Cornus display in the Kitano lobby
The Kitano, a few blocks south of Grand Central Station, is one of my favourite places to stay in New York. The hotel is Japanese owned and run, and stepping off the Park Avenue sidewalk into the lobby is a bit like stepping through a teleporter, straight into an Asian hotel. There’s Japanese floral art, a service ethic imported straight from Tokyo, a green tea machine in every bedroom – and it’s wonderfully, extravagantly clean. Best of all, there’s a simply superb Japanese restaurant in the basement; one of those inexplicable well-kept secrets, which you won’t read much about in guide books or online. I am assured by a Japanese friend that given the decor, kimono-swathed waitresses, and lacquered tableware, it is very easy to mistake Hakubai for somewhere similarly swanky in Kyoto before you even get to the food.
I was there for the food rather than the hallucinatory experience of being in another city, but I have to admit: going from a view of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings to a restaurant that feels half a world away is a great sensation.
Hakubai was on my list of must-eats in New York because it is one of the very, very few restaurants in the city that offers a kaiseki menu. Kaiseki is a bravura food-as-art performance of a meal. This isn’t hyperbole; a kaiseki meal really is regarded as art, and like other kinds of art, it has a formal structure. You’ll find many exquisitely prepared tiny courses, which are carefully chosen to reflect the season. Looks and taste are equally important here, and there should be a very wide variation in textures between the courses. Modern kaiseki usually proceeds with an appetiser, sashimi, a simmered dish, a grilled dish, and a steamed course (not necessarily in that order), perhaps with additions from the chef. The courses are served at carefully timed intervals on decorative lacquer and porcelain dishes, decorated with real leaves, flowers, and tiny pieces of edible garnish. This sort of thing doesn’t come cheap, of course; Hakubai offers two kaiseki menus, one at $170 a head, and an oknomi kaiseki (what-you-like kaiseki, which is what I ended up ordering) at $95.
Because a kaiseki meal is meant to appeal as much to the eyes as it does to the mouth, the best way to take you through what I ate is through pictures. This is a meal worth saving up for if you happen to be visiting the city. We had the excuse of a couple of celebrations – a birthday, the end of a university course – but if I were you, I’d do my very best to make up some reason to celebrate, sell the car, and use the money to hotfoot it to Hakubai.
Cold sake in a Venetian glass bottle, crushed ice and sakura blossoms. I'm struggling to think of a nicer way to start the evening.
Sakizuke: an amuse-bouche-type starter course. Sesame tofu with a raw okra and fresh wasabi garnish. The tofu, made in-house, is delicate, silky and has a subtle sesame flavour.
Hassun: a course emphasising the seasonal theme. From top right, clockwise: monkfish liver; a cold grilled cod salad in a very light rice vinegar dressing; herring roe; spinach and bonito salad. The monkfish liver, sometimes called aquatic foie gras, was a real seasonal treat, but the standout here for me was the herring roe, which is very hard to find.
A closer view of the herring roe on kelp (komochi konbu). This was only the second time in my life I've eaten it. Komochi konbu is hard to find; it has a short season, and western diners can be a bit squeamish about raw roe, so it's not very popular, which is a great shame, because it's fabulous stuff. The herring lays its eggs on each side of a piece of kelp - you're looking at a cross-section of the egg mass. The kelp is the dark stripe in the middle. This is all about texture - it's beautiful, sea-tasting roe with a soft crunch, wonderful dipped in a very little soy.
Futamono: a lidded course. This is chawan mushi, which you might have encountered elsewhere: a steamed savoury egg custard. This was densely flavoured with pork, mackerel, crab and herbs, with a tiny ball of sticky mochi in the centre.
Mukozuke: a sashimi course. Sashimi on crushed ice in an earthenware oyster shell. From the top, you're looking at chu toro on a spicy perilla leaf, fluke and amberjack (a Japanese fish which, again, is hard to find outside Japan) with lemon. All impossibly fresh.
Takiawase: a course of vegetables and fish, meat or tofu, prepared separately. The grilled scallops are served with lightly dressed, steamed spaghetti squash. Above them is a tofu and seasonal vegetable salad with some very fresh bamboo shoots, and to the right a grilled Spanish mackerel dish.
Shiizakana: the most substantial course. There was a choice between sushi, tempura or steak (with a $30 supplement for Kobe beef). This was so good I went back a few nights later for a sushi-only meal. Back row, top to bottom: toro (fatty tuna), hirame (fluke), ika (squid), tai (red snapper). Front row, top to bottom: amaebi (sweet shrimp), anago (sea eel), uni (sea urchin), ikura (salmon roe).
Mizumono: a course of seasonal desserts. Green tea ice cream, vanilla ice cream, and mochi (glutinous rice flour cakes) in caramel. The mochi were so soft they only barely held their shape. A lovely (and necessarily - I was very full by this point) light finish to the meal.
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