My friend Erin online-introduced me to her friend Lizzie back in 2008, and we quickly became Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and blogfriends. And by that I mean that we never actually met, despite living mere miles from each other. (Although one mile in Manhattan is like ten miles anywhere else.) But after four years, we finally forced a dinner a couple of weeks ago at Japadog in the East Village. And I’m not saying that eating a metric ton of wasabi mayo together makes people get along better, but it sure can’t hurt.
Like a sweet and sour pork belly, this meat seemed to consist of at least half chewy, melty fat. The cabbage added crunch and brightness.
Lizzie ordered hers with a veggie dog, which you can do with any of Japadog’s dogs. This is for people who scorn the idea that a meal shouldn’t be made up entirely of carbs.
Lizzie’s other veggie dog, which I believe was the Oroshi with grated daikon radish and “special” soy sauce. You get an idea of how huge and fluffy these buns are from this picture, but it still doesn’t convey exactly how hard they are to fit into your mouth.
This website says this one is “popular to all ages”, despite its suggestive name. This was easily my favourite of the two Japadogs I tried, because um, it’s covered in three inches of cheese. I loved the smoky flavor from the blackened cheese and the meat-on-meat of the thick coney sauce over the hot dog. The chili cheese dog is the archetypal hot dog in my book, and this one did not disappoint.
All of the dogs we tried were just right flavor-wise, and the never-before-seen toppings were so novel that a lesser restaurant might have skimped on the links themselves; these were cooked so that I felt that much-desired snap when I bit into them. My only complaints were with the price of each dog, which were sometimes twice as much as that of the Crif Dogs right down the street, and the fact that my butter and shoyu French fries were completely unflavored until the last quarter of the bag. However, the last quarter of the bag tasted like fries covered in movie theatre popcorn butter, so I can overlook that. Especially since the tables at Japadog are plenty, the staff is sweet and friendly, and the decor is casual but cute enough that you could take a date here and not look like a cheapskate. You’ll look like a fool with chili and cheese all over your face, but that’s totally charming.
I still remember the subtle delights from my first trip to Kajitsu back in 2010: the juxtaposition of grilled mochi on raw, flaky layers of lotus root cake, an osechi box full of foods I’d never heard of, let alone tasted. With chef Masato Nishihara’s departure from the restaurant looming, my group of dining pals and I stopped by for a final taste of his food before a new chef (Ryota Ueshima) takes over and Kajitsu moves to Midtown.
The eight-course, $70 Hana tasting:
Thanks to my dining companion cheeryvisage for her excellent memory; many of these are only labeled correctly because of her Flickr set.
When compared to the food at other high-end restaurants in the city, the food at Kajitsu can seem austere: an entire dish will be white or yellow, made up almost entirely of white rice or bamboo. No one flavor ever stands out, and even the tempuraed vegetables are tremendously fresh and light. I know that balance is sort of the point of this kind of food, but it can’t be stressed enough how subtle these dishes are, how you might get caught up in conversation and miss the simple perfection of a salted leaf or the smallest slice of peppercorn.
I love Kajitsu for the seasoned eater and the diner who’s never seen a fiddlehead fern in real life alike. The food is artful and exciting in its simplicity. The boxes filled with four different kinds of unrecognized vegetation dazzle the eye, and the dishes served in covered bowls build anticipation. I didn’t once miss the meat during this tasting and instead delighted in knowing that I wasn’t going to run into a single sinew or bone. With this two-Michelin-starred restaurants in town, vegetarians have it pretty good.
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.
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.
For our menu, we chose the $135 seasonal tasting:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Earlier this year, I wrote about my only visit to Sushi Yasuda, widely regarded as one of the best sushi restaurants in NYC. I was still in my twenty-four-year phase of not liking fish then and had really gone out on a limb there by ordering a tuna roll.
