as the hour grows later it feels and sounds increasingly like a club. There's often a DJ performing and sometimes musicians will set up in a tiny corner of the room. But earlier in the night most people come in looking for at least a snack, if not dinner. There are no windows and unless the huge front door happens to be open the place will be dimly lit. The restrooms are decorated with edgy collages of Japanese B-movies. Only adventurous parents would want to bring young kids here.
Staff at Yuki must switch between bartender and waitress constantly, and they certainly seem to manage the two hats well under the circumstances. For fastest service, of course, eat at the bar. For the most coherent, ordered service, come earlier in the evening before the bar crowd begins taking over. The kitchen stays open as late as demand keeps up, which can last into the early morning hours.
The standard appetizer and entrée format doesn't apply at Yuki, where the menu lists items by preparation style (fried or pickled or grilled or sautéed). The ideal way to experience izakaya eating is to order up an assortment of small dishes to share with friends in whatever order the dishes come out. Don't miss the karaage, which is fried chicken thighs marinated in ginger and soy. Tear off little pieces and dip them in the hot sauce or tangy, green vinaigrette served on the side. Small clams are soaked in a salty sake butter broth and there are plenty of Japanese noodle soups and hearty stews, including a spicy Korean-style kimchee with tuna and tofu. There's grilled eel or grilled beef tongue available. Eel turns up at many sushi bars, but here it is served as chunks on skewers with glistening skin caramelized into a sweet crust. The tongue is simply seasoned with salt, pepper and lemon and sautéed in butter until the thin slices resemble bacon. This is not the place to look for California rolls, but the handful of sashimi options Yuki serves are distinctive. For instance, the salmon carpaccio has gorgeous, thin slices of the bright orange fish topped with a relish that tastes a lot like olive salad. French fries look conventional, except these are dusted with an earthy shichimi seasoning mix of pepper and ground seeds and served with pungent wasabi mayo.
There are no sweets on this izakaya menu, so those looking for a finale to the meal usually turn to the drink options.
There's a full bar with plenty of draft beers, though Japanese libations are the big specialty. There's a long list of Japanese beers, but an even longer list of sake and the menu even includes printed tasting notes for each. Yuki is also the place to find shochu, a mild, light, distilled rice liquor, which is closer to vodka than sake. There's plum wine and cocktails that mix sake and liquor.
Yuki is a relative bargain. Most dishes cost less than $10, even the especially satisfying soups and stews. Expect to spend $30 per person here.
Yuki Izakaya is a very different sort of restaurant for New Orleans. But for those who are ready for a change from the familiar sushi bar fare, or even for those looking for an interesting late night snack along Frenchmen Street, this is a great place to try. The menu is essentially a roster of Japanese comfort food, and here it adds an adventurous option for casual dining and late-night grazing.