Kaiseki Delight

after years of longing from afar, i finally made it into Sugiyama last week for Japanese Restaurant Week– a restaurant that has been around for quite some time here in New York in Midtown West (at least 10 years maybe?). Ruth Reichl gave it 3 stars in 1999, but i would hands down give it 4. seriously folks, this place has made it into kayoko’s top 5 restaurants in nyc, and might have even squeezed into the top 3.

before i talk about the meal though, let’s talk kaiseki, which is what Sugiyama is known for. Kaiseki ryori is essentially a tasting menu which comes out in courses- a japanese style prixfixe, if you will. it is, i would say, the creme de la creme of the japanese fine-dining experience, in that it showcases the range of japanese ingredients, preparation styles/ methods, and artful presentation. each dish must display the creative genius of the chef, and should simultaneously be simple, delicious, and artistically exquisite

in general, i would guess that presentation accounts for at least 50% of the japanese dining experience: the colors, materials, textures, and placement of the food; the dining environment; the dishes and glassware. these are points that chefs always carefully scrutinize and thoroughly ponder, and were all executed masterfully at Sugiyama. nothing was ever in-your-face– the service, the decor, the food– everything was just very subtle and refined. no detail was amiss, and i felt the integrity of the chef in everything that was brought to the table. we were totally blown away.

ok, so onto the meal! my ever wonderful dining companions, Troy and Kumiko (we have had MANY a meal together), and i all ordered the 9-course kaiseki. i’ll let the pictures speak for themselves:

the interior was very minimal, elegant and charming. they have these cute tiny wooden lanterns that started in the entryway and creeped its way over the bar, like low hanging branches.

since historically, japanese chefs love the concept of cooking behind a bar, there is a low bar made of tiles that seats about 10 diners (Troy commented that the tile reminded him of the 80s, which made me laugh).

***

this first dish was so so so wonderful. ankimo tofu, which is monk fish liver and tofu blended together, then steamed, i am assuming. this was bathed in a ponzu (citrus soy) sauce and tiny little green onions were sprinkled on top like fairy dust. oh my god, my mouth is watering just thinking about this dish. the tofu just melted in my mouth while the ponzu gave it a tart citrus kick. it was truly divine.

***

the sashimi- super fresh. uni, kampachi, maguro, ika. the wasabi was heavenly, really spicy, the REAL stuff as opposed to the powder mixture (“real” wasabi is grated). it came with this tiny little kumamoto oyster, dressed in ponzu, green onions and spicy radish.

i just about slurped all of this in under 3 minutes. no joke.

***

next we had a sort of “cold plate”, which looked like precious jewels adorning the plate. oh the colors! gorgeous! from left to right and around:
– steamed duck, sort of pate style
– steamed mussel with aonori, or seaweed
– a sweet exotic berry encased in a jelly cube
– shrimp that deeply tasted of dashi
– sweet potato
– fishcake, very spongy and delish
– a little crab, the crunchiness perfectly balanced the oozy sweetness of the inside
– edamame

***

the osuimono, or clear soup made of fish stock, was so calming. a fresh homemade steamed fishball was plopped in the middle, adorned with wakame and some greenery. there was a decorative pink mochi floating around, adding just a dash of brightness to this elegant soup. look at the steam rising!

***

we were allowed to choose between beef and fish next, and of course i chose the beef. a few pieces came out with a shishito pepper and sliced shiitake mushrooms. the best part was this burning HOT stone- we put our fare on the stone et voila!, the goods were cooked in under a minute. genius.

***

this dish served as our “palette cleanser”, or just a break of some simple basic standards. a piece of futomaki, shrimp and egg nigiri sushi, spinach and mushroom salad in a dashi sauce, and soy stewed octopus, which was at once chewy and soft. how did they do that? what a delight!

***

i may say this was my favorite dish- the nimono, which is a traditional japanese stew. this rendition was a satsuma-age, or fried fish cake, a little crispy on the outside, but pillowy within (i’m noticing that a lot of writers are calling food “pillowy” right now, and this dish deserves the description). the satsuma-age was matched with a sticky mountain potato, which was perfectly cooked. this is japanese home cooking at it’s finest- nimono is an art that is quite difficult to master, and this was flawless. and the bowl was gorgeous, which is of course goes without saying.

***

brown rice with diced carrots and flakes of fish came freshly wrapped in a huge leaf, straight from the steamer. this dish wasn’t revolutionary or anything, but it was just good home cooking. and of course, no rice dish is good without the miso soup and pickles!

***

it was sad when the dessert came around- i didn’t want the dinner to ever end!! i don’t have much of a sweet tooth in general, but this milk jelly with orange slices and a sprig of mint was so light. the chill really rejuvenated the mouth, not too sweet, very clean. just a great way to end the meal.

sigh…

by the end of this meal, we had consumed two bottles of this great chardonnay from Santa Barbara, so we were pretty tipsy by the time we left the restaurant. but not tipsy enough for me to ever forget each detail of this meal. it was just THAT GOOD.

they have a vegetarian kaiseki for you veggies too, so everyone should definitely try this place at least once- it’s a very special experience. not cheap, but at $80 for a 8 course meal ($60 for restaurant week), it’s not over the top either. i’ve officially booted Gramercy Tavern out of my top 5 restaurants (in my “for special occasions” slot), and Sugiyama, for now, sits comfortably in its place.

*k*

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2 Responses to “Kaiseki Delight”

  1. Aya Says:

    Good God! I would have fainted with joy after the second course.

  2. Dawn Says:

    I had the absolute pleasure of being treated to a very similar meal here by friends who were married by my boyfriend (a thank you dinner). I love that I did nothing to deserve this, yet greedily salivated over every morsel.
    I had the fish version. And I had some different things – changes vary with the season and the chef’s creativity, I am sure. Damn, I wish I had documented the whole thing with MY camera! How to remember each precious thing?
    One thing to add (or echo I guess) — the service, the service! Lordy! Our waiter was a super-sweet ultra-feminine foodie. Elegant, with a splash of nerdy glasses and delicate pointing fingers, he explained (in English) all the foods to us gaijin with cool, soft, high-pitched aplomb. Then, blink, he was gone, into the kitchen-mist. I grinned like a goof at his every presence.

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