Restaurant review: Section 8 Yakitorium

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From the January 19, 2012 edition

The universe seems momentarily better when fun and unconventional food is served in the type of fun and unconventional setting it deserves. Case in point: When I stumbled into a new-to-me, kitschy yet snazzy saloon to sample the newest concessions from the Fresh Street/Foodie Cart crew (of beloved Japanese crepes and open-air Short North takoyaki fame), I encountered a confluence of alterna-music that ripped a smile onto my face.

As unlikely as this sounds, one of my favorite classic weirdo Euro-cult bands — Can — was actually playing on the jukebox. Tending bar was the Times New Viking guitarist. And lending a hand with the Fresh Street grub — and as a business partner — was an old musician pal of mine (from Gaunt, Flashing Clock and hey, The Cheesy Truck). At this point, no one should be surprised to learn this place’s owner is a long-time music scenester herself (Yalan Papillons), who used to play in raucous local bands such as Miss May 66.

Sure, the saloon in question’s name kinda conjures up a suspect dish from a pseudo-Chinese restaurant — or a dubiously legal massage parlor — but Double Happiness (which actually refers to a decorative Chinese character) is a bar and music club unlike any other in Columbus. Dark, narrow, multi-roomed and flashing with glittering urns, lush red lamps, giant Buddha heads and other racily red and Asian accents, Double Happiness could easily be in D.C., or the Lower East Side. Happily (I suppose doubly so) this unique establishment is in our own Brewery District backyard. And inside it is the inspired and tapas-y new Fresh Street project (Fresh Street and Double Happiness are separate businesses).

Sounding like a Guided by Voices song title, Section 8 Yakitorium is Fresh Street’s fresh reach into Japanese snack-foods — and it’s a riot. Its main draw is mini meat skewers grilled over imported “bincho” charcoals, but Section 8 prepares other tempting Japanese-style beer partners, too. Prices (everything costs about $2 to $4) and portions are manageably smallish, but flavors and entertainment quotients are giddily high.

Instead of heavy and monotonous, S8Y’s tiny barbecued kabobs — the varieties available each night will be announced on cards artfully handwritten in charcoal — are light and even delicate. They’re all expertly charred and bear the potent telltale whiff of oaky smoke, but my favorites (more or less in order of preference) were: tender tuna (lightly slathered in Korean chili paste); rich, almost gelatinous, melt-in-your-mouth beef cheek; meaty and juicy pork belly; salty pork cheek (delightfully recalls pork chop fat); ruffly chicken skin; and hearty chicken thigh.

Apart from addictive stuff on sticks, I also liked:

• Tori-Soba (Cup o’ Chicken Ramen) — Homey chicken noodle soup any grandma would be proud of, garnished with sprouts and brightened by halved cherry tomatoes

• Ume Chazuke — Soothing, meatless and seaweedy mass of warm, broth-soaked rice topped with a lively spectrum of add-ons such as pickled plums, crunchy and snackfoody “tiny balls of Japanese love” (S8Y’s description) plus mouth-walloping fresh wasabi

• Okonomi-yaki fries — A mammoth serving of large, crispy and darkly cooked tuber planks made from both regular and sweet potatoes, these arrive distinctly — and engagingly — dressed with Kewpie mayo, a sweet soy glaze and tuna-fishy bonito flakes.

Photos by Jodi Miller