Hokkaido Cuisine at Dr. Clark, in Chinatown
If there are any number of obvious sites that could be named “most iconically New York City,” I’d like to make an atypical nomination: the intersection of Bayard and Baxter Streets, in Chinatown. As I approached it one recent evening, strolling by Forlini’s, the red-sauce joint and attorney haunt (as seen on “Law & Order”); the Vietnamese restaurant Nha Trang One; and ABC Bail Bonds (“Large or small we write them all”), police officers were escorting a man in handcuffs into the building that houses the New York County Criminal Court as well as Manhattan’s Central Booking.
To the south, in Columbus Park, a sprawling group huddled around several lively games of cards and checkers, masks pulled down to smoke and to spit out seeds from orange segments. Beyond them, pickup basketball and soccer players flitted across Astroturf and pavement. It’s the ultimate collision of civic and civilian life, cops, lawyers, and criminal suspects alongside Chinese dentists and grocers, dumpling-seeking tourists, and artists and other creative types drawn by cheap-for-downtown rent.
I was en route to dinner at Dr. Clark, a Japanese restaurant whose address, just past the intersection’s northeast corner, has always especially attracted the last set; it was previously home to Winnie’s, a beloved karaoke dive bar, and then to Lalito, a highly underrated canteen opened by the brilliant young chef Gerardo Gonzalez. Just before Dr. Clark’s début, in March of last year, the interior (which was recently reopened to diners) got a chic makeover, featuring coffee-stained lauan-wood wainscoting, pegboard walls, and aluminum sconces. The backlit bar was inspired by the one in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”; the staff uniforms, featuring boxy, hand-embroidered jackets, were designed by the local darling Emily Adams Bode. The owners—who also run Nowadays, in Ridgewood, and the Izakaya, in the East Village—have revived both Winnie’s 4 A.M. liquor license and its karaoke tradition.
Even outside, there’s no shortage of atmosphere. The other night, a pair of hiply dressed smokers discussed recent hauls from a favorite vintage store. A man bounding toward the front door declared, passionately, “There has to be a middle road. You can’t kill people! You can never kill people.” I slid into one of the booths built onto the street, which feature low tables that are set up as kotatsu in winter, when each is dressed in a heavy cloth that doubles as a blanket, cocooning guests’ legs and trapping the heat coming from a radiator under the table.
Dr. Clark’s menu is inspired by Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, known for hot springs and skiing—Dr. William Clark, an American professor of chemistry, was hired by the Japanese government to establish an agricultural college there in 1876—and it’s particularly suited to cold weather. One of the banner dishes is a Hokkaido specialty known as jingisukan (“Genghis Khan”), for which thinly sliced, marinated lamb is cooked, with onions, bean sprouts, and chives, on very hot tabletop grills said to resemble the Mongolian warlord’s helmet.
But there’s plenty that’s perfect for warmer temperatures: frosty mugs of crisp Sapporo; tart shochu sours, featuring the rice-based liquor mixed with lemon juice or ume. The “addictive cabbage” is exactly as advertised—cool and crunchy, slicked with mayo and dusted in shichimi togarashi—and the same simple formula works beautifully on cold noodles in a ramen salad. Summery seafood offerings include sashimi, charred fillets of horse mackerel wrapped around asparagus, and an exceptionally buttery scallop risotto, served appealingly on the pearly half shell. Tall rings of squid, battered and fried to a honeyed hue, pair nicely with French fries bearing the same color and crunch plus a gloss of anchovy cream sauce: fish and chips by way of Hokkaido by way of Baxter and Bayard, iconically New York. (Dishes $5-$48.) ♦