Kaiseki menu at Hakubai, Kitano Hotel, New York City

Cornus flowers
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
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.
Sesame tofu
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.
Herring roe on kelp  (komochi konbu)
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.


Delmonico’s Restaurant, Financial District, NYC

America is a country where every third restaurant seems to be a steakhouse. I didn’t want to overdo the steak, having watched Beverly Hills Cop as a child and taken that thing about your colon very seriously, so we decided on one steakish meal over the week we were in New York. This presented a problem – with so many steak joints on offer, which should I choose? There’s Kobe Club, which reviews well but is amazingly expensive (their menu suggests that you order at least two of their 4 oz portions of Wagyu – but the cheapest 4 oz portion is $50, and with side dishes, a shrimp to balance on top of your steak, the very pricey starters, and supplements for any sauces involving ingredients like foie gras, marrow or truffles, it adds up very quickly). I want at least some money left in my wallet for clothes shopping while I’m in New York, so Kobe Club is off the list. Craftsteak also has an excellent reputation, but Tom Colicchio spreads himself awfully thin – he’s currently involved in 13 restaurants across the United States, so it doesn’t feel very special. Good steak is something so many restaurants here do – so I want a restaurant with something extra-interesting to it. Enter Delmonico’s. (Turn your speakers off before clicking this link – there is intensely aggravating music.)

What’s interesting about Delmonico’s? Simple: it’s the oldest continuously run restaurant in the US, and may be the first fine dining establishment in the whole country, having been established in 1827. Those pillars outside? Imported from Pompeii in the 19th century. This is where Lobster Newburg, Chicken a la King and Baked Alaska were invented; the restaurant also gave its name to the Delmonico steak, a cut served in restaurants all over the country. (They also claim to have invented Eggs Benedict, but this seems to be controversial.) Mark Twain has eaten here – so have Theodore Roosevelt, Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Tesla, Napoleon III and a positive galaxy of America’s great and good. We booked for a Wednesday night, put on those clothes we’d been able to afford because we didn’t go to Kobe Club, and got stuck in.

The dining room is very masculine; all dark leather and wood panelling, like a meaty gentlemen’s club. Service was smiling and fantastically personal – my cocktails, including the most savoury and well-balanced Dirty Martini I’ve ever tasted, were constructed at the tableside in a silver shaker. The menu still includes some of the classic dishes from the restaurant’s past, although I was disappointed that there were no Delmonico Potatoes – a gratin made from parboiled potatoes grated into long shreds with parmesan and nutmeg. That famous steak was there, though, along with the Lobster Newburg and Baked Alaska.

Dr W plumped for a Caesar salad to start with so he could fit in as much steak as possible later on. It was a good example, dressing clearly made in-house and strongly flavoured, with white anchovies interlaced on top. I went for the foie gras, dusted with crushed hazelnuts and grilled, then served hot with three fruity sauces. The crushed nut/foie combination is one that pops up more and more often these days, and it’s a good one, the toasty richness of the nuts complimenting the buttery foie beautifully. This little lobe was nicely and neatly prepared, too; no stringy or bitter bits.

The Delmonico steak (a wet-aged, boneless ribeye) was thick, and served perfectly medium rare; it was gently crusted on the outside, the fat crisping and delicious, and marbling the whole piece. It was also enormous, weighing in at 20 oz, and I wasn’t able to finish it, which made me extremely jealous of Dr W, whose salad decision was a good one which enabled him to absorb his entire steak into his person. Spinach and parmesan and something called “The Perfect Hash Browns” made for good sides, although I’d quibble with the “perfect” thing; they weren’t particularly interesting or memorable.

It is a happy freak of biology that I appear to have been born with a separate stomach especially for dessert. I couldn’t have packed another atom of beef in there, but Baked Alaska (two spoons, because Dr W was so full that tears were appearing in the corners of his eyes) sounded just the ticket. And where those hash browns hadn’t lived up to their description, the Baked Alaska was pretty much divine. A piped hedgehog made from tens of caramelised meringue peaks surrounded a soft, but not melting centre of gorgeous, gorgeous banana-candy ice cream, sat on top of a piece of sponge studded with juicy pieces of apricots. Regular readers will know that I’m not much of a pudding person, but I would be perfectly happy to eat Delmonico’s Baked Alaska and nothing else for…ooh…at least one meal every day.

