The restaurant business is always booming in New York City. But the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted quite a few things this year, including the usual hustle and bustle of the Big Apple and the enthusiasm of culinary enthusiasts flocking from one restaurant to another.
Many new restaurateurs have postponed their opening plans or closed their decade-old businesses. Still, Chef Mou, the founder of Ikebana Zen, has an unrelenting spirit and passion for all things culinary — one that made him sedulous.
"March 15th is when the 'New York on Pause' plan began, and we postponed our opening date which was set for March 20th," said Tianyang Wang, who goes by Tyler, and is the manager of Ikebana Zen.
"Early in June, we did a soft opening and started taking orders for takeout and delivery, waiting for phase 3 when indoor dining would be permitted," Wang added. "But then we were notified that indoor dining wouldn't be possible for an indefinite time."
Despite numerous hurdles and setbacks, Chef Mou and his team decided to continue with what the city allowed: outdoor dining.
Now, on the corner of 53rd and 9th, Ikebana Zen, a Japanese restaurant that specializes in Omakase, can easily be called one of the most romantic outdoor dining setups in the city.
The name Ikebana represents a Japanese flower arrangement style represented by the aesthetics in the dishes put together by Chef Mou. But the presentation is far from the best thing on the menu.
"I didn't expect to have so much variety. I have had octopus, salmon, steak and yellowfin already," said Pablo Gonzalez, a customer visiting for the first time, while eating his second course.
"The Omakase here is unique because the style is comforting. Unlike other Japanese restaurants in the city, the Sushi is presented all at once so I can have quality time with my girlfriend here," he said.
Indeed, this specific style of serving is unique to Ikebana Zen.
"We also don't mix any soy or wasabi with the dishes, unlike other Japanese restaurants. We leave it to the customer to decide how they prefer eating it," Wang said.
The summer in New York City comprises sunset colored cocktails, an amalgam of smoke arising from dishes spanning across global cuisines, and sweaty tourists claiming they were close to getting a heat stroke. Natives hop from Williamsburg to the Lower East Side and Hell’s Kitchen, avoiding the likes of Times Square.
This year, however, tourists are no more, and most who don't consider themselves native have fled to their suburban homes.
The city, beaming with the persistence of its people, is as hopeful as ever despite losing thousands to the pandemic. And people like Chef Mou are the ones that keep it going.
"I already know people by name; I can remember them. A customer returned today for the third time since we opened!" Wang said.
"With other Japanese restaurants in New York City, customers always feel disconnected to the Chef's table. For us, we feel like we are part of the community, and want to establish that connection with our customer."
It's not difficult then to understand why the servers spend at least 10 minutes explaining dishes, offering suggestions, and narrating the story behind every plate at the start of the meal.
So what separates this restaurant from hundreds of Japanese restaurants in the city? You could say it's the service. Or maybe it's the people. It could be the dim yellow lights and the purple and pink flower combination making it a perfect spot for date night.
For Wang, however, it is the Chef's magnified attention to pesky details.
"With toast, we serve as a side thing, for example. Not many people notice it. It just is a toast to them. But the Chef spent days experimenting with the bread. Since our customers are outside now, it takes longer to bring the plates out, so we had to get the perfect bread that stays warm for that whole distance and doesn't lose its crunch."
As with traditional Omakase, the menu is pretty much undecided. Of course, there are other fixed things on the menu, but why wouldn't you want to be surprised with banana and white fish sushi?
"Look, outdoor dining is not new in New York City. It's just a summer thing. I came out to support this restaurant because it recently opened and it was really a testament to New Yorkers and their courage," Gonzalez said.
"But I might as well tell you a little secret: this might be one of the best sushi spots in the city. C'mon man, this (pointing to sushi on plate) really has banana and it's awesome."
Company Name: Ikebana-zen
Contact Person: Media Relations
Address:401 W 53rd Street
City: New York
Country: United States