Two for Dinner: Hello Hojoko!

Hojoko is the new flamboyant feather in Tim and Nancy Cushman’s cap, featuring a long list of creative small plates, eclectic decor,  and an approachable take on ordering sake. Classified as a “rock n’ roll”  izakaya (Japanese tavern), it’s a more affordable option than the Cushmans well-received sushi restaurant O Ya. The two of us have been eagerly awaiting its arrival since The Verb opened last summer - and wait we did, it’s been a year! So when it finally opened its doors the first week of August, we planned a dinner date immediately.

Who knew Fenway could be so rock n' roll? 

Who knew Fenway could be so rock n' roll? 

Here’s what we ordered:

  • Housemade foi gras “spam” roll - robata grilled pineapple, yuzu kosho

  • Okonamiyaki Japanese pancake - smoky bacon, shiitake, mountain yam, hojoko honkytonky sauce, ao nori, truffle kewpie

  • Chicken liver Robata - garlic butter

  • Salmon fins  - salmon belly fins with garlic-chive sauce, truffle salt

  • Funky chicken ramen - rich chicken broth, soy egg, menma, Robata-grilled koji chicken

  • Oyako rice bowl - braised chicken, uni, scrambled egg, shiitake, nori

What we wanted seconds of:

Ashley: While there are certainly things that I would order again, the majority of the dishes are very rich and appropriately small portioned. I don’t think I could’ve ordered a second dish of any of them in the same sitting! But that’s the beautiful thing about Hojoko - there’s a long list of small plates so you never have to try the same thing twice.

Emily: I totally agree, I wasn’t looking for seconds of anything, but I was wishing we had ordered a burger, or the very thinly sliced steak that kept taunting me on the grill.

Chicken liver robata with garlic butter - so rich!  

Chicken liver robata with garlic butter - so rich!  

What we wished we’d passed on:

A: I could’ve passed on the salmon fins. The broth was rather lackluster given that it was supposed to be “garlic and chive” with “truffle salt” - I could hardly taste those typically strong flavors. While I enjoyed the crispy texture, it was a very mild dish overall.

E: The Oyako rice bowl was underwhelming for me. It’s something I can fairly easily recreate at home for a weeknight dinner. I asked for my egg fried instead of scrambled, which helped, but I found it pretty bland and texturally a bit confusing. It had quite a bit of broth in the bottom, and the shitake, nori, and chicken were all very similar in texture.

Salmon fins - well plated, but a bit underwhelming 

Salmon fins - well plated, but a bit underwhelming 

What we’d want to try next time:

A: I agree with Emily’s earlier statement about burgers! We saw quite a few being grilled thanks to our seats right in front of the kitchen and they looked juicy and delicious. I wanted to try a bunch of little things and not waste my appetite on one large entree, so I passed, but I’d definitely order one on my next visit.

E: The “Steak ums”, shaved American wagyu short rib sounds right up my alley, and the brined and fried chicken wings. But mostly I want to try more cocktails. I’m thinking a winter staycation where we can sit at the bar and slowly snack and make our way through the cocktail menu with help from a few friends. 

Funky chicken ramen in a glistening fatty broth 

Funky chicken ramen in a glistening fatty broth 

The dish on drinks:

E: True to form, I was paranoid we wouldn’t get a table so I cycled over right after work and grabbed a drink at the bar while I waited for Ashley. My brain had been a bit foggy from allergies, so I forgot to write down the name of my cocktail but I do know that it was delicious! It was a take on a gin and tonic, with fresh herbs (I think Thai Basil?) and i would definitely have had another if I wasn’t on the cusp of antihistamine overdose.

A: I’m having a bit of a Benjamin Button moment with my beverages right now. As I get older, my drinks get less sophisticated - or at least that was the case at Hojoko, where I ordered a frozen cocktail at the bar. Then again, it’s August in Boston so who wouldn’t love a slurpy-style beverage? Hojoko had three frozen cocktail options on the list. I went with the coffee flavored one since I was feeling sluggish after a long week and it was exactly what I needed  - cold, sugary, and caffeinated.


What we found intriguing:

A: The decor was really fun and eclectic - the kind of place where you continually discover more knick-knacks the longer you stare, from a Pacman machine with hairdresser chairs to a hanging blowfish to bobbing cat clocks. It has a very youthful vibe which suits the rock n’ roll themed hotel. They’ve opened up the doors for outdoor seating with a view of the Verb’s pool, and project Japanese films on the back wall if conversation is lagging.

E: The overall atmosphere is great, I’m interested to see how the Fenway crowd takes to this non traditional spot. I was seated next to two middle aged Sox fans at the bar who were ordering bud lights and grilling the bartenders on their Led Zeppelin knowledge. But they seemed to be enjoying themselves just as much as Ashley and I, who were trying to narrow down our food choices. Also loved their use of materials that few modern interiors feature, like that amazing lime green formica bar!