RUB BBQ, Chelsea, New York City

So in the end, I didn’t update at all during my visit to New York – apologies if you were checking, but I hope you’ll understand. This was my first trip to the city, and I found myself doing things a long way from my hotel room from the moment I closed the door every morning until I collapsed, exhausted, into the Kitano hotel’s cloudlike embrace every night. Simply put, there is an awful lot of very entertaining stuff to do in New York, from the museums, the architecture, the shopping, the jazz – and the very, very good food – and I found myself much too busy enjoying myself to blog.

RUB BBQ (an acronym, this; spelled out, RUB means Righteous Urban Barbecue) is…well, righteous, and urban, and a barbecue joint. (208 W. 23rd St., New York, NY 10011, nr. Seventh Ave.) I do like restaurants which tell you what they do on the tin. This place is about Kansas City-style barbecue: fat, woodsmoke and the charred crispy bits best eaten when you are young and not prone to heart attacks. It’s no-nonsense food, served up in no-nonsense style on waxed paper dishes with pickle chips and hunks of sweetly pappy Wonder Bread – a strangely good accompaniment for smoky, salty, spicy barbecue. Leave any dietary concerns at the door, because the best stuff on offer here is unshamedly fatsome and entirely lacking in vegetably vitamins.

The meat is freshly smoked daily in set quantities, and this sometimes leads to certain items running out surprisingly early in the day (on our first visit they’d already run out of burnt ends by 6pm). I’m not sure whether this is a dastardly ploy to get you back in the door in the hope of finding what you were after – if it is, it certainly worked on me.

There is an appetiser on the menu called BBQ Bacon Chunks. I like bacon, I like barbecue, and I am partial to the sort of food that comes in chunks, so this was a no-brainer. A waxed paper dish of triple-smoked, thumb-sized rectangles of obscenely fat belly pork turned up, cooked to a melting crisp. “Good God, these things must be bad for you,” said Dr W, popping them in his mouth one by one in a sort of porky trance. “Mmmurgle,” I agreed.

Burnt ends are the blackened, fatty end of a beef brisket, cooked until the fat metamorphoses into a charred and friable, tender magic. Portions here are large, and I am still not quite sure how I managed to absorb a whole plate of the things into my person, but the burnt ends were one of those things it’s simply impossible to stop eating. Szechuan smoked duck was good, but not as good as the pork and beef on offer. Its mahogany, lacquered skin was simply gorgeous, all the fat underneath rendered out, but the meat was uninteresting, and not as moist as it could have been.

Table sauces include two barbecue sauces, one mild and one spicy, ketchup and vinegar. The pulled pork (see my recipe for pulled pork here) needed a good dollop of barbecue sauce to liven it up, but once it had been anointed was tender and tasty, with some lovely BCBs (Burnt Crispy Bits). Brisket from further up the joint than the burnt ends was leaner, and Dr W’s favourite cut on offer. He tiled the tender slices on a piece of Wonder Bread, added some of that spicy barbecue sauce and ate the whole thing as a sort of heart-attack sandwich. What’s going on here? Wonder Bread in its natural state is a soft, sugary abomination, but is weirdly delicious presented like this. Perhaps there is something in the rub.

Because if there is something in the rub, the rub itself is in everything. On every meat, and it also found its way into all the accompaniments we tried – onion strings were battered and fried, then sprinkled with the sweetly spicy rub. It flavoured the coleslaw (making it too sweet for my tastes – but you may wish to ignore what I have to say here, given that pieces of bacon fat the size of my thumb are to my tastes), was scattered all over the fries, and spiked the beans. Those beans beat me – they just tasted too much to enable us to eat more than about a spoonful each, and that rub really made them sweeter than I could manage.

Staggering out of RUB after our second visit, five times fatter than I was when I went in the first time, I found I had a greed-induced stitch in my side, and so stopped in a café to recover. Gazing out of the window, I locked eyes with Rupert Everett, craggily walking a dog. Glorious barbecue and surprise movie stars. I really like this city.