With the recent influx of themed restaurants, dining out becomes so much more than just the chance to eat a meal prepared by someone else – it becomes an adventure. For a proper adventure that not only transports you to a foreign land but to ancient times, be sure to book a reservation at NINJA New York, located at 25 Hudson St at the corner of Duane St, in New York City.
The dark and mysterious subterranean restaurant appears as if it was carved out of stone with the dining tables situated in small alcoves, nooks and crannies, to create an intimate dining experience punctuated by the occasional…surprise. In fact, it is outfitted to resemble a feudal ninja village in Japan. And, as the name suggests, the hosts and wait staff there to greet and serve are also exactly that…ninjas. Best to be prepared, watch your back and your step, and keep your senses on high alert, you never know what’s lurking around the corner.
As is always the case with themed restaurants, the gimmick or the experience may be all well and fun but the question is – does the food hold up? After all, that is where your dollar is heading. At NINJA, you can expect Japanese themed surf and turf – a unique variety of sushi and shashimi as well as plentiful steaks grilled to your liking and succulent chicken and salmon teriyaki. Their menu boasts a variety of set meals ranging in price from $39 (the Sanada set that includes a Caesar salad, spicy tuna roll, and chicken teriyaki) to $69 (the Sarutobi set is a lavish feast boasting miso lobster bisque, deep fried calamari, mango salmon rolls, and your choice of either a prime NY strip steak or a prime rib eye steak). They even have a vegetarian course menu that includes a carrot orange salad, vegetable sushi and a Portobello mushroom burger. Certain menu items (marked appropriately with the ninja star) come with more bang for your buck, literally, with a dazzling “ninja display” as the dish is presented to the table. If picking and choosing off the menu is more your desire, NINJA also has a bountiful a la carte menu with a kid’s menu and your standard burgers, ribs, and buttermilk chicken for those who dine within a palette closer to home.
For our first NINJA experience, my review partner and I decided to go big or go home. Besides, navigating through the venue’s dark maze-like passages and then getting startled left, right, and center by the various darkly clad ninjas who are there to dodge in and out of dark corners just to catch us off guard, often attempting to stick us with knives (with retractable blades of course), is certain to work up an appetite.
We indulged in both the Sarutobi set and the Yukimura set that included miso soup – and not your standard sushi restaurant miso soup that may have a few bits of tofu and seaweed in the broth, this one was hearty and filled with daikon and carrots – and edamame; a light and flavourful tempura course with peppers, chicken, and shrimp. As well, teriyaki salmon and a nigiri shashimi and sushi set complete with yellowtail, tuna, salmon, squid, and red shrimp shashimi along with a California roll and tuna, yellowtail, salmon, shrimp, ikura, and tamago nigiri sushi. This is the first time I’ve encountered a full raw shrimp, head and all, included with a shashimi set which is perfect for the more daring seafood lovers out there.
To begin with, we were immediately mindblown by simply the sheer amount of food that piled onto our somewhat small table. The starter courses came at us pretty much at the same time and we were dazzled by the feast laid before us, before coming to the slightly concerning realization that this didn’t even include the main dishes. How were we ever going to finish all this?! Well, perseverance for one, and the fact that the food is delightful helped a lot. The miso lobster bisque has thick, plump pieces of lobster meat and scallops and is served with crab toast and that, alone, was one of the best soups I’ve had in a very long time. It was delightful. I was a little underwhelmed with the calamari, it was certainly tasty and the mango chilli that accompanied it was a great accent, but I didn’t find it as exciting as the lobster bisque. The mango salmon roll with the unique dry ice and blue LED display certainly made up for it. Finally, my NY strip steak arrived, a massive portion of meat in case you find yourself still ravenous after the plentiful courses that came before. It arrived on a sizzle platter presented by a ninja who was more than happy to douse the platter with bourbon and set it ablaze – delightful to watch, horribly difficult to catch a photo of. The steak came with a side of barbecue sauce to pour over as you eat. For my personal taste, the sauce detracted from the flavour of the meat.
We had a wonderful dining experience with the food at NINJA but what also made the evening memorable was simply the atmosphere of the venue and the warm and funny tableside manner of the hosts, the servers, and mostly the magicians. We were visited by two tableside magicians during our evening who both dazzled us with impressive sleight of hand card tricks and illusions.
At the end of our meal, we realized we were both defeated and wound up taking home our leftovers. But that didn’t mean we couldn’t find room for dessert, and the sound of crème brûlée with raspberry sorbet was too good to pass up. We laughed at ourselves when it arrived as it, too, was massive. There was easily enough for three people in that single dish or one very greedy person. I cracked the hardened sugar and took the first bite, immediately looked up at my partner to say “this isn’t any good, you don’t want any of it,” and then attempted to horde the dish to myself. He quickly saw through my deception and stole the dish from me. We both quickly agreed – there’s crème brûlée and then there’s this. And this takes crème brûlée to a whole other delicious level.
If you’re a New York native or you’re visiting like we were, NINJA is a wonderful, lively and fun dining experience that you won’t soon forget. It’s great for families, date night, and any kind of celebration. I can only imagine the special ninja tricks the staff would pull out of their hats for a birthday. If you’re looking for a fun way to enjoy a dinner out and want to explore something new, exciting, and certainly off the beaten path, then book a reservation and be prepared to stay on alert. You never know when the ninja will attack.
Review and select photos by Samantha Wu