Since then, my boyfriend has mentioned going back approximately four hundred times. Usually I’d have no problem accompanying him and ordering the very safest items on the menu, but the problem was that he wanted to try the chef’s omakase, where you have no say in what you’re served. Which, from the reviews I’d read, involved everything from scallop roe to giant clam to eel. My boyfriend promised he’d eat anything I couldn’t, though, knowing I’d try my best not to be squeamish, and we made a reservation to sit at the counter in front of the chef preparing our sushi. You know, so I’d be really embarrassed if I couldn’t eat something he gave to me.
The chef would place one or two pieces of nigiri sushi for each of us on a wooden tray with a small pile of ginger to act as a palate cleanser. No soy sauce nor wasabi was offered, as the restaurant is known for adding exactly the right amount to its rice as each piece is formed. We used our fingers to pick them up, which was pretty exciting to a couple of Westerners who have been specifically taught not to eat with our hands, and aside from one minor (okay, humongous) slip up on my part, it was an easy, not-at-all scary first omakase experience.
Smoky, fresh, and vinegary.
I was going to say that I’d love to know how an uncooked sea creature become crispy, but I probably don’t actually want to know. It was definitely a shock and a bit of a delight to bite into something that looked soft and pliable and to find that it had a crunch.
This is where the major slip-up occurred, but I’ll have to write about it in a separate post to save your appetite.
Ironically, the eel had been one of the items I was most hesitant about before dining at Yasuda, and it’s the thing I walked away craving the most. Partly because it felt like a novelty next to all of the uncooked fish and partly because it’s just a really meaty, sweet bite. The charred flavor contrasted the sugary sauce so nicely in a contest between richness and brightness.
We weren’t quite satisfied yet and requested another round of eel; our chef informed us he had five different kinds!
Compared to other restaurants as a whole, Yasuda could never be 5-donut material for me. Inherently, the dishes are less interesting than those at a new American or French restaurant, and the flavors are so mild that it was hard for me to talk about them much beyond their differing textures. I really loved the simplicity of the meal but desperately needed that eel to break up the monotony of raw fish after raw fish. Because each dish was so similar, the meal just flew by, and it’s hard for me to believe I had 20-odd pieces of sushi.
But in terms of sushi-eating, Sushi Yasuda was an unmatched experience for me: the freshest fish, prepared perfectly, and eaten the moment it left the “kitchen”. The decor was simple and elegant and the service quietly excellent, with our tea being replaced at regular intervals to ensure it was always warm. I loved having access to the chef, and even with all of my fish-related wimpiness, I enjoyed everything he chose for us. I think the omakase was a novelty for me, but with Yasuda’s extensive menu and non-inhibitive cost, I can imagine many more nights there in our future.
I only became interested in Asiate because someone recommended it in an old Chowhound post I happened to find about undervalued Restaurant Week restaurants. The tasting menu–with its uni cream and its butter-poached lobster–excited me so much that I gave up my three Restaurant Week reservations in order to get at it as soon as possible.
Thirty-five floors up inside the Mandarin Oriental hotel, it has a better view than Per Se and the other Columbus Circle restaurants. It also has an entirely different aesthetic: bright, white, stark, and airy. We were struck the moment we walked in the door by the giant silver entwined-twig sculpture hanging from the ceiling and the overall simplicity of the decor that let the floor-to-ceiling windows speak for themselves. Unlike the dark, plush surroundings of restaurants like Daniel, Asiate feels less stuffy and pretentious. And the food is just as simple and elegant.
Compared to the gougéres we’ve had at Per Se and Tocqueville, these were sadly lacking. While I appreciated the spiciness that followed much later than the nori and cheese flavors, I found these crusty, too dry, and not nearly cheesy enough. My boyfriend reminded me of the liquid-center gougéres at Per Se, and we both gazed out the window with dreamy looks in our eyes.
I’m not an egg-hater by any means, but I sure liked that this little egg-looking amuse was actually a spherification of melon. Its skin, so thin as to be almost indiscernible, burst open in our mouths, filling them with light, slightly-sweet melon juice. It would’ve been better cold versus room temperature, but maybe mine had just gotten warm while I tried to figure out how to use my new camera on it.