Tangy, smokey Okonamiyaki Japanese pancake

Tangy, smokey Okonamiyaki Japanese pancake

What the service was like:

A: Our waiter was nice and attentive, and very open to being quizzed on the long list of dishes I’m sure he had to spend a long time memorizing.

E: Service was very quick, the open kitchen was spotless, and the bartender I chatted with briefly was the perfect level of friendly.

What we’d like to see the chef do next:

A: Having never been to O Ya, I’m not too familiar with Tim and Nancy Cushman’s style. I know they were busy opening the Rooftop at Park South in New York before Hojoko, with a pricey menu that skews Italian but doesn’t seem to be making the same splash. So I suppose I’d enjoy seeing them try an even lower price range than Hojoko in the Japanese category - a ramen spot, a Japanese dessert bar, a sake bar (Nancy Cushman is supposed to be an expert), etc.

E: Send us a gift certificate to eat at O Ya.

Foi gras "spam" sushi roll hints at a bit of the creativity patrons must be used to at O Ya

Foi gras "spam" sushi roll hints at a bit of the creativity patrons must be used to at O Ya

What will keep us coming back:

A: A menu and an atmosphere that never bores.

E: Everything. If this place was in Cambridge I would be making myself a regular immediately. It’s everything I like to do when I’m out, have great cocktails, share small plates of Japanese food, plus Hello Kitty.

This place is perfect for:

E: A good Thursday night out after work with the potential for a Friday sick day.

A: A birthday party, especially if you decide to rent a room as well. Or dinner with an out-of-town friend who wants to soak up the Fenway atmosphere without eating at a crappy sports bar.

In three words, Hojoko is:

A: Prince does Tokyo

E: Can’t top that

Hot Pot Perfection at Shabu & Mein

With the weather as terrible as it is right now, it's hard not to crave warm, hearty, savory meals. Luckily, I found a (relatively healthy) answer in Shabu & Mein - a hot pot and ramen spot in Kendall near the Cambridgeside Galleria.

In case you haven't noticed the trend, we write about a lot of Asian restaurants - but hey, they just happen to have the most delicious salty/savory foods! Oddly enough though, hot pot was usually last on my list over Korean BBQ, ramen, or sushi. Maybe it's just the #snowpocalypse, but after Shabu&Mein I've had to rethink my stance. 

The space is larger than it first appears, with seating in the front, middle, and a back bar area for ramen and drinks. When you come in, you'll be asked if you're there for ramen or hot pot - your answer will define where you sit since only some of the tables have heated tops. (sidenote: Emily visited Shabu&Mein previously and said the ramen was just ok, so I went with the hot pot option and recommend that you do as well). 

shabu broth.JPG

Next step - picking your broth. We went with two: a lighter miso broth, and a fuller flavored tonkatsu pork broth. This might've been playing it a little safe since there were plenty of more interesting options (ahem, goji berry?) on the menu. 

You then can pick your meat preference a la carte, or go with a combo. I ordered the short rib, while my date got a mix of lamb, chicken, and beef. While I love lamb normally, I found this to be a little odd mixed with the broth flavors we had chosen. I preferred the more traditional pork or beef options. In general, ordering from the combo meals is definitely a cheaper option than ordering a la carte, since you get a basket of vegetables and your choice of carbs (udon, rice noodles, rice, etc). 

Stir-fried clams in blackbean sauce - delicious. 

Stir-fried clams in blackbean sauce - delicious. 

We also went with an appetizer - stir-fried clams in a delightfully earthy, savory black bean sauce, that had us dipping whatever else we could find in it long after the clams were done. I also got the Char-Shu Bao, since I find bao impossible to pass up. The slightly sweet pickled vegetables and, again, the sauce, made them an excellent choice. 

Back to the broth - it comes with a side of minced garlic (not uncommon) that I couldn't get enough of, and the richer tonkatsu sauce was definitely my favorite. I unabashedly souped up some of the garlicky broth after my meat and vegetables were gone. 

The short rib

The short rib

We finished with their fried icecream dessert - an option I've only found in a few Asian places around Boston, as I'm not sure it's technically all that traditional. They had plenty of options, from green tea and red bean to coconut. We went with coconut, and I couldn't be happier. 

Overall, I'd say what really makes this place wonderful is the attention to the sauces/broths/accoutrements, as well as the incredibly friendly servers that take care of you from the minute you walk in. While I was sad to hear their ramen was just OK, I'd say it's definitely worth going back for the hot pot and the welcoming atmosphere (especially when it seems like the snow just won't stop!).

- Ashley