Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Hiroko's Place: Hand-sewn Charm Lovely Yoshoku

This review originally appeared on The Gotham Palate.

Struck by a sudden craving for yoshoku (Japanized Western-style food), I eagerly awaited my visit to Hiroko's. Tucked into a side street with a string of white lights-like-pearls, Hiroko's Place almost evades the eye with its decidedly non-flashy decor. Upon entrance, I was instantly charmed by the hodge-podge collection of different seat cushions - from leopard print to mint green - all appealing to your gastronomic sensibilities.

All around me, wide-eyed girls in 2D stared at me behind their framed cases - a geisha serving tea, a girl with long braids and one with buns sticking out of her head. They were all by the same artist, Kayo Aiba. If you look closely, the pieces seem to be embroidered. After some googling, I found out that Aiba creates one-of-a-kind illustrations using her needle. She sews pictures that follow a kawaii (lovely) theme.

Kayo Aiba art.

Behind my dining companion, a picture of a girl sprouting a head of red petal blossoms graced a black piano below it. I was tempted to run my fingers through the glossy keys and play a version of "Mr. Lawrence," which seemed appropriate. More art spanned the entire right hand wall, squeezed next to a bookcase brimming with manga. The manga library atmosphere reminded me of Anime Castle in downtown Flushing that sells copious amounts of graphic novels and anime by way of Tokyo.

Since it was barely 5 p.m., the restaurant was still quiet. I saw only two customers - one salaryman wearing glasses sat by himself flipping through a magazine. The other was an oji-san (grandpa, or older gentleman), tapping away on his laptop, his shoulders hunched and face bent into the screen. How kawaii (cute).

Later (around 6:15 p.m.), three preppy-dressed Japanese young people holding big, clunky shopping bags entered and sat behind us, talking rapidly in Japanese. My beginner's Japanese could understand a smattering of phrases, such as: "Hajimemashite, dozo yorishiku" (How do you do?) and "Kaikei o onegaishimasu" (My bill, please).

Napolitan Spaghetti.

Behind the counter, in the kitchen, a lone chef stirred and flipped our dishes with gusto. Chloe ordered the Napolitan Spaghetti ($10), drenched in ketchup and sausage pieces.


I had the Omurice ($11), a blend of soft-grained fried rice, chicken chunks (albeit slightly overcooked) and eggs. It's a Japanese comfort food I relish. My dish came with a small scoop of macaroni salad and a bed of green lettuce, carrots and cucumbers, finished with a light vinaigrette dressing. Again, ketchup was the key ingredient at work here. I also detected a hint of Worcestershire sauce, which produced the soy-vinegar-spice flavoring.

The omu curry also looked appealing. I later found out that it's the No. 1 favorite item here, followed closely by Seafood Doria and Hamburg Curry Doria, or sauteed hamburger and three cheeses with white sauce and curry sauce. The tea and coffee options were aplenty, from green to chrysanthemum to lapsong souchong. I saw six tea infusers lined up along the counter, ready for brewing. The siphoned coffee here looked promising, too.

Throughout our relaxed meal, the music changed pace from reggae to Japanese hip-hop, from electronica to the ubiquitous J-pop songs. Utada Hikaru's "First Love" brought me back to high school. One song was reminiscent of the Beach Boys - except the lyrics were all in Japanese.

Even our servers, two Japanese ladies, were kawaii. One was a hip, young barista in a black-and-white graphic T-shirt; the other a little older (auntie?) wearing colorful clothes and turquoise makeup to match. Her big eyes stuck with me. While she wasn't Aiba, she certainly resembled the artist's muse.

Hiroko is like your fun, cute aunt who cooks you all the dishes Mom doesn't make anymore. The fine service and tasty food won me over. Hours could have passed by and I wouldn't have noticed. I shall be back!

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars. Date-friendly and girlishly adorable to boot. The food is the real deal, but my stomach definitely had room for dessert. I'll have to sample the refreshments (tea and coffee) next time around.


Hiroko's Place
75 Thompson St
New York, NY 10012

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