Updated 9:50 a.m.
The photo above is a katsu-fried Impossible burger with cabbage slaw on milk bread by Lost Bread Bakery. It’s served with fries that come close to McDonald’s-level perfection, and is wildly delicious. It’s also a pretty good snapshot of Philadelphia food today — and part of the answer to the question of what you do when you run one of the most popular restaurants in Fishtown: Open another, right next door.
More than a year after they announced it, business partners Shawn Darragh and Ben Puchowitz are finally ready to pull back the curtains on Nunu.
Unlike the neighboring Cheu Fishtown and the duo’s other restaurants, which are primed for chaotic excitement with madcap decor and eclectic custom art, the spot at 1414 Frankford Ave. feels somewhat calmer.
That’s on purpose. “We’re trying to slow things down a little here,” Darragh said.
While the sentiment doesn’t necessarily describe the food menu, which includes lots of quick bites like yakitori skewers, flame-grilled vegetables, dressed-up fries and katsu sandos, it does apply to some of the cocktails — the bartender will talk to you while making them — and to the decor.
Billed as a Japanese drinking and snack bar, Nunu’s space is intimate and almost cozy, with the signature red glow of an izakaya warming thousands of centimeter-wide ridges in the hand-milled wood that wraps most of the room.
“The izakaya vibe is that everyone drinks together as equals: salarymen, boss ladies, tourists, friends,” said beverage manager Kelly Brophy. “I think we’re trying to honor that vibe without imitating…It’s tricky.”
There are around 30 seats in the design by Rohe Creative, which size-wise puts the restaurant on par with the original Cheu Noodle Bar in Wash West (Bing Bing Dim Sum on East Passyunk is the pair’s largest). Orange metal bar stools make up a third of Nunu’s seating, while the rest is split between large circular banquettes and a trio of arched-ceiling raised booths along one edge.
A sea of crimson paper lanterns over the bar leads the eye to a chicken sculptured in red neon on the back wall. The blinking bird, an interpretation of Nunu’s logo, points the way to the bathroom — and offers a hint of what to order.
Downstairs in the small kitchen, where the main event is a robatayaki grill, chickens from Lancaster County will be broken down whole and used for all their parts: thighs cubed, salted and strung onto bamboo skewers with scallion; wings confited and tossed with Nashville hot sauce; breasts pounded with panko and sandwiched between two slices of soft milk bread.
Like at his other restaurants, Puchowitz takes inspiration from Asian cultures (in this case, Japan) and then adds his own touches. It’s not authenticity he’s going for, said the chef: “I just want it to taste good.”
In general, bites start at $3 and top out at $16 for a full platter — prices that are purposely accessible. Same philosophy holds true for the drink list, which includes a slew of easy-access, low-ABV highballs on draft plus a curated selection of sake.
Here’s more details on the food and drink you’ll want to try when Nunu opens — target launch date is Monday, Oct. 1.
The whole first section of Puchowitz’s menu is skewers. Available for $3 a pop, options include thigh (with scallion and togarashi spice); koji-marinated breast; chicken meatballs served with raw yolk for dipping; and chicken livers with apple relish.
You can also order a $20 yakitori tasting, which brings all of the above plus some extras, like crispy chicken skin on a stick.
The black garlic wings at Cheu were one of the dishes that made this culinary team famous, so they’ve set themselves a high bar — and hurdled it deftly. Confited to bone-dropping tenderness, free range wings are then grilled, tossed in Nashville-style hot sauce and served with tahini dipping sauce. They’re super spicy but also full of layers of nuanced flavor.
The second section of the menu offers various grilled meats and veg, from baby potatoes to quail with mission figs. A standout option is the avocado, grilled on its open half, then plated with ponzu sauce, burnt bread crumbs, sea salt and smoked trout roe (for a “Jewish touch,” said Puchowitz).
The resulting combination is a study in contrasts: hot and cold, sweet and salty, creamy with the occasional “pop.” Who needs toast?
If no one told you the Impossible Burger wasn’t meat, you probably wouldn’t guess — at least not in this preparation. Enveloped in panko coating and surrounded by sweet katsu sauce and crunchy cabbage, it’s one of the most flavor-rich and satisfying vegetarian sandwiches in Philadelphia. (It’s not vegan: there’s Kewpie mayo in the slaw.) Other katsu sando options are sustainable pork or chicken breast.
Fries and curry
The fries served with the sandwiches also get their own menu section, offered with various toppings (“Ouji Fries” come with the unholy combo of Whiz and furikake spice). Other food choices include curry plates — Impossible, pork or chicken with rice, slaw and sauce — and “raw” options like kimchi beef tartare and spicy tuna dip.
Toki whiskey highballs
Darragh and Puchowitz worked with Suntory to get everything up to the standards required to have a dedicated Toki whiskey highball tap, which pours low-alcohol cocktails at the pull of a lever. The sparkling seltzer mixed with the booze is at ultra-high pressure — 110 psi vs. the normal 75 psi — for a super refreshing and inexpensive sip. It comes with a grapefruit twist or other flavorings.
Sake and more sake
Beverage manager Kelly Floyd recently earned her certification from the Sake School of America, and she’s personally invested in the list she put together for Nunu. “I came up in fine-dining restaurants where we sold beautiful wine by the glass and the bottle,” she said, “but wine never sang to me like Sake does. The ancient art of it, it’s so fascinating and sacred.” Ask for a recommendation or get a tasting, served on custom-branded panels made by Floyd’s significant other.
Cocktails with intention
When Darragh was doing research for Nunu in Japan, he fell in love with the izakaya tradition of the bartender showing their work as they make you a drink.
“They put out all the bottles, talk about why they’re adding each ingredient, really make it a story,” he said. In the photo above, the story culminates in “Blossoms on the Boulevard,” a rye-based concoction with sweet vermouth, sakura aperitif and rose water.
Another thing Darragh stole from Japan is the selection of chuhai cocktails, made by mixing sake, shochu or vodka with sparkling soda and some kind of fermented fruit on the bottom. After it’s served, you stir it up well and slurp it down.
When Nunu opens, it’ll share an outdoor courtyard with Cheu Fishtown, and a set of stools along the window will offer outdoor bar seating.
The bathroom is not an afterthought — its design incorporates mahjong tiles pressed into the wall.
Nunu is located at 1414 Frankford Ave. Hours will be 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Monday-Friday and noon to 1 a.m. Saturday-Sunday. The kitchen is open till midnight seven days a week.