…believe it or not, planning a trip to New York is far more difficult than planning a trip to someplace new – as a matter of fact, of all the places I travel yearly I almost always have the most difficulty firming up dining decisions in New York for three reasons: #1) I’ve made a lot of great friends there over the years and I want to see them all. #2) The list of restaurants I want to visit never stops growing. And #3) The list of restaurants I want to return to also seems to grow with each successive visit. I mean, sure, I could have an absolutely phenomenal time by going back to Per Se, Eleven Madison Park, The Modern, Corton, and Lincoln once or twice a year but if I did that I’d never experience anything new – for better or for worse – and with that in mind the final piece of my dining puzzle fell into place when I decided on Brushstroke as dinner during the first night of my trip (a last second decision based on my dining partner, a desire for something conceivably ‘light’ after a long day of pizza, and positive reviews from not only friends but GQ’s Alan Richman who named the restaurant his #2 new restaurant of 2011.)
Having originally contacted Brushstroke by phone only to find that their listed number was a fax machine thus forcing me to call Bouley where the hostess graciously ‘walked the phone over’ to secure my reservation and then e-mailing the restaurant to be sure that not only was the reservation received, but that a seat at the chef’s counter could be accommodated I have to say that from the start of the experience my visit to Brushstroke was atypical, though all things being equal perhaps that was to be expected from a restaurant conceptualized by a French Chef in a formerly Austrian dining room featuring modernist Japanese Kaiseki.
Having finished the pizza crawl just a few hours prior and in the interim stopping for a quick bite at Puddin’ only to get an alert on my cell-phone that a friend had secured me a seat at Next for the El Bulli menu in a mere 3 weeks my mood walking up to the front door of Brushstroke was admittedly high and with my dining buddy yet to arrive I walked in, checked in with the hostess, and left my bag while opting to take a seat in the lounge. Browsing the cocktail menu and also the space – beautiful blonde woods, overhead lights as well as hanging globes, plush seats, and impressive organic place settings, trays, plates, and decorations while watching the enormous open kitchen from the lounge the whole space was a stark departure from the plush European feel of Bouley but equally welcoming and after a few moments my friend would enter the doors and we would quickly be led to what are probably the best seats in the house; dead center of the counter directly in front of a team of rotating chefs including Head Chef Isao Yamada.
With the two of us seated it would not be long before our water was poured and we would be greeted by our server for the evening, a friendly man named Richard L, and after presenting the cocktail list as well as wines by the glass and the bottle the nightly menu was also provided and explained – four tastings, long or short, and vegetarian or omnivore selections of each. With little debate as to which we’d be selecting aside from the courses with a choice and my friend, a frequent visitor to Danube, noticing a familiar cocktail on the menu that Richard confirmed was held over from those days due to its popularity ordering was simple and within no time at all the meal would begin with warm perfumed towels to clean our hands.
Having discussed my dislike (but not allergy) for mustard with the staff when I made the reservation our first course would arrive rather quickly with similar ingredients but two different dressings – for myself the “Hawaiian Hearts of Palm with Broccoli Rabe and Vinegar Plum Sauce” and for my friend the same with a Mustard Miso topping. A delicate dish consisting of perhaps five bites on a fan shaped plate and with each vegetable in both raw and prepared forms I really appreciated the balance of sweet and bitter while the bright sauce accented each component well without overpowering it – a light opening volley and a glimpse of what was to come.
