Saturday, November 8, 2008

Mr. Jones - Over Priced Yakitori Served by Under Dressed Waitresses

"Have you ever eaten yakitori before?" questioned the waitress in an impossibly skimpy dress. "Not in a place like this" was my reply. Mr. Jones does not look like the other yakitori bars in the neighborhood. The decor - an amalgam of Scandinavian design, Jetsons chic, the 1990's lounge revival with hints of a post modern opium den - is a far cry from the smokey, cobbled, rickety wooden framing of your average East Village yakitori bar. Unlike the latter Mr. Jones is not the type of place you dip in for a quick snack or an inexpensive meal, rather it is the type of place that requires a significant expenditure of both time and capital.

There is an underlying feeling of risque about the room, a subtly charged sexuality. The waitresses - leggy and attractive - seem chosen for assets other than their service skills. Their uniform is a brief, revealing dress that appears to be one size fits all affair and, depending on the height of the wearer, is either the shortest mini skirt you have ever seen or a more modest garment that hovers just above knee level. The manager is stuffed in to black velvet tuxedo with an open collared shirt, he looks like a cigarette advertisement vision of a pimp as he skirts the periphery of the room eying the waitresses and customers with equal suspicion.

The lighting is the soft core answer to red light - it is overwhelmingly orange, casting an amber hue over everything and making it hard to see the food. Eating here is like participating in one of those sensory deprivation experiments where all the food is the same color, which is a shame because it is beautifully presented in that quintessentially effete Japanese manner. But I am not sure that the food is the point of Mr. Jones.

The menu is heavy on the protein and aside from some perfunctory appetizers and some chefs recommendations is dominated by the skewers which are listed by type - chicken, pork and beef. It is thus perplexing that the skewers, surely the whole raison d'etre of a yakitori bar, are the most disappointing items on the menu. A subtle, but unmistakable, hint of gas from the grill was present to one degree or another in every skewer I sampled, during the course of several visits.

The various Kobe beef skewers were the least offensive. The Kalbi short rib, for example, comes with a spicy Korean style sauce that does its best to mask the taste of gas. The Harami Wasabi and Harami Miso skewers were less successful although in both cases the beef was tender with some nice searing. I seriously doubt that Mr. Jones serves real Wagyu beef from Japan, rather it is more likely than not American Kobe "style" beef which is usually a mix of Wagyu and Angus or Longhorn cattle. Despite being relatively highly priced ($7-8 per skewer) it would be far more expensive if real Japanese Wagyu was used.

The Ton Toro Lemon Shiso pork belly, which might have sufficed a few years ago, is hopelessly flavorless by today's standards. David Chang has really spoiled us when it comes to how much flavor we expect from our pork and the anemic offering of Mr. Jones just doesn't cut the mustard that accompanies it.

The Karai Honey chicken skewer was tender enough but again outmatched by the gassy taste of the grill. A cherry wood smoked duck with a balsamic reduction was inconsistent. On one occasion it was quite moist with a hearty flavor but on a subsequent visit is was flavorless and rubbery.

The foie gras stuffed Kobe meatballs are one of those dishes that sounds good on paper, but when echoed in the real world fails to truly resonate. The fingernail sized lobe of foie gras should either be doubled in size or eliminated altogether, its current apportioning just does not add anything other than expense to the dish, which is a hefty $16 for three meatballs.

But that is not to say that there are not some compelling items on the menu. The fried chicken wings for example are wonderful. Perfectly pruned wing drummettes with a crispy batter that give way to a moist morsels of chicken topped with a refreshingly tangy shredded daikon.

The Wagyu Negima was also pleasing, the scallions had a nice snap and the thinly sliced rib-eye was tender and flavorful although hideously expensive at $25.

The calamari tenpura is also worth trying with its crisp, delicate crust and succulent flesh slathered in a fiery kochujang reduction. Because the sauce is orange it is one of the few dishes that actually looks normal in the rooms dim lighting.

Less successful was the vegetable tenpura which could have been quite good but for being far too greasy. It reminded me of the fritters a friend of mines vegetarian mother used to pack for his lunch and for which he would offer to trade for my meat sandwiches. This is not really a good evocation for the restaurant as I can think of few worse cuisines than the British vegetarian food of the 1970's.

The lamb chops too showed potential but had just a tad too much cumin on them, obfuscating the dried chili that it supposedly contained. Fortunately they did not suffer from the same malady that plagued the skewers, betraying none of the gassy taste. They probably provided the best bang for the buck, two large chops cost $18.

The service, despite its aesthetic charms, is pretty spotty and the timing from the kitchen is just plain awful, consistently failing to stagger the arrival of the dishes. But Mr. Jones is not really the type of place you come to eat a meal as much as it a place you come to try to get laid. And it might be perfectly suited for the task - dim lighting, intimate seating, a menu so pricey that it virtually guarantees that you won't over indulge, an extensive list of sakes and cocktails and a pulsing soundtrack of soul and jazz just might make it a perfect date destination. It seems apparent that generating a cool, sexy vibe and capturing that amorphous "lounge" feeling is more important to Mr. Jones than the food itself, which despite some triumphs is over priced.

Mr. Jones
243 E 14th St
New York, NY 10003


danny said...

oh man, that sucks that it wasn't so good. there are some better places in the city for yakitori.

there's always places like yakitori taisho on st. marks. and nytimes reviewed soba totto last winter

DocChuck said...

Your reply, "Not in a place like this" is priceless!

I really enjoyed your post, but for all the wrong reasons.

Obviously, my wife and I will never eat at Mr. Jones in NYC, nor will we ever eat "yakitori" . . . although we frequently enjoy grilled skewers of spicy marinated chicken at home.

But, inquiring minds want to know . . . how can a waitress be wearing an "impossibly skimpy dress"?

Unless the waitress is impossibly unattractive.

Matt Phillips said...

Actually all of the yakitori is cooked over a traditional wood-burning grill, not gas. So much for your astute culinary deduction...

Nick said...

@ Matt Philips. Actually the yakitori is not cooked at all any more. Mr. Jones is closed, and deservedly so. But when it was open there was absolutely no doubt that gas was used. It may have been used to fire the wood (an unfortunately common practice) but it was there none the less. And its flavor was so obvious and insidious that even I could taste it.

Matt Phillips said...

Yes I did read today that the place is closed, but unfortunately, you are still wrong. As a former employee for two years of the head chef Bryan Emperor at his restaurant Ten Sushi in Charlottesville, Virginia, and having personally been in the kitchen at Mr. Jones, I can assure you that there was no gas used in cooking any of the yakitori. As is the traditional way in Japan, Bryan used a wood/charcoal grill for all his cooking, with no gas involved. You have every right to your poor opinion, but don't let that get in the way of the facts.