GREENPOINT — At Rule of Thirds in Greenpoint, which opened February 22, very little goes to waste.
The restaurant, a collaboration between the team from Sunday Hospitality and Okonomi’s JT Vuong and George Padilla, is a sleek and stylish concept that also pays homage to philosophies of Japanese cuisine and culture — including mottainai, which loosely means “what a waste,” or “waste nothing.”
Many dishes incorporate byproducts like sakekasu, or the solids left behind after sake is produced — they source theirs from local brewery Brooklyn Kura. Atsu kezuri bonito, a type of shaved, dried fish, is first used to make a mild fish stock — dashi — and then used, once again, to make the innovative glazed “bonito glass” that tops a starter salad.
JT Vuong, former head chef at Okonomi and partner at Rule of Thirds, grounds much of his approach to cooking in mottainai, as well as using seasonal and local produce.
“It’s not just about using something that’s a byproduct or waste,” he said. “For me it’s much more about appreciation of everything.”
At yakitori restaurants in Japan, he said, livers and hearts are served not because they need to be used up, but because they’re delicious, “It’s more that they respect the entire animal itself, and each thing tastes great.”
Vuong grew up in Taiwan, a former colony of Japan, and said that Japanese food was a huge part of his life growing up.
“I was raised eating a lot of Japanese food without knowing that it was Japanese food, like specifically Japanese-style curry,” he said. “I thought that was just curry.”
Vuong started his Japanese cooking career at a suburban sushi restaurant in Long Island, around 2012. He needed a job in New York and found himself at Yuji, the ramen restaurant that shares space with Okonomi, run by the same owners, in 2013. He was eventually promoted to head chef of Yuji in 2014, and later of Okonomi in 2015. That’s where he met George Padilla, who served as general manager at Okonomi and is also a partner at Rule of Thirds, where he’s in charge of the sake menu.
The two talked of opening a restaurant since fall of 2017, but the idea for Rule of Thirds itself came about after they befriended Adam Landsman, co-founder of restaurant group Sunday Hospitality, who was a frequent customer of Okonomi. After realizing they all shared a barber with Landsman, the rest was history, and the friendly trio set out to launch a new venture, along with the other Sunday Hospitality partners.
For Vuong, branching out with a restaurant like Rule of Thirds was a way to move beyond Okonomi’s more traditional approach to Japanese food, and to implement his own ideas. Beyond mottainai, the menu is deeply respectful of Japanese cooking philosophy, while taking a few carefully calibrated liberties.
“We aren’t super traditional but have a lot of respect for the culinary legacy [of Japanese food],” Landsman told us through email.
“[The cuisine is] very authentic, in terms of what the ingredients are and how things come together,” Vuong said. “Even though we’re applying techniques and ideas from different cuisines, it’s all still based in Japanese cuisine philosophy and ideas.” Elements from those different cuisines show up in dishes like the rolled omelet, called dashimaki tamago, which at Rule of Thirds is showered with grated pecorino. The chicken meatball is served with a “Worcestershire yolk jam,” and a grilled chicken thigh is garnished with gremolata, a zesty and herbaceous condiment.
The menu is dotted with other western ingredients that might seem out of place in Japanese cuisine, but are actually surprisingly common — such as camembert cheese, which is used to stuff something called a “tofu hot-pocket,” a riff on a sushi favorite called inarizushi. Vuong especially recalls a camembert tempura he once ate while traveling in Japan.
The potato salad, also beloved in Japan, is mixed with kewpie mayo, along with S&B curry powder, both of which are modern Japanese staples.
“Certain things you can’t change because it’s ingrained in our memories,” Vuong said. “It’s so nostalgic.”
The food, Padilla said, is inspired specifically by the food at izakayas — pubs in Japan that pair drinks with excellent small plates. At Rule of Thirds, however, it’s a kind of culinary “choose-your-own-adventure,” he explained. You could simply drink and order a few small plates — like the smoked Hollander Mussels, or pork jowl with yuzu kosho, which pair especially well with drinks — or you could go all out with a traditional meal.
Entrees include kasujiru, a soup highlighting the aforementioned sakekasu. It’s commonly made with pork, but Vuong and the team realized it tasted great without it — the kasujiru, along with maitake mushrooms, provide plenty of depth, so they kept it vegan. Butter beans are added for protein, and a yaki-onigiri, a glazed, grilled rice ball, is plopped on top for a crunchy element. There’s also a tonkatsu, a breaded, fried pork cutlet, made with blade steak instead of the more typical loin or filet.
The “Buddhist duck” is a showstopper in the vein of Manhattan’s Chinatown staple, the king crab feast from Wu’s Wonton King, one of Landsman’s favorite meals. In keeping with mottainai, it’s prepared multiple ways, using up almost every part of the duck: duck breast with lettuce cups; a nabe, or mixed rice dish with duck and “umeboshi kabayaki sauce”; scorched duck legs; and a duck broth made with bones and bancha green tea. Once they’ve got enough duck hearts, Vuong said, they might put them on the menu as a special.
The menu was designed by Vuong, along with chef de cuisine Paul Punch, formerly the chef of Sunday in Brooklyn, and partner Jaime Young, who is currently chef/partner at Sunday in Brooklyn. Sunday in Brooklyn is under the Sunday Hospitality umbrella.
While Padilla curated the sake menu — there are 14 different kinds from nine regions of Japan, along with one from Brooklyn Kura — the cocktail menu comes courtesy of Brian Evans, Sunday Hospitality’s Director of Bars. Drinks like the Jazz Lingo, made up of matcha, egg white, lemon, and Japanese gin from the brand Roku, are a blend of Japanese ingredients with American classic cocktails, Evans explained. There’s also shochu, a distilled spirit made from products like sweet potatoes or barley, as well as wine, beer, cider, and a few non-alcoholic cocktails.
The dessert list is short, but impeccable-sounding: a soft-serve flavored with white chocolate and more of that sakekasu (Vuong’s favorite); a purple sweet potato soft-serve; and a light and fluffy Japanese-style cheesecake.
Even though the restaurant is only two weeks young, Padilla said, they’re thankful to have a strong team that values the Japanese sense of omotenashi, or hospitality. Omotenashi, Padilla said, amounts to offering whole-hearted service, and “looking after guests as if they were in your own home.”
Rule of Thirds is located in the design studio A/D/O, at 29 Norman Avenue in Greenpoint. Dinner is served Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 5:30 pm to 10 pm, and Friday and Saturday from 5:30 pm to 11 pm. The team is planning to roll out lunch service soon.