A good review can entice me to eat almost anything. David Bouley’s Brushstroke, with its very traditional and structured Japanese menu, isn’t exactly a comfort food haven for this corn-fed Ohio diner, but Adam Platt’s New York magazine review somehow had me craving kaiseki. Partly because I liked that they wouldn’t let him order sushi in the dining room and partly because there’s no way I’m resisting a restaurant once I see the words candied duck breast in a review.
the book room
Brushstroke is all recycled blonde woods, reclaimed steel from ship’s hulls, and 27,000 paperback books formed into walls inset with Japanese street scenes in the bar area. (Apparently these low, cushioned tables are where Platt had to eat his a la carte sushi.) Having read that sitting at the sushi counter was a special experience, my boyfriend and I traded the privacy of a dining room table for up-close sushi-making action. And the best part was that we still had servers, so the chef wasn’t distracted by having to chatter with us, and we could talk quietly to ourselves while we enjoyed his display of skills.
sushi chef forming maki rolls
For our menu, we chose the $135 seasonal tasting:
amuse bouche: persimmon, fig
This bite was a nice balance of sweet fruit and slight heat. The greens were very tender, but out of nowhere came a bit of invisible crunchiness from within the mound of them. The flavor of yuzu in the sauce overwhelmed all of the other elements, but I’m a huge fan of that distinct citrus taste and found it a plus.
steamed chawan-mushi egg custard, dungeness crab, black truffle sauce
A thick layer of creamy custard in the bottom of the bowl was covered with even more broth thick with the crabbiest of crab hunks. It was like chicken noodle soup for pescetarians. The strong crab flavor, crunchy scallions, and pudding-like custard were the main standouts of the dish, while the truffle and ginger were conspicuously absent for me.
array of sashimi
As I took the last bite of fish, I turned to my boyfriend and said, “I didn’t take a picture of that.” It was a beautiful plate of expertly-sliced tuna, kampachi (yellowtail), and hirame. The tuna was oddly nearly flavorless, but the hirame was lemony and firm, and the kampachi was meaty and fell apart in my mouth. The tuna was served with soy sauce, while the other two were to be eaten with a super sweet chunky radish and ponzu sauce that was delicious even when eaten by itself. For me, this just didn’t compare to the sashimi plate at Momofuku Ko, in which every piece of fish is outfitted with a distinct yet complementary topping, but I appreciated the simple beauty of it.
guinea hen soup
This soup looked pretty tame when it was placed in front of us, but lurking inside were treasures untold. Namely, a whole chunk of the crispiest, slightly-charred-tasting hen skin. The soup was thin yet somehow creamy and again had the flavor of yuzu, and the golf-ball-sized meatball had a citrus flavor and the very soft texture of a paté. I got the feeling that this fowl would have been very juicy even without the broth.
I’m still not BFFs with oysters, so having this one served to me chopped into four pieces was helpful, even if it allowed me way too much freedom to examine the meaty interior. It was very lemony, with a bit of texture from the seaweed underneath. I wouldn’t say it got me any closer to loving oysters, but it sure didn’t take me a step back, and the presentation was really striking to boot.
lobster with kabocha squash (Japanese pumpkin)
I love pumpkin, and kabocha in particular is supposed to be extra sweet, so I was salivating a Slip ‘N Slide out of the corner of my mouth just thinking about popping these squash-sauced niblets of lobster into my mouth. Weirdly, yuzu was once again the main flavor of the dish; we could just barely get any pumpkin flavor. I did like the creaminess of the sauce, though, and the chewiness of the lobster was just right.
rock fish, chrysanthemum petals
This dish was beautiful but freaky. The dashi was exceptionally gelatinous, making it very difficult to eat with chopsticks; I really needed a spoon and some fruit cocktail to make a classic Midwestern Jell-o salad. The dish was kind of one-note, with that note of course being yuzu.
black cod, uni, buckwheat
I don’t ever think a dish needs additional uni, but I actually both thought it worked here and that the dish wouldn’t have been as good without it. There was yuzu in the chrysanthemum puree, naturally, and it paired nicely with the earthy buckwheat. I guess maybe cod is the epitomical fish for me, because its flavor just seemed perfectly oceany.
