Aya is a tapas restaurant/shochu bar located on a busy corner in Midtown East. Set in a small, cozy space, I would say this is a great hideaway tucked in the city. Originally I was invited to Aya by a Japanese organization in NYC, and I found that the menu was creative and very similar to Italian-Japanese fusion restaurants I used to enjoy in Tokyo.
Luckily enough, I have an Italian-American friend who works a block away from the restaurant and I asked her to join me. She was not even aware that this was a location that served nice tapas. We started with Petit Caprese (Small Mozzarella Balls, Cherry Tomatoes, and Basil), shochu mussels (steamed mussels with “Kawabe” rice shochu), Russian potato salad, and one of their best sellers: tori karaage, or Japanese style fried chicken. The bar offers a variety of sake and shochu that compliment these tasty and unique tapas. We ordered Kurokirishima, which was a great pairing to all of the appetizers. We followed with main entrees of steak on garlic rice and spaghetti alla carbonara. The steak was a hanger steak over pan-fried garlic buttered rice – tender, flavorful, and pre-sliced for easy consumption. The meat had a slightly crispy (almost charred) outside and a perfectly medium-cooked center. Oishii and highly recommended! The carbonara was equally delicious. We wanted to order other entrees but were too stuffed to even contemplate reading the dessert menu. We both agreed to plan for a return visit in order to try other things.
Two weeks after this dinner I was fortunate enough to visit for lunch. Several colleagues were looking for a nice, quiet place to have a reasonably priced lunch and I immediately thought of Aya. And even though the restaurant does not have a huge space, there are three sections that can accommodate small groups: the entrance area which almost feels like a small outdoor patio with a single table, the bar/lounge area (the “lounge” area is a cozy space with a low table and ottoman-like chairs), and a main dining area in the back.
The lunch menu was more Japanese than the Japanese-Italian one I had previously for dinner. The choices were categorized by meat, fish, or noodles – details and prices are here, and it was challenging to decide which one to order as all sounded delicious. Most of the entrees also include a small salad and miso soup. I ordered the Wafu Hamburg, which a Japanese style hamburger steak topped with grated daikon (radish) and ponzu sauce. The meat was tender and easily “slicked” with chopsticks, and it appeared to be seared enough to keep the natural juices and flavor inside.
The quality of the dishes at Aya are unparalleled in my opinion. Both lunch and dinner offer amazing menus, and one can expect to walk away very satisfied and wanting to return. This is one of my favorite restaurants in NYC!
Price: $15-20 for lunch, and tapas start at $6 dinner
Dress code: Casual