Tuna Dégustation: Schramsberg, Brut Rosé, North Coast, California 2007
This preparation was too subtle for us; the cucumber “pasta” was surprisingly the standout flavor, and the remaining ingredients were almost entirely bland. I did love the play between the tender tuna and the crunchy cucumber but needed something spicy or salty to make the bite more about flavor than texture.
I decided recently that I either need to have some really awesome uni or give it up completely, because I keep being disappointed and sometimes even a little grossed out by it. This was the perfect preparation to bring me back around. The tuna was pleasantly chunky and imbued with a citrus flavor that managed to lessen the usual bitterness of the uni. I wrote in my notes that the roe was a good addition, but that can’t be right, can it?
This was again an unfortunately bland bite, but I think I need some more tataki in my life. Biting into this little hunk of tuna was like chewing on a piece of steak. I really mean that. And I swear I hated fish up until a couple of years ago. The crunchy little rice balls on top were also a plus.
Schramsberg, Brut Rosé, North Coast, California 2007
When this dish was presented to us, my boyfriend said, “Look! All of your favourite things!” And it’s true that the sight of sturgeon roe, salmon roe, uni-flavored cream, and nori might have made me pass out in the not-so-distant past. The flavors in this dish were, in fact, all very oceany–the nori was the foremost one–but the pasta really brought it back to the land for me. I was concerned about being overwhelmed by the fishiness, so I secretly mixed all of the ingredients together and ended up with a perfectly-balanced, perfectly creamy bite every time.
Shirataki, “Sara Wind”, Junmai Sake, Japan
On the restaurant’s website, this was listed as “blue prawn, scallop, Meyer lemon”. On one hand, I was excited about the prospect of shrimp, scallop, and lemon together. And I thought that as a twenty-five-year hater of seafood, it was a big deal for me to admit that. But then my boyfriend saw a picture of the dish in which the head and legs were still attached and warned me. I said, “Maybe I’ll just ask the kitchen to remove the head and legs before they serve it.” He said, “That would be embarrassing for you and offensive to the chef.” I offered that I’m paying for the meal, that I should get to eat what I want, and that having to see the head and legs would lead to a diminished experience for me. He countered that a chef’s presentation is a form of artwork and that I wouldn’t paint an extra nose on a Picasso. In the end–and it took a while–we agreed that I would have the dish served as-is for the photograph’s sake and that he would then remove the head and legs for me if they were bothering me.
And then of course we were brought an entirely different dish that turned out to be perfect. The texture of the clams was so pleasantly chewy and cut into just the right-size pieces. The bite and crunch of the radish next to the sweeter watermelon really stood out. The fruity, refreshing marinating citrus juices were so delicious my boyfriend wanted to drink them when he finished eating all the solid bits, and our Sauvignon Blanc–which I usually don’t care much for–tasted wonderfully grapefruity.
Kingston Family Vineyards, Sauvignon Blanc, “Cariblanco,” Casablanca Valley, Chile 2008
This was my first time eating pattypan squash, the fruit-vegetable with the cutest name ever. And as if that wasn’t exciting enough, the fish itself was even delicious. It was super-salty but in the best way, and it just flaked so perfectly. (I don’t actually think I understood what it meant to describe a fish as “flaky” until that moment. The way it was breaking off into equal sections was impressing me so much that I looked to my boyfriend for a way to describe it, and he said, “Um, that’s what they mean by ‘flaky’.” Ohhhhh.) The potato noodles added a nice crunch but little flavor, but luckily, there was a giant pile of enoki mushrooms hidden under one end of the fish that had soaked up some of the miso broth and was earthy and flavorful.
Domaine Jean-Marc Boillot, Puligny-Montrachet, Burgundy, France 2009
Whoever decided to pair vanilla with lobster long, long ago was a genius. And whoever in the Asiate kitchen decided to pair their vanillaed lobster with a sauce that tasted like Fruity Pebbles cereal should at least get shortlisted for a Nobel. The snap of the beans with the buttery chewiness of the lobster was nice, and I enjoyed the creamy-gritty texture of the polenta sprinkled with vanilla bean. I absolutely could have done without the rubbery mushrooms, but I understand some people actually enjoy the look of the common mushroom cap.
Hirsch Vineyards, Pinot Noir, “Ngima’s Cuvée,” Sonoma Coast, California 2009 (this tasted like the smell of Band-Aids to us!)
You know how people are always saying, “Kobe beef is unmatched,” and “Oh, sure, my much more sensitive palate can totally tell the difference between Wagyu and traditional American beef”? And you know how you’re always like, “I’ll just stick to my big, fatty porterhouse, thanks”? Well, Asiate is doing something different than everyone else, because I actually felt like I was eating a more-delicious chunk of beef. It seemed more tender, more flavorful, more perfectly-cooked. Plus, there was visible salt on top of the hunk, which is the best steak topping next to butter. Everything else on the plate was just okay, but like anyone’s paying attention to you, asparagus.
Château Côte de Baleau, Grand Cru, Saint-Émilion, France 2007
Whether it was because we were enjoying the savory courses so much or just because we’re gluttons, we weren’t ready for dessert yet. Having a giant dessert assortment placed in front of you is a pretty good way to take your mind off of that, though.
I’m glad we tried the grapefruit first, because it was the least-sweet element on the plate and would’ve tasted bitter after anything else. The little chocolate cake round was very rich and dark with a lovely gold-flecked liquid frosting. The coffee ice cream didn’t taste of coffee to us at all but of blueberry and yuzu. The red velvet cake was one of the more interesting elements with its lychee and celery topping; I just love celery in general but especially in dessert. The strawberry consommé looked very light and refreshing but was actually thick and viscous but for the lemony foam on top.
I wouldn’t say we disliked anything on the plate, and in fact, all of it was delicious. The problem with assortments like this one and the one at, say, Nougatine at Jean-Georges is that there’s just too much going on to ever seem like a well-composed dessert. As much as I like the novelty being able to sample the entire dessert menu, little bites only get my palate all excited for a big finish, and when there isn’t one, I feel unsatisfied. I think a better choice would have been to serve the consommé first (as the menu had indicated) and the follow up with a bigger version of any of these components.
Brachetto d’Acqui, Coppo, “Passione,” Piedmont, Italy 2007
At this point, we were allowed to sit for a while without any other sweet treats and may have started to murmur some misgivings about the 4.5-donut rating I had been considering. I mean, charge me whatever you want for your tasting menu, but wow me at whatever price point you set, right?
But then this little plate of mignardises arrived with the check, and everything was set right.
Chocolate cake (very moist), pâte de fruits (passion fruit or guava), macarons (lime!), peanut butter and jelly chocolates (with flavor that lingered well after we left the restaurant).
I don’t think I should’ve liked Asiate as much as I did. Asian flavors are interesting to me, but they’re usually too unfamiliar to provide that perfect balance of comfort plus ingenuity that makes for my favourite kind of meal. Yet in each one of these dishes, Chef Brandon Kida managed to combine something that may have scared me off in the past–multiple preparations of uni, roe all over the place, nori taking center stage–with other ingredients like steak and noodles that feel homey.
Plus, this tasting menu and wine was about half the price of those at places like Per Se and Daniel. Certainly we missed some of the service aspects of those restaurants that have made them the institutions they are–unexpected courses, take-home treats, personalized souvenir menus–but this made for an excellent alternative to those sometimes-pretentious, luxury-claustrophobic meals.
5 donuts: transcendent experiences
4.5 donuts: extremely awesome meals
3.5 donuts: good eats
2.5 donuts: food I could have made
1 donuts: dinners not fit for the dogs
• Daniel (2)
• Eleven Madison Park
• Eleven Madison Park (2)
• Eleven Madison Park (3)
• Le Bernardin
• Per Se
• Per Se (2) (extended tasting)
• Per Se (3) (vegetarian tasting)
• Per Se (4)