In Japan, a tiny studio apartment is often known as a “rabbit hutch”–usually a cramped little space for young people to get a foothold in the big city. So when Chef Yoshiko Sakuma found a little nook for her first restaurant on a quiet stretch of Forsyth Street, the name stuck. Rabbit House, her 14-seat wine-and-sake bar, is a refuge and lab for her whimsical culinary experiments, drawing inspiration from around the world to create unexpected European tapas dishes dusted with Japanese moxie.
Sakuma, who hails from Japan, has been working in the New York restaurant scene for more than 15 years, especially at European-cuisine staples like Maialino, Romera and Narcissa. She described Rabbit House’s food as “not Japanese at all,” but admitted to a liberal influence from her native roots. Though there aren’t any full-on Japanese dishes on the menu (unless you count edamame), most include some accent, like a dash of miso, a lotus root chip, or daikon.
“I just love wine and sake a lot, so whatever I try to make goes well with sake and wine,” she said. “As I’m Japanese and people like Japanese ingredients, I try to put in a touch of Japanese ingredients. But it’s pretty much mixed up. I have tacos, dip and some Italian touches.”
The dishes, mostly in the $12 range, are made in small-bite portions to share. She’s still constantly changing the menu, but her specialty is weaving unexpected ingredients together into tastebud surprises, like the tako taco, made with octopus, chickpea, spicy mayo and nori sauce, or riffing on Japanese presentation but with international ingredients, like the “fake sushi” roll of prosciutto, cream cheese and wild rice. There are a few comfort dishes, like the requisite cheese plate, but even the tame-sounding artichoke dip includes miso and green tea and the tuna tartare is paired with dragon fruits.
Sakuma said her signature dish is the ominous-sounding “trapped rabbit,” in honor of the wine bar’s name. It’s a showcase to the chef’s emphasis on imagination. “Rabbits eat carrot. That’s why it’s an involtini of carrot, with the carrot inside the rabbit meat,” she explained. “And it’s trapped, so it’s wrapped with caul fat–it looks almost like a net or web to catch the rabbit.”
Like many recent openings in the ever-cramped and ever-popular Lower East Side and East Village, this spot combines kitchen and bar out in the open, so you’ll smell the cooking aromas as soon as you enter (make sure you like fish). But even though it’s tiny, the space doesn’t feel like you’re crowded in. Light pours in through the window in the late afternoon, and you can relax and watch the activity in the park across the street with a “grand opening” happy hour of $5 beer, wine and sake from 5-8 pm. Rabbit House is also doing a newcomer promotion, giving out cards for free drinks on your first visit.
Sakuma said she liked being on the edge of Chinatown and the Lower East Side, a bit off the beaten path and something “different” than the surroundings of popular Chinese haunts (though we’re pretty sure a wine-sake bar taking this many fusion risks would register as different in any neighborhood). “This rabbit house is very small, like a hidden secret spot,” Sakuma said.
Rabbit House, 76 Forsyth Street, near Grand. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 5-10 p.m.