With things moving rather quickly – perhaps 8-10 minutes between each plate our second course to arrive would be one of my favorites of the night and seemingly taking a play right out of Bouley’s classic menu but serving it with a Japanese angle the “Steamed Chawan-mushi with Black Truffle Sauce and Uni” would speak to my love for soft textures and complex flavors by pairing a flawless egg custard with the earthy aromatics of truffles, the sweet brine of urchin, and an umami-laden broth laced with scallions and spices. Another light dish in the progression of flavors I absolutely could have eaten a bowl of this and walked out perfectly happy…
It was at course three, “Today’s Sashimi,” that two with Brushstroke would arise and both would unfortunately recur as the meal went on; the first a service issue largely related to the layout of the restaurant as Richard would frequently be standing behind us – almost ‘looming’ – as we neared the end of a course and the second, unfortunately, the apparent lack of creativity and/or sourcing with regard to some of the raw preparations as we received Fluke, Tuna, and Yellowtail along with ginger and wasabi plus yuzu and soy for dipping. Sure the fish was of good quality and sure the presentation was nice, but in all honesty I can get good fluke, tuna, and yellowtail at most strip mall sushi bars in Ohio and while I realize Kaiseki is not focused on sushi I guess I expected better as part of what would turn out to be the second most expensive meal of my trip.
Taking a turn to the west (and providing a much needed emotional lift after the sashimi) with an obvious Asian spin, “Lobster Bisque with White Miso and Sake Lees” would arrive next and served piping hot this soup would be the second ‘wow’ of the evening. At its core a creamy stock apparently fortified with house made tofu, the boiling waters of the lobster, and the sediment left over in the fermentation of sake and filled with slices of spicy radish and bitter burdock juxtaposing sweet bites of lobster there was a little of everything in this dish and while seemingly any individual ingredient in overabundance could have spelled disaster the end effect was very much like a traditional bisque but more delicate, less heavy, and substantially more complex.
At this point having forgotten what was on the menu another raw preparation would arrive next and while I was hoping for something novel I instead received Sea Bass – admittedly a fish I don’t believe I’ve had raw before, but another “common” item on any number of menus and presented as a two simple nigiri with nicely textured rice, a touch of wasabi, and the same plum sauce as my opening salad the texture was right – snappy and clean – but with the fish so mild and the plum sauce versus wasabi combination a bit too bold this was certainly the least balanced dish of the night and also the least inspiring…in a world where live fishes can be delivered around the world on the same day there were caught sea bass just seemed rather lazy.
Following the sushi in rapid succession would be a single bite – a bit of a test of faith for me after the previous month’s food poisoning event – in the form of a Kusshi Oyster with Yuzu Dressing. Generally not one to go head over heels over any raw oyster (save for Keller’s verison with pearls) this was fine; a bit briny, a bit sweet, fresh and with untoward side effects…good enough, but nothing particularly memorable.
Heading towards the heavier part of our menu the last three courses of the evening would feature a choice and wanting to sample as much as we could my friend and I took the route of ordering opposite plates and sharing, the first of these duos arriving as Grilled Anago and Yam Dumpling with Ankake Sauce for myself and Miso Marinated Black Cod with Chrysanthemum Leaf Puree for my friend. A fan of eel, especially when unadulterated by barbeque sauce, and having watched the team deftly slice and grill the fish a mere 2-3 feet from our seats throughout the evening I have to say I was really looking forward to this course despite being unfamiliar with Ankake and thankfully it did not disappoint as the unctuous eel was beautifully prepared with a crisp skin and creamy interior marrying beautifully with the tender dumpling as the nearly tropical sauce shined without taking center stage. Moving next to my friend’s black cod – an equally well prepared dish, if somewhat more “familiar” thanks to Nobu Matsuhisa’s version – the bite I tasted was good and as a flash forward to a later dish I was glad to see the Chrysanthemum used with such subtlety.
Taking a turn from fish and shellfish our next course would again present a choice and although these dishes were prepared much further to the back of the large kitchen both my Cherrywood and Chrysanthemum Smoked Duck with Malanga Puree and Chamomile and my dining partner’s Yuzu-kosho Marinated Pork Belly with Sweet Onion Puree and Black Vinegar Sauce would arrive beautifully plated on ornate floral porcelain perfectly temperatured (though the presentation was bobbled not once, but twice by Richard.) Beginning first with the pork belly, although not a ‘perfect’ dish as a few sections were literally pure fat the bulk of this sizable portion was smoky and sweet with just a touch of acid to balance the pig. Paired nicely with the potent puree and the umami laced sauce I particularly enjoyed the flecks of crispy onion atop – a much needed textural component.
