The first thing I notice before I enter nunu is its enticing red glow. It's a little overwhelming at first, but once my eyes adjust, I begin to notice the subtleties of this Fishtown restaurant–bar: the sea of Chinese lanterns hanging above the bar, the neon sign alternatively flashing as a rooster and a hen fixed toward the back, and the variety of seat choices crowded into the small space. There are large curved booths, dining nooks fit for only two, and individual stools by the bar.
Despite being a 30–person eatery, nunu’s design reflects its ambition. Opened just last fall by Shawn Darragh and Ben Puchowitz—owners of several hotspots throughout Philly (Cheu Noodle Bar, Bing Bing Dim Sum, and Cheu Fishtown, which is next door to nunu)—nunu is meant to invoke a Japanese izakaya (informal pubs with great food choices), but not quite be one; to provide casual drinks and snacks, but also full–fledged meals. It's a place where you can gather with a group of friends, another person, or by yourself.
When I open nunu’s menu, it seems like the place is more bar than restaurant. Four out of its five pages are dedicated to drinks, with a wide range of sake, many cocktails curated around Asian flavors, and an interesting selection of Japanese whiskeys. Nunu also has a Toki whiskey highball tap (which turns whiskey into a refreshing champagne–like concoction by mixing it with sparkling seltzer at high pressure) as well as three choices of chuhai cocktails (a Japanese drink that is made here by mixing sake, shochu, or vodka with sparkling soda and fermented fruit). And if you don’t want to drink alcohol, there are daily selections of iced tea and mocktails, three kinds of hot tea, and various sodas.
But don't only go for the drinks. Following the traditions of izakayas, nunu has bar foods that go way beyond your typical chicken wings and jalapeno poppers. There's a wide range of skewers—from chicken meatballs to Brussels sprouts. With their refreshing mix of textures and flavors, both pair well with drinks.
I also loved nunu's vegetarian curry, found in either its kare kare fries or smoked eggplant katsu. Made to be sweeter and lighter than traditional Japanese curry, nunu’s curry embodies the founder’s philosophy when approaching Asian cuisine: to be informed by tradition, but not defined by it.
Amongst the bigger plates, my favorite is the chicken katsu sando—a sandwich on Japanese milk bread buns with pickles, nunu sauce, and iceberg lettuce, served with side fries or salad. Although katsu is a mainstay in Japanese restaurants, it is incredibly hard to make well—luckily, nunu definitely hits the mark. The ratio between the meat and the crisp panko breading is just right.
Nevertheless, if you're looking for a true Japanese izakaya, with its communal and down–to–earth draw, nunu may not be the right place. In trying to make itself warm and welcoming—with glowing red lights and carefully mixed, Asian–centric drinks—it can be more intimidating than cozy, artificial rather than old–school. The Happy Hour deals are great for food ($5 for fries in any style and $2 for sticks), but less so for the drinks (only $1 off the draft highballs and beers, and a cocktail of the day priced at $10). Unlike the friendly charms of an izakaya, which never takes itself too seriously, nunu feels more aloof—its flushed interior an otherworldly intersection between thoughtful Japanese cuisine and Fishtown hipster attitude.
Yet, it is this unique intersection that makes nunu the ideal place for an ambient first date, or a fun hang–out with friends. The atmosphere, although not very genuine, still promotes a sense of intimacy. After all, nunu shows great care everywhere, especially when considering its menu. The seats are comfortable, the lights dim, and the rock–and–roll music is never so loud that you can’t have a good conversation.
TL;DR: Nunu is Japanese cuisine meets Fishtown hipster.
Hours: Mon—Wed: 5 p.m.—11 p.m.
Thurs—Fri: 5 p.m.—12 a.m.
Sat: 12 p.m.—12 a.m.
Sun: 12 p.m.—11 p.m.
Location: 1414 Frankford Avenue