First Taste: Haiku

We dropped into buzzy Haiku in White Plains last week and our first impression was that there was A Lot: as in, a lot of décor, a lot of loud music, and a lot of dishes. It’s working, too—there are also a lot of people. We went on a midsummer Tuesday night—a steamy evening so dead that there was plenty of available dinnertime parking in the big lot behind Mamaroneck Avenue—and yet there were still crowds waiting outside Haiku. Its street-side dining area was packed, though (after a fraught moment at the podium) we happily coasted out of the swelter directly to our waiting table. Phew…we can’t tell you how much we welcomed that short bottle of icy Hitorimusume unfiltered sake.

Here are some other first impressions of Haiku (and P.S., this is not a real review—it’s way too soon to judge).

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Vibe: The clubby/sceney aspect to Haiku is prominent, from its jazzy back-lit-in-blue bar to colorful signature cocktails. Dance tracks throb, and a large portion of Haiku’s space is devoted to a happening bar scene. Slouchy lounge seating nooks ring the front bar—but, alas, short-skirt-alert! Low tables and sofas will have mini-clad women squirming for decency, though, in our experience, most men don’t mind. And, though the bar crowd skews youngish (with lots of post-grads and thirty-somethings), the restaurant draws all ages, since—with an eclectic pan-Asian menu (more about this below)—there’s literally something for everyone. Chummy staffers greet, masters of the squat-and-chat service style, though early days at Haiku meant that when we visited there was still some confusion about the menu.

Décor: There’s a lot to see at Haiku, from a glorious wall of stacked, white sake barrels, slashed with black calligraphy to denote the beverages’ brands and origins, to illuminated colored panels in blue and red that lend a clubby glow. Haiku’s long bar glows in the hues of the Caribbean Sea, and shares a wall with a bustling sushi bar. Other walls are treated to clean, stacked blades of stone (periodically flashed with Haiku’s projected logo). Dark cherry wood anchors the floor and tables, and low lighting, from blazing fire-ball-like pendants and ropes of suspended Edison bulbs, lends mood. The overall sense is that Haiku is a busy space: lots of distinct dining areas, lots of visual ideas, lots of people.

Menu: As with most pan-Asian restaurants, Haiku’s menu stresses sushi, which is flanked by top ten hits from other Asian nations. This democratic menu—shared among the four other Haikus in Bronxville, Mamaroneck, Cross River, and Woodbury, Long Island—broadens its draw and makes this restaurant about much more than raw fish, a dealbreaker for some diners. To sample the culinary geography, we found a prompt, slightly cooled-off (chili-wise) version of Sichuan spicy dumplings—tender, mild, pork and shrimp filled morsels punctuated by the crunch of hot peanuts. The eight generous bites were accompanied by a red, but not challengingly hot, sauce. Other dumplings were present on the menu, too—we could have had gyoza or shumai, not to mention the ecumenical pleasures of spring rolls, tempura, or chicken or beef satay.

In many ways, the point of our visit, an arm-length platter of sushi and sashimi, was designed to please the masses (and us), with a generous—if tuna-heavy—assortment of pretty maki and silken slabs of raw yellowtail and salmon. All the usual sushi-bar favorites are here, from California rolls to spider rolls, and (for big spenders), toro. A white tiger roll, wrapped in papery, green-and-white-marbled nori, was a creamy roulade of tuna, salmon, yellowtail, and avocado—delicious, and just what we wanted on this hot summer night. Sadly, on our visit, Haiku’s sushi rice was highly flavored with vinegar, which may have masked some of the more subtly flavored fish—yet still, we vowed to return to try more rolls.

It can feel a little unfair ordering non-sushi entrées at pan-Asian restaurants (it’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, critic-wise), but I also figure, hey, they’re charging for ’em, so why not? You can imagine my surprise, then, when a quite respectable Malaysian red curry with tofu arrived, redolent of fish sauce, chili, and spices. It reminded me, in its heady complexity, of a Thai massaman curry, and the flash-fried tofu cubes were firm on the outside and bursting within. We lacked only a bowl of rice to soak up the thick, yummy curry—a goof, I’m afraid, in an otherwise memorable dish.

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So…buzzy, casual, clubby, and cheerful, with a democratic menu that goes a long way toward pleasing the masses. Haiku might be a little bumpy right now, but go with the expectation of fun and you won’t be disappointed—especially if you opt for those pearly shots of unfiltered Hitorimusume sake.

149 Mamaroneck Ave, White Plains

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