• Daniel (2)
• Eleven Madison Park
• Eleven Madison Park (2)
• Eleven Madison Park (3)
• Gabriel Kreuther
• Le Bernardin
• Per Se
• Per Se (2) (extended tasting)
• Per Se (3) (vegetarian tasting)
• Per Se (4)
• Senses (Warsaw, Poland)
I visited Japan at the end of last month, and on our last night, my friends and I wanted to try a restaurant with 3 Michelin stars in Tokyo. Obviously the French restaurants like Joel Robuchon and Quintessence held particular appeal for me so I could compare them to the French-inspired restaurants I’ve been to here in NYC, but we really wanted some serious Japanese cooking. In the end, we chose Kanda in Minato, and I’ll admit that I was a little afraid of our decision. All of the reviews I read said that this was true Japanese cuisine with all of its subtleties and nuances and that American palates wouldn’t be able to appreciate its beautiful simplicity. I didn’t want us to spend ¥15,000 to ¥25,000 (~$150-$250 US) and walk away feeling like we’d had a couple of flavorless vegetables and three slices of fish, but we wanted to challenge ourselves. Plus, I’ve loved the very delicate dishes I’ve had at Japanese restaurants in NYC like Kajitsu, Brushstroke, Sushi Yasuda, and Kajitsu again.
Making the reservation at Kanda was my first reminder that we were traveling to the opposite side of the world. I waited until the middle of the afternoon to call . . . only to realize that the middle of the afternoon here is the middle of the night in Japan. Most foreigners ask their hotels to make dinner reservations for them, but we were renting out a private home, so when I called back later at 2 a.m. our time, I had to make the very kind and patient reservationist suffer through my English. In the end, she helped me decide on the private room and their ¥20,000 chef’s choice menu for Saturday night.
Addresses in Japan aren’t at all like addresses in the U.S., because they use a grid system that divides the city into districts instead of using actual street names. You’d say, for instance, that you were going to building 2 on block 5 of such-and-such city district instead of saying that you’re going to 138 Main Street. It’s very easy when you’re typing it into Google Maps, but it’s not so easy when you’re trying to direct your cab driver who doesn’t speak any English. So we ended up at a curry restaurant called Kando and had to call the restaurant via Skype to let them speak to him in Japanese, but a half an hour late, we finally made it to the deserted and sort of haunting street where you’ll find Kanda.
It was so nondescript that our friend Nik started to try to convey to the cab driver that he was wrong again, but then we spotted the sign for Kanda hidden next to a sliding wooden door completely devoid of any windows.
Inside, though, it was bright and beautiful, all clean white walls and simple light wood. The hostess recognized us immediately as the wild-eyed, lost Americans and led us to our private room, decorated with a wooden cricket in a cage for good luck.
We admired our simple place settings,
and then Chef Hiroyuki Kanda came in to introduce himself. I’d read that he speaks English and would ask us about our preferences for the meal, so we’d decided beforehand that I’d tell him we were “semi-adventurous eaters” who were up for being challenged “a little bit”. Instead, I got nervous and exclaimed, “We’ll eat anything!”
And then my friends gave me death stares until the chef left.
Kanda is known for their sake list, but it was entirely in Japanese, so we just told our server that we prefer sweet to dry, and she brought us this. I have no idea what it was, but even our non-sake-liker liked it.
Our amuse was this elegant egg custard with Japanese vegetables in contrasting textures and varying levels of sweet and salty. Shiso leaves are something I’ve had many times at Japanese restaurants, but I’d only ever had the tiny purple flowers from the plant for the first time earlier in the week at the foot of Mt. Fuji; in this preparation, they were much more balanced and less assertive than when we ate them off the stem.
We thought we were off the hook. Egg custard followed by eel! We could all handle this. The plum sauce on top added sweetness, and the eel itself was so tender it fell apart under the force of our chopsticks. And not just because we’re bad with chopsticks.
Then this dish arrived, forebodingly.
Followed by a basket of whole deep-fried fish, my nemesis!
