Bartender Interview

Haruki East is a Must for Japanese Dining and Imbibing in Wayland Square

We take a journey around Haruki East's drink menu with bartender Michael Yang

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Muse that you’d like to go for Japanese in Providence, and almost anyone in earshot will think of Haruki East as a top pick. Despite thick competition on Sushi Row, aka Wickenden Street, the Wayland Square outpost has been an enduring success with a wide patron base. We chatted with longtime waiter and bartender Michael Yang to get at the heart of the restaurant’s near-universal appeal, score some tips about sake and understand why “fusion” shouldn’t be a dirty word in dining.

Let’s start with community, which seems key. Why do you think Haruki East has been so successful, with such diverse customers, for so long?

We’ve had a lot of support from residents who literally walk here for lunch or dinner every week. They know us, and we know them. There is the college contingent, too, including big parties that Brown’s Korean and Japanese clubs bring in. And we’ve had strong ties in the business community, since people know they can get an efficient and solid lunch here – or a strong drink after work.

Whiskey has a strong presence in your bar program. That seems unusual.
Some people may not think of whiskey first when they think of what they’d order in a Japanese restaurant, but it’s always been a strong draw for us. The palate of our patrons is pretty sophisticated: They like well-made cocktails, and neat whiskies from upscale labels, regardless of what they’re eating. Plus, it ties into the boom in Japanese distilleries. Whiskey is huge in Japan. Yamazake (a super-premium spirit) was on our shelf for a while, but now it’s impossible to get. Hibiki is another good one that we still have, which is a really smooth, blended whiskey.

Is your cocktail crowd strong?
Definitely. We run specials occasionally, which adds to that. Martini Mondays, for example. We offer ten-ish martinis at $5 each. And the pours are pretty generous. [Laughs]

Do you have a favorite one out of the ten?
The Silver Martini, which is made with unfiltered sake and vodka. It’s nice and murky because of the sake, and a little sweet but not too sweet.

Sake can be an unfamiliar threshold for a lot of American diners. How do you steer novices to a good experience?

There are filtered and unfiltered versions, and each is very different. I try to get a sense of a person’s tastes and recommend the one that would probbly land best. I happen to like unfiltered ones, because they’re more complex and interesting, but a lot of people like the filtered ones because they’re clearer and cleaner. Most “premium” sakes are filtered. We offer a few by the glass rather than the bottle so that people can sample them, and get to know what their preference is.

What’s the difference between hot and chilled sakes?
Hot sake is very traditional and prized, but it’s usually not made with premium stuff. Heating can enhance or dull certain flavors, and that’s better for more full-bodied and assertive sakes. The more delicate ones are better when chilled.

So, on to the food. If you had a first-timer, tell me what you’d recommend.
We’re known for our raw sushi, but for some people that won’t work no matter how amazing other people think it is. I try to get a sense of whether cooked or raw is the way to go.

Alright, let’s start with the cooked side, then.
I’d recommend something different, like the Katano roll: It’s filled with shrimp tempura and extra tempura flakes for crunch. We top it with crab salad, raw tuna, avocado, spicy roe, and eel sauce. That’s not made from eels, by the way. It’s a sweet soy sauce. The hamachi kama is also amazing. It’s the cheek of yellowfin tuna, grilled as an appetizer. It’s a limited item because it’s so hard to source, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.

Your menu has more “fusion” aspects now, doesn’t it?

We added some dishes that are more pan-Asian than traditional Japanese, like a fried rice. Also, our current sushi chef, Cardin Lau, is of Chinese background. He’s versed in Japanese preparations, but he’s lent some of his heritage to dishes. Chili oil, for instance. That’s definitely more present now.

What about people who think fusion cuisine is a crime?
That’s not something we think about, really. We have incredibly authentic dishes, and we also have more innovative and creative ones that draw from all over Asia. Both have their place.

Haruki East
172 Walyland Avenue
223-0332