My boyfriend gets mad when I don’t take any pictures of the drink pairings, so this is for him. Pairings were $90 for the ten courses and ranged from absolutely perfect to slightly questionable, but the sommelier admitted that at least one of the dishes had been exceptionally hard to pair, and it has to be rough pairing a menu that changes monthly, as Brushstroke’s does.
pork belly, cippolini onion puree
I was as ecstatic about this course as I was ambivalent about the fish courses. I kept looking at my boyfriend’s wagyu and telling him my dish was better, but he refused to believe me, and rightly so; there’s no situation where pork is better than beef.
Except for this one.
We joked about it changing our lives once my boyfriend finally tasted it, but I’m not sure either of us were actually joking. The cippolini puree was so sweet and oniony. The sauce tasted of bourbon. The pork was crispy on the outside but tore apart so easily with chopsticks, the thick layer of fat disintegrating instantly. It was so clearly the better of the two meat dishes, and I’m not someone who undervalues steak.
Smoky and perfectly-cooked, this beef was tender and complemented by the sweet crunchy vegetal strips on top. And that’s all I remember about it, because I only cared about the pork.
array of sushi
My boyfriend said this was the best pickled ginger he’d ever had, which is kind of a funny thing to notice amidst a plate of expertly-prepared fish, but he has sushi for dinner way more often than I’d like, so I believe him. This was tuna, fluke, mackerel, and yellowtail with a tuna maki roll. Notably, wasabi was already smeared on the rice under each piece of fish.
tuna maki roll
red miso soup
This was one of the chef’s mother’s recipes. And it tasted like miso soup to me, so that’s something.
As weird as noting the excellence of some ginger is caring more about the pickles on the side of your lobster dish than the lobster itself, but they were just so firm and ripe. The lobster pieces didn’t have noticeable batter, but they tasted deep-fried and were slightly crunchy. The rice was sticky and starchy and tasted of vinegar, which contrasted with the fresh herbs garnishing the dish. It was a filling, warming dish.
soy sauce ice cream
As if soy sauce ice cream isn’t strange enough on its own, this was topped with groats . . . and wasabi! It was rich, nutty, and salty, with a surprising caramel flavor. I loved the heat from the wasabi, the crunch of the buckwheat, and the salt from the dehydrated soy sauce topping. I would eat this over my usual Ben & Jerry’s any day.
green tea pudding, crushed pistachios
I’m not what you’d call someone who appreciates subtlety. I like my desserts oversized and oversweetened. But this was so creamy, so rich, that I couldn’t help myself. It had a slight flavor of coffee and a slight sweetness from the syrupy brown sugar topping.
Accompanying it were mostly-savory red beans and slivers of chestnut with a little tooth to them.
red beans, puffed rice, chestnut
matcha green tea
A bowl of matcha green tea, extra frothy, washed everything down, and then we were finally served dusted squares of rice paper in a wooden box. I have to admit that I was least-excited about this part of the dessert and had considered eating them before the pudding just to get them out of the way and save the best things for last.
But these were the best things. The piece dusted in green tea was super sweet, with the flavor of burnt popcorn. The salty-sweet shiso piece had pine nuts between its thin layers that were soft and flavorful. Both dissolved in my mouth like cotton candy and were gone far too soon, but their intense flavors lingered.
sushi chef cutting tuna
I’ll admit that Brushstroke was a little too timid for me at times. I like my sashimi a little more done-up, my cooked fish a little less one-note. But if kaiseki is all about balance, I have to give the restaurant its due: every dish was seasonal, beautifully-presented, and full of interesting textures. There was so much going on in the kitchen (unlike at, say, Momofuku Ko, where most of the preparation has happened ahead of time, and many dishes are constructed from elements pulled from plastic storage containers), and even more going on in the restroom, which my boyfriend and I had to visit several times to play with the electronic Japanese toilet. (Would it be wrong to give a restaurant an extra donut just for giving me my first bidet experience?) With a menu that changes monthly and the chance to have our butts dried by a toilet, we’ll no doubt be back.
30 Hudson Street
New York, NY 10013 (map)