Its beady little fried eyes stared up at me, its eager little tail still flicked up in the air. And its teeth!!
Luckily, I’d trained for this. The week before I left for Asia, I went to the Sun Noodle ramen dinner at Louro, where I was fed whole mackerel. I was squeamish and reluctant, but after flailing about for a minute, I went for it and became a fish-head-eater for life.
This ayu was served with a glass of beer and had a lot of delicious charred flavor. Its crispy tail was like eating a potato chip, and I didn’t even notice those teeth as I was crunching through them.
I ate a lot of wonderful things in Japan, but this was the single most memorable. The tuna belly was the fattiest, most tender piece of fish I can ever remember eating. The black truffles were pure earthy luxury. The salt scattered around the plate made sure every flavor was fully pronounced. But the best part was weirdly the rice. The rice! I think it had to have been made with butter, because it left a little oil slick behind when we picked it up. We were all going crazy over the salty, buttery rice and almost ignoring the giant piles of black truffles on our plates.
This looked like such a simple dish, but it left us with so many questions. What was the fish dumpling made of? Tofu? Egg? What was the round vegetable? Cucumber? Apple? We felt like our eyes were fooling our tastebuds. My palate was so confused by what I was seeing versus tasting that it wasn’t until I finished the soup that I realized it had been flavored with yuzu. (I later saw a yuzu in the grocery store near our rental apartment in Japan and died from how cool it was. Foreign produce!)
Flanked by a slice of sweet lotus root and what I think were ginkgo beans, the swordfish took a backseat to its accessories for a while as we tried to figure out what they were. Once we finally got to focus on the beautiful piece of fish, I realized that it seemed to be coated in roe. I don’t know how common this preparation is–I’ve only had grilled roe once before, at Tori Shin, but it’s a neat alternative to salt.
Tender and perfect with the sting of the shichimi spice mixture following the enticing smell of those little chive-like onions.
Apparently Miyazaki is on par with or better than Kobe beef, which explains why the three of us were falling over ourselves to out-compliment each other about this dish. It was so, so tender, which probably doesn’t need to be said. And then the crunch of the panko coating provided such a nice contrast. The mustard was flavored with matcha, which is used to make green tea, and even the seaweed salad somehow seemed new and necessary to balance the dish. My boyfriend wondered how much it’d take to convince Chef Kanda to bring us another round of this.
We ended where we began but this time with a sea eel. We were told to cut it in half with our chopsticks, which is something I don’t think I’ve ever heard before. It was so sweet, with a side of miso soup with taro
and green tea made with roasted rice water.
Our palate cleanser was a refreshing watermelon jelly dotted with balls of fresh watermelon.
Dessert was a simple scoop of barley tea ice cream, which tasted like coffee but with a hint of grain flavor. It seemed like a play on after-dinner coffee.
We lounged around in our private room for a little longer, my boyfriend picking things out of my teeth and wiping deodorant off of me with his hand towel without anyone out at the counter in the main part of the restaurant knowing, we used the Japanese toilet, because it’s not like you’re not going to use the Japanese toilet, and then we went back out to that deserted street, with some of the staff following us out to wish us a good night.
After five days of eating nothing but ramen, katsu, and double-decker Wagyu burgers, Kanda was the perfect way to end our trip to Japan. It was subtle, and it was nuanced, and I think we were able to appreciate every bit of it. But it was also wildly delicious food that I don’t think any American would have a hard time grasping. And it was definitely worth the money with that tuna, spread of truffles, and incredible A5 beef. Certainly I’d miss the opulence of the French-inspired 3 Michelin star restaurants in NYC if I didn’t have access to them ever again, but Kanda was so unpretentious in a noticeable way. There were no stacks of white plates under each dish, no little plush stools to put your purse on. The service was helpful and sweet, and everyone made us feel super welcome instead of super foreign. Such a memorable meal in a wonderful country.
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.
Soba Totto is one of the true gems of Midtown East: it’s delicious, simply but beautifully appointed, and surprisingly not overpriced. My boyfriend and I were pleased to both find ourselves with a day off last week so we could finally enjoy Totto at lunch. We were totally in the mood for chicken meatballs and were sad to find that they don’t serve yakitori at lunch, but it forced us to try something we may have liked even better.
I was worried I might actually be playing it too safe by ordering this. I’m trying to push myself to eat more seafood so I stop thinking of it as fishy-tasting and start thinking of it as normal-tasting, and where better to eat more of it than at a Japanese restaurant? But as soon as I mixed that egg into my rice and took a bite, I knew I’d made the right decision. It had the comfort factor of a warm bowl of chicken noodle soup but with the taste factor of a much more expensive meal. The finely-chopped chicken was so much more enjoyable to eat than your usual chunks, and I liked that the seaweed gave it a hint of ocean flavor.
My boyfriend ordered a dish much more appropriate to the restaurant. It was, you know, kinda fishy, but I was pleasantly surprised at how balanced it tasted. Even the roe blended right in to the salmon meat. Kamran called it “very fresh and eminently salmony”.
A bowl of soba came with each of our meals, adding another degree of hominess. The earthy buckwheat was a great compliment to the meal, as the flavor won’t overpower whatever it accompanies. Mine was hot (and I think topped with a slice of fish cake–eek!), but my boyfriend prefers the cold variety.
A shot of the meal as a whole shows you just how much I got for $15. Our combination meals were served with salad, pickled vegetables, and even more pickled vegetables on top of the already-too-much chicken with rice and hot soba. We could’ve shared this and still had plenty left over.
I’m still thinking about this meal a week later and wish I didn’t work aaaaaaaaaaaaaall the way downtown so I could have it every day. I’m only giving it 4.5 donuts instead of 5 because a) I secretly wanted the appetizer that comes with the meal to be the corn tempura of theirs I love so much, and b) I haven’t had enough donburi to know if this was as good as I think it was.
I maaaaay have said some mean things about Chef David Chang in the past. I may have suggested he’s arrogant and that all of the NYC food critics are stuck up his butt. I may have complained about his anti-photo policy and his online reservation system that requires weeks (months!) of clicking just for the opportunity to spend $700 and not eat until 9:40 p.m. on a Monday night.
But I was wrong, and on Saturday, Dr. Boyfriend and I had what was so unequivocally the best meal of our lives that I might have to add an extra doughnut to my rating system just to accommodate it.
We’d heard that lunch at Momofuku Ko was longer and more creative than dinner service, so we arrived at 12:40 p.m. on Saturday and handed over our obligatory e-mail reservation confirmation (I imagine they’d have a lot of people pretending to be other people without it, hard as it is to get a reservation there). Neither of us were excited about it. In the least. We were interested in the restaurant from the standpoint that about 99% of people who eat there call it life-changing, but honestly, if they didn’t charge $150 per person for not showing up, I’m not sure we wouldn’t have gone to Taco Bell instead.
We were seated at two of the stools around the 14-person bar like at Degustation, only at Ko, there was a good two feet separating us from the couples on either side of us, so I didn’t have to worry about some dude’s elbows in my food. The kitchen is in the center of the bar, so we watched for a moment as plates of mushrooms and uni were prepared for our fellow diners. I scanned the various containers situated all around the kitchen for shrimp heads as Stereolab, Dr. Boyfriend’s favourite band, began playing overhead.
One chef stepped in front of us, greeted us familiarly, and asked if we had any food allergies. I considered listing all of the things I didn’t feel like eating that day–tomatoes, mushrooms, seafood of any kind–but in the end, we said we were good to go. And here’s what we got (with wine pairings!):
• British Columbian and Kumamoto oysters in sweet potato vinegar
My first time eating an oyster! It’s funny, because Kamran always says he won’t take me to Per Se because he’s afraid I’ll make him eat the inevitable oyster, but the chef just placed one each in front of us on a little bed of crushed ice, and I just scooped it up and, you know, kind of chewed on it without actually biting through it, and swallowed it whole. I didn’t even consider not eating it. And I think I actually liked it a little bit. It had super-intense ocean flavor made even more potent by the vinegar, but it also had that fresh, clean thing going on that really gets you ready to eat more.
• grilled sesame cracker smothered in black garlic spread with banana peppers
If there was one throwaway course, this was it. It was a cracker about the size of a postage stamp, grilled so the layers of dough puffed up and formed a little pocket, with black garlic spread and little sliced banana peppers sprinkled on top. It was fine and plenty delicious, but it felt less like a complete course and more like a time-filler.
• potato souffle tube filled with artichoke puree and Hackleback caviar
It looked like a half-size pretzel rod, but it tasted like the best potato chip you’ve ever had, formed into a browned tube and filled with smooth, rich artichoke. The caviar added a nice little salty note, but it wasn’t nearly as present as caviar usually is for me, which is good or bad, depending on how you feel about BRINY FISH EGGS.
• Fried artichoke on parsley root puree with olive and lime
This artichoke, light and fluffy as it was, reminded me of a deep-fried zucchini flower. It was served on the traditional Japanese soup spoon with a dollop of the puree underneath. I think of artichokes as being sort of beige and chewy, but this one nearly disintegrated on my tongue and made me think in yellows and pinks. The acid from the lime perked the entire dish up and made it seem summery.
• sushi plate:
1) fish scales
2) Spanish mackerel with beets and freeze-dried soy sauce
3) fluke with pickled onion
4) diver scallop with pineapple vinegar
This was the first real dish and the one where Kamran and I looked at each other with the glint of “holy crap!” in our eyes. Without a menu to reference, I was trying to jot down the courses as the chefs presented them to us, and this was one of those cases where my notes are sadly lacking. “fish scales”?
I’m someone who leaves the best thing on the plate for last, and to imagine myself–a life-long seafood-hater–actually putting aside a piece of fish with the intention of savoring it later is unthinkable. But those fish scales, whatever they were, were incredible. They were literally two slices of whitefish the size of quarters with the skin still on and nothing else. And they were INCREDIBLE. I loved fish + beet, I loved fish + onion, and I loved scallop + pineapple, but I loved fish + scale.
• 1) Santa Barbara uni, yuzu zest, puffed black rice
2) wagyu with diced squash
Sea urchin ovaries are weird. Bright orange with tiny striations, they kind of remind me of a cat’s tongue. A really, really sick cat’s tongue. I’m not in the OMG-uni-is-the-world’s-greatest-delicacy camp, but I do appreciate that it tastes unlike anything else–and at the same time exactly how you expect it to–and can be slurped down like only a freaky, freaky ladyparts custard can be.
The wagyu slice was basically raw. It had the tiniest bit of searing on the outside, but the inside was still dark red, which really let me appreciate its beautifully marbling. We made audible sounds of enjoyment as we chewed tiny bites of the steak to make it last longer and speared sweet orange squash squares.
• salad of wild mushrooms foraged from Maine, pickled jalapeno puree
This was Kamran’s favourite dish and the one I was toooooootally freaked out about. As someone who only started eating a few mushrooms at a time in the past few months, to see an entire dinner plate coming at you with about 15 large chunks of different types spread in a line across it is a very scary thing. But you know what? Mushrooms are the chicken of the forest, man.
Everything was meaty, moist, tender–and most importantly–punchy, thanks to that spicy puree. The Hen-of-the-Woods mushroom was absolutely my favourite because of the way its paperthin ends got browned and developed a crunchy texture. Kamran loved the cauliflower mushroom, which looked like a golfball-sized puff but was also a little crunchy.
• puffed Hillcrest Farms chicken egg in bacon broth with chives on top
This egg was as airy as any angel food cake, as whipped as any cream, and almost as sweet as either. It didn’t matter that the crunch of the bacon wasn’t physically present, because all of the flavor and fat still was.
