Hakubai in The Kitano, New York
Last night I was treated to dinner by friends who are staying with us. They visit often to see clients in New York and we have a tradition of going out for Japanese, something this city excels in. Hakubai specialises in Kaiseki cuisine, a traditional form of fine dining that uses seasonal ingredients to create artfully composed dishes. It has roots in Zen Buddhism. Think delicacy, detail and dedication.
There are private tatami rooms available but we sat at a 'Western style' table in the main dining room. The room is simply decorated with plenty of bamboo screens and neutral tones. We were tended to by ladies in elegant kimonos who were the epitome of polite service. While the ambiance tends towards the quiet and serene it was nevertheless charming and hospitable.
Rather than the full-blown Omakase Kaiseki we opted for the Summer Speciality Okonomi Kaiseki - kinder to the wallet and we hoped it would be a reflection of the season's bounty. We had a lovely evening as three hours zipped by while we caught up with old friends and enthused over each artfully composed dish. We left feeling nourished without being overly fed, having enjoyed a well balanced and beautifully presented series of courses.
I have tried sesame tofu before but edamame was new. Its earthy beaniness contrasted with the sea urchin's rich, marine flavour. Wasabi and a soy sauce dashi warded off the potential for the dish to be bland and it served as a lovely, light palate cleanser.
A selection of simmered dishes, all cold. The whole table unanimously adored the soft, lightly seasoned aubergine, set off by mild ginger heat. Next most favoured was the clean flavour of the blanched greens, paired with chewy fried tofu skin and little nutty balls of puffed rice. A shot of rