After two pandemic-challenged years in Hell’s Kitchen, the team at Ikebana Zen is pivoting from omakase to speakeasy, with a focus on craft cocktails and tapas-style Japanese cuisine, plus live performances.
Manager Pat Wongboot, bartender Jommie Ratchoo and owner Andrew Yuan opened Ikebana on W53rd Street between 9th and 10th Avenue in July 2020, after plans to launch in March were thwarted as New York shut down.
Initially designed as an omakase sushi restaurant, Ikebana turned the lockdown into an opportunity to invest heavily in their outdoor dining shed, creating one of the more elaborate temporary spaces in the area. When the team were finally able to welcome guests into their space unrestricted, they decided to expand their offerings beyond the confines of a nightly tasting menu.
“We want everyone to feel welcome here,” said Jommie “Every night will now have a different vibe.” In addition to curating low-key weekday happy hours, they’ve also added weekend entertainment, including DJ nights, cabaret performances and a future drag brunch.
Ikebana Zen recently celebrated Halloween with a Cirque-du-Soleil-style burlesque performance, featuring an appropriately candy-themed lollipop dancer. “We love to have people come here for a cute date one night and back for the DJ on another,” added Jommie.
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While they are no longer offering a formal $158 omakase menu, manager Pat explained that the restaurant is keeping its focus on the flavors of Japan. “We import a lot of food and liquor, like Wagyu beef and our sake and whisky from Japan,” she said.
“Everything is made from scratch — we really focus on fresh and natural ingredients,” added Jommie. The restaurant’s new menu features favorites like pork gyoza dumplings, matcha panna cotta and curated cocktails.
Jommie and his bartending team have designed a beverage program centered around Japanese sake-, vodka- and whisky-based drinks that summon the flavors of Tokyo with a nod to the Big Apple. They’ve even created their own spin on the New York classic martini, using sake instead of vodka or gin to create a cultural culinary fusion and a unique tipple. Another Ikebana exclusive? The bar’s proprietary whisky-soda aerator, ensuring a freshly carbonated, perfectly balanced cocktail every time.
For Pat and Jommie, adjusting the restaurant’s concept to entice new Hell’s Kitchen customers comes naturally — both Pat, who worked at a now-closed Hell’s Kitchen Thai restaurant in college, and Jommie, who is a veteran of VIV Thai, At Nine Thai and several other West Side eateries — are longtime members of the neighborhood’s hospitality community.
“I’ve been working in Hell’s Kitchen for almost 10 years,” said Jommie, who said that after a stint living in Hawaii, he was happy to be back in the city and reconnecting with the West Side community. “It’s really, really good to be back and see all of my friends from the neighborhood again.” He added that building his own space along with Pat and Chef Yuan was “really different,” and the challenges of launching the restaurant and debuting its new concept – which they changed over in just a week — was intense: “It’s a challenge, but I love a challenge,” he said. “We’re taking it step by step.”
The duo might bring back a formal omakase program in the future, but for now, they are excited to see where Ikebana’s life as a speakeasy will take them. “The most important thing to us is treating everyone in the neighborhood like family,” said Pat. “We just want to make everyone feel welcome.” Jommie, for one, feels welcome already. “Coming back to Hell’s Kitchen feels like coming home,” he said. “Being behind the bar and seeing everyone from the neighborhood makes me feel alive.”