1) sous-vide lamb rib over daikon slaw
2) rice ball in pork fat
3) chopped broccoli salad with homemade XO sauce
4) kimchi consomme over a cube of pork belly
Never have I liked lamb so much! This was thick with the kind of fat that melts in your mouth and had probably cooked for hours if not a day. The julienned radish was flecked with chopped herbs for such an elevated take on BBQ and cole slaw. The cube of fatty pork belly was equally as tender, and the dark flavors of long-cooked pig were such a compliment to the fermented broth. But the real star was that XO sauce, which Kamran has been telling me about for a long time. It’s full of everything I don’t like in the ocean, but the result is just a really savory chili sauce along the lines of Sriracha.
• matsutake ravioli with matsutake tea, spruce oil, and a brown butter bread “sugar cube”
Mushroom tea! With a tiny spoon and an even tinier “sugar cube” made from sweetened bread!
• trout in caper brine with green beans, butter-toasted almonds, yuzu glaze
This was the least exciting savory dish for both of us, but we still loved the textures of the tender fish with the snappy beans and crunchy almonds.
• shaved frozen foie gras torchon, lychee pine nut brittle, Riesling jelly, yuzu
With a grater in one hand and a napkin-wrapped, salami-shaped, frozen foie gras in the other, the chef shaved about a pound of fatted liver over the other components of the dish. As soon as our spoons touched it, the foie melted and became a little gelatinous to match the Riesling jelly. I understand that if even the Real Housewives of Atlanta are mispronouncing foie gras and talking about how much they love it, everyone’s aware of how rich and creamy a torchon is, but I’ve never had it richer nor creamier.
• short rib, shaved Brussels sprouts, compressed watermelon, cake of japanese eggplant
It was at this point that Kamran announced, “Honestly, this is worth any price.” The short rib was covered with such a thick, sweet crust that we had to saw through it with our knives, but the beef inside was super-tender. I’m a huge Brussels sprouts fan, but I’d never had them in this preparation, where all of the flavor remains but the form is entirely not-cabbagey.
• sunflower and rye bread box filled with Camembert, golden raisins, and apple with shaved macadamia nut on top
Kamran called this “gourmet grilled cheese”. It was a crispy open-topped box the size and shape of a stick of butter, filled with melted cheese and fruit.
• fruit compote “chutney”, sancho ice cream, vanilla wafer chips (paired with Little Kings beer from Cincinnati, OH!)
I really have NO IDEA what this course was about. We had been drinking the paired wines, sakes, and beers for more than two hours at this point, and we were trashed. Although my notes clearly say “sancho ice cream”, I was clearly crazy. What could it have been? Sunchoke ice cream? That sounds awful.
All I know is that the fruit was heavily glazed like a mango chutney and some sort of ice cream on top that quite frankly tasted like vanilla to me. But maybe it was just the overwhelming Ohioness of the beer overpowering my tastebuds. Either way, as a play on pie, it was a success.
(Now that he’s a little more clear-headed, Kamran thinks the “sancho” may actually be “sansho”, which is a kind of Korean pepper.)
• bittersweet chocolate pudding over puffed white rice bits with a shot of almond milk
The almond milk is what made this dish. The pudding was a bit too drippy for me, but the dark chocolate flavor was rich, and the tiny puffed balls of rice added a great crunch.
• To take home (lunch only, from what I’ve read): onigiri, pickled vegetables
It feels dumb to write about this food, honestly, because nothing I can say can convey just how utterly exciting, technically perfect, and intensely flavorful this meal was. It’s actually kind of offensive to keep saying it was “seriously, really, really good”, because it was beyond passionate and masterful. We spent the entire night and most of the next day talking about how we had probably ruined ourselves for any other sort of fine dining.
The terrible part is that in the midst of our heavy drinking, Kamran said, “I think it’s pretty likely we’re gonna go home and puke everything up.” And guess what–I did! I just don’t think I’m equipped for three hours of drink pairings. I got plenty of enjoyment out of it in the hour or so I kept it down, though, so I’m going to say it was well worth what Kamran spent.