Moving next to the duck, my obvious choice, I have to say I was a bit disappointed when no one could tell me from what farm the duck was sourced but with rosy flesh and a thin layer of fat the flavor was quite pleasant and although I’d have personally preferred the skin crisp the strips of baked malanga and crunchy seeds added plenty of texture. Rather unfamiliar with malanga prior to this meal but finding it quite similar in flavor to taro in the pureed form I really did not get much flavor from the chamomile, more a slight floral nose that may very well have been from the chrysanthemum.
For the night’s final savory, the much praised rice dishes, four choices were available and after being told that the version on the shorter menu would carry a surcharge on the longer menu we settled on the Soft-shell Crab over Rice with Chrysanthemum Petal Sauce and Salmon Steamed with Rice in a Do-nabe Pot with Salmon Roe and Aonori Seaweed. Generally not one to be wowed by rice I must admit I was a bit skeptical even given the positive word of mouth but thankfully when the dishes arrived my skepticism was quashed as both selections were great with impressively flavored proteins perfectly complimented by flavors both sweet and savory plus plenty of textural components. Not to be outdone, the rice itself was also outstanding – not quite as thick and creamy as a risotto but more sticky than standard rice with hints of vinegar and light sweetness that made it tasty even when my crab ran out – a non-issue for the salmon dish as the large pot came with refills kept at the end of the bar easily making a second bowl for me (and likely enough that my friend could have taken home a lunch portion as well.)
With a singular dessert choice each to be made from a menu of five it was here that Richard would disappear and be replaced by a clever young man who seemed very fond of each option and with myself opting for the Hojicha Pudding while my friend took the young man’s not-so-subtle recommendation for “Soy Sauce Ice Cream” the sweets, as anticipated, were a bit hit-and-miss as the eastern approach to dessert is generally not as bold as my substantial sweet tooth would prefer. Beginning first with the ice cream – more a quenelle of rich vanilla or caramel than “soy sauce” in flavor to both myself and my dining partner the texture was actually quite nice while the addition of buckwheat and wasabi added a bit of intrigue – an almost “sushi-esque” flavor that I’m not sure I loved, but certainly found unique. Moving next to the pudding, again well presented and rich, the a bitter-sweet custard was actually quite comparable in texture to the Chawan-Mushi from prior but hidden beneath a slick of soy accented syrup – tasty and unique, appropriate to the meal, but nothing I’d crave.
Sitting back and sated but certainly not stuffed despite the long day of eating our final bites of the night would arrive as a quartet of Crispy Rice Crackers, two dusted with Matcha and two with Shiso, a touch of umami and bitter-sweet to end the meal and perfectly fitting considering the flavors presented throughout.
Half expecting the offering of tea or matcha and some fruit to end the meal as my limited knowledge of kaiseki seems to indicate this as tradition I was somewhat surprised when Richard reappeared with the check and a “whenever you’re ready” before heading back to the hostess stand. Sitting for a while and chatting as the meal had taken just under two hours and the night was still relatively young (despite my 2am wake up time) it would be a few minutes before I opened the check and while I am obviously not unaccustomed to high-priced dining I have to say there was a twinge of sticker shock when I saw the nearly $200/pp tab after accounting for tax and tip; suddenly the ingredients, the service, and the overall experience just sort of seemed flat. Fluke? Sea Bass? A $3 Oyster? Sure, much of the food was good, sometimes flirting with great, but this simply did not feel like a $200 meal no matter where I was eating and while I definitely had a ‘nice’ time, enjoyed seeing my friend, and am glad I went I cannot say I’d rush back – there is simply better restaurants in New York at a much lower price point…I ate at ten of them in the next five days.