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A good 20 minutes before the West Village Japanese restaurant Takashi opens its doors at 6 p.m. on a recent Monday, there is already a line of hungry customers forming out front.
Alex Raij, 43, is one such customer. “We’re super-excited,” says Raij, who had enlisted her mother to watch her two kids so that she and her husband, Eder Montero, 36, could dine out.
“We’ve been really keen to try it.”
What could have stoked such excitement in Raij — herself a busy chef at highly regarded tapas spots Txikito and El Quinto Pino?
Takashi is one of a small but growing number of restaurants around the city catering to those who are rah-rah about consuming their animal flesh raw-raw.
The heart sashimi is a popular draw at Takashi in the West Village — but it’s not for the faint of (heh, heh) heart.
The first dish to come out is the yooke, ground chuck prepared like a Japanese version of steak tartare. Topped with a raw quail egg, it’s adorned with Japanese seaweed and an enormous shiso leaf.
It’s also by far the tamest uncooked dish at Takashi, which gets its meat from some of the better purveyors around, such as Dickson’s Farmstand and Pat LaFrieda.
There’s the heart sashimi — the organ thinly sliced and simply dressed with wasabi and soy. There’s the namagimo — slivers of liver with sesame oil and rock salt. And, perhaps wildest of all, there’s the nama-senmai, a white, chewy third stomach. (Cows have four stomachs — the third one is used to absorb nutrients.) Flash-boiled but essentially raw, it’s served with spicy miso sauce and scallions and somewhat resembles a bowl of discarded computer parts. “I like that snappiness,” says Raij of the stomach dish. But it’s not her favorite. That would have to be the niku-uni, beef tartare topped with sea urchin and wasabi. “That was delicious. It really contrasted [with seared beef] in temperature and flavor,” she says.
While New Yorkers have long embraced the concept of raw fish, our relationship with raw meat has been more complicated. “Raw meats or undercooked foods leave you at risk of infection [of parasites or a slew of other illnesses],” says Dr. Michael Mansour of the division of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital.
The health risks — including tapeworms — are not all that different than the ones you face eating sushi. “If you are a person who is elderly, pregnant or your immune system is compromised . . . you should think very carefully about exposing yourself to raw foods, whether sushi or raw meat,” he adds.
According to NYC’s Department of Health, restaurants must notify diners when food isn’t cooked to required temperatures — either verbally or by printing this on the menu. A diner may also request such a dish. Basically, it’s buyer beware — though the DOH says it will investigate complaints of people getting sick from eating raw food. But with so many New Yorkers obsessed with high-quality ingredients, meat so fresh it can be served raw is seen as a benchmark — not a danger.
“There’s no better way to sample quality than when all the other things are stripped away,” says “Bizarre Foods” TV host Andrew Zimmern. The appeal of eating raw is that one tastes the meat without the smoke or the char associated with the cooking process.
And then there’s the primal urge: “Since cavemen have been dragging a brontosaurus leg to the homestead [people enjoyed raw meat],” adds Zimmern.
At downtown’s Acme, you’ll find endive leaves stuffed with a mix of raw bison and sweet shrimp. At Manzo in Eataly, Piedmontese beef is hand-cut and ground to order. Hakata Tonton, just a couple of blocks from Takashi, offers veal liver sashimi on its menu, as does EN Japanese Brasserie on Hudson Street. Last fall, Hecho en Dumbo in the East Village offered venison tartare on the chef’s menu. (It plans to bring it back next fall, too.)
“This is basically dzik,” says Danny Mena, chef of Hecho en Dumbo, referring to the Yucatan specialty. Mena puts his own spin on the dish by soaking cubes of raw venison in sour orange juice, radishes, red onion and cilantro.
And then there’s raw chicken, a dish not for the squeamish. “There are a lot of places in the city that serve raw chicken,” says Dave Pasternack, chef-owner of Esca in Hell’s Kitchen. But you might have to ask, with a nudge and a wink, to go off the menu.
For some, raw meat is uncontroversial. “It’s my soul food,” says Takashi’s Inoue, who grew up in Osaka. “That’s how we eat in my home in Japan. The meat is very, very fresh.”
At First Oasis, out in Bay Ridge, Said Albahri serves raw kebbeh — minced raw lamb mixed with cracked wheat, onions and spices.
“Raw meat is very popular in Syria,” says Albahri, who grew up in Damascus. His customers include plenty of Middle Easterners and locals — but also the epicurious from as far away as Queens.
Still, some dishes haven’t crossed the cultural divide. At the original branch of Eataly in Turin, Italy, you’ll find a raw sausage sandwich — an item you can’t get in NYC.
And despite the popularity of places like Takashi, it can still be a struggle to get diners to try their meat raw. Mena only serves venison tartare on his tasting menu, where there are no substitutions. “I would never put it on the regular menu,” he says. But one can’t argue with the reaction. “It was very positive,” says Mena. “The customers might not have ordered [it if it was served à la carte], but 99 percent of people would finish it.”
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