The other great moment is when the woman next to me went to the restroom–which was filled with cookbooks, by the way–and I leaned over to ask her boyfriend if I was going to see his review on his blog. He’d been writing down the entire meal and asking the chefs for clarifications (I wonder if he got “sancho ice cream”, too), but he said he doesn’t have a blog yet. And then he asked, “Did you review SHO Shaun Hergatt on Chowhound?” And I said, “Nooooooo,” because my brain was entirely nonfunctioning at that moment. But then I realized it was me and said, “Oh, wait, yeah!” And then I had to apologize for being drunk three to four times. So, sorry about that, ramenbound, and nice to meet you!
Two of my co-workers and I decided to hit SHO Shaun Hergatt for a Restaurant Week lunch at the last minute, and their dress code was listed as “jacket preferred”, so I changed into a pair of open-toed red patent leather wedges from my usual flip-flops and hoped no one would notice my jeans and my co-worker’s t-shirt. It must have worked, because they let us in (and were even nice to us!). And I’m sure glad they did.
Our crusty rolls came with the usual butter but also this dip, which our server told us is one of the chef’s specialties. It had the consistency of mashed potatoes and tasted very fresh and citrusy, thanks to the yuzu.
I think this is the first time I’ve had fried capers, and I really enjoyed their crunch and their peppercorn-ish flavor. The presentation was so beautiful that my photographer friend, Anthony, had to take several shots of this of his own to mess around in Photoshop with. The texture of the beef was so buttery and tender it was as if it had been cooked for hours.
I may have ruined this dish by starting a glass of sake before I tasted it, because I couldn’t taste the sauce at all. It reminded me of mayonnaise in texture, but the only taste I got were from the earthy beets and the toasted nuts, which of course I loved, because those things are objectively good.
I think pappardelle is my favourite pasta. Thin yet broad, it soaks up flavor and doesn’t overpower other ingredients with breadiness like thicker pastas do. This dish was wonderfully creamy and umami-y, perfectly cooked and YUM.
But the pork belly was better. I know I’ve said it before at Craftbar and at Sakagura, but I’m just so impressed that it’s possible for someone to take a half-inch thick layer of fat and make it not only edible but craveable. It tastes as good as the pork itself. Raw apples mixed with the soft cooked vegetables, and the salty-sweet soy-infused sauce had seeped into every inch of that belly.
I would be hard-pressed to call this milk chocolate if you asked me to describe it, because it was so dense and rich. The chocolate was substantial, too, creamy and whipped yet thick enough to stay on a fork. I admittedly didn’t taste the yuzu in the whipped cream, but the fresh raspberries were divine, as was the crumbly chocolate crust.
I loved the thin, nutty wafer on top, but the whole point of the dessert was the peach, which was so intensely ripe and sweet. I didn’t get more than a taste of it, so I want to go back and order it for myself.
These were really better than either of the menued desserts. The spongey chocolate cake was buttery and piped with a hazelnut frosting-like cream. The caramelized hazelnut was . . . gah. I like to save the best thing on my plate for last, so I had left a bite of my chocolate palet behind, but I gulped it right down after I had the first bite of this.
The gummy was so sugary it might scare off lesser sweet tooths, but I loved the juxtaposition of the more savory financier with this. And I was mad that I had eaten more slowly than Nik and Anthony, because had I gotten to it first, I would’ve grabbed both of theirs, too.
The great thing about eating lunch here during Restaurant Week (which SHO is continuing through Labor Day, by the way!) is that they give you a $24 gift certificate to come back for dinner. Which means that this lunch was essentially free. So go.
Don’t be fooled by the look on my boyfriend’s face as he eats his seseri, or grilled chicken neck, at Yakitori Torys. This is actually his favourite thing on the “Chicken Limited” menu.
That, the crispy chicken tail, and the chicken oyster sell out fast and are well worth arriving early for. I can’t speak to the grilled soft knee bone, though, as it’s been sold out every time we’ve been there in the past two years.
The place also has the best decor for taking faux-serious photos.