Ponzu Scheme

Kyo Ya is a not-so-ancient Japanese secret

If you weren't specifically looking for Kyo Ya, you'd pass right by the stairs that lead to this underground East Village spot. Although the lack of signage might suggest speakeasy (cue eye-rolling), it's not an attempt at jumping a trend. Kyo Ya isn't for mere passersby: It's a restaurant for those with a serious affection for Japanese food.

The interior–a spare-but-elegant space, bordered by an undulating wood wall–makes this clear, as does the menu. It's filled with so much esoterica (female smelt from Hokkaido! Grill-it-yourself house-dried mullet roe!) that even those who know their shiokara from their shiro ebi will be daunted by its breadth.

Fear not: Chef Chikara Sono's refined elevations of Japanese home cooking are so painstakingly prepared and the flavors so expertly calibrated, that it's nearly impossible to go wrong. A dish of crispy chicken meatballs ($12)–slicked with a sweet-salty glaze and scattered with pomegranate seeds–displays the Japanese penchant for dousing fried foods with sauce. Even modest-sounding dishes, like a seasonal vegetable tempura ($16) or a hot pot of soy milk and slippery folds of tofu skin ($16), are remarkable. It's all delicious proof that exciting, modern Japanese food doesn't have to come in a roll.

Kyo Ya, 94 E. Seventh St. (between First Ave. and Avenue A); 212-982-4140