You can order raw fish at the bar at Yuki Izakaya, but don’t confuse this Frenchmen Street hotspot with a sushi bar.
While its small kitchen does serve Japanese food, and even a few sashimi selections, Yuki is better understood as bar and grill than a restaurant. In fact, it’s ideally understood as an izakaya, as referenced in its full name. But since it opened last year as the first, and thus far only, izakaya in New Orleans, the concept is not widely known by locals.
In much of Japan the izakaya is a well-loved part of the social urban landscape, like a pub in London or a beer garden in Munich. It’s the type of place where people go after work for drinks and snacks or light meals. Instead of Buffalo wings, jalapeno poppers and fried mozzarella sti, patrons of izakayas — in Tokyo or, now, the Faubourg Marigny – munch on yakitori, karaage-style fried chicken and sweet grilled eel. And they wash it down with plenty of beer, sake and the light, distilled liquor called shochu.
That’s the scene owner Yuki Yamaguchi wanted to create in New Orleans, her home since leaving Shizuoka, Japan in the early 1990s. She worked for many years as a bartender at Café Brasil and when her former boss there decided to rent out the smaller side bar sharing Brasil’s roof, she found a uniquely cozy venue to introduce the izakaya to New Orleans.
Naturally, the concept does not translate purely from the shadow of Mount Fuji to the curve of the Mississippi. Yuki has evolved into more of a late-night spot than an after-work hangout and there is a certain momentum that builds here throughout a typical night.
It’s a small, narrow space, with exposed brick walls and a towering wooden bar now decorated with dozens of plastic Japanese waving cat statues. There are campy, colorful (and sometimes explicit) posters on the walls from vintage Japanese movies. People sit either at the bar or at a handful of tables in a tiny second room, where a low ceiling and partial screening of green bamboo creates an intimate, almost hidden vibe. The place is dimly lit and filled with an intriguing mix of world music.
Earlier in the evening, patrons seem focused on food, exploring a menu that offers surprises even for seasoned veterans of local Japanese restaurants. Clams in sake butter, bulbs of rice filled with salty, spicy cod roe or savory cakes made from fish paste and yam may strike exotic notes across the American palate, but such dishes speak comfortingly of home to Japanese expatriates. French fries look conventional, except these are dusted with the earthy shichimi seasoning mix and served with wasabi dipping sauce. This is not the place to look for Philadelphia rolls, but the handful of sashimi options Yuki serves are distinctive, like salmon carpaccio topped with olive salad.
The kitchen stays open well past midnight, but by about 10 p.m., as more people arrive and the volume of the music increases, Yuki turns into a club scene.
DJs perform most Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, spinning reggae and Latin, African and Eastern European folk and funk songs, often all in one set. Sometimes guests arrive to find the French string duo Wazozo playing in the corner of the tiny room, adding their haunting, whimsical take on classic and pop songs alike.
The drink menu offers helpful tasting notes for its selection of hot and cold sakes, sold by the glass or bottle, and the bartenders do a memorable sake presentation. This starts with a little glass placed in a small, square, wooden box, which is then filled to overflow, so the excess liquid falls into the box like some kind of lagniappe sake pool.
Shochu, the drink menu’s second mainstay, may look like sake but has quite a different taste, more akin to vodka than anything else. And like vodka, it’s drunk straight, over ice or with mixers. Yuki stocks a few varieties that demonstrate the liquor’s range, like ichiko shochu, made with barley and quite dry in its clean simplicity, and sudachi shochu , a fruity rendition made with the Japanese citrus of the same name.
The beer list is not long, but it stocks some Japanese brands you won’t find at your average New Orleans sushi restaurant, like the Hitachino white ale, served in a beautifully-etched 22-oz. bottle, which tastes like a Belgian wheat beer with bright orange flavors. The bar will mix the standard cocktails, plus a few hybrids using the sake and shochu, like the strawberry saketini or lynchee martini, which are much more potent than their fruity names would suggest.
If you show up here even a minute before Yuki opens for the night (around 7 p.m. these days), the place will look not only closed but abandoned. Don’t give up. Once the battered, graffiti-tagged doors open, Yuki reveals itself to be as welcoming and fun as it is exotic and adventurous.
Yuki Izakaya is at 525 Frenchmen St. and its phone number is unlisted. It’s open from around 7 p.m. until the wee hours everyday but Monday. If you go, remember that Yuki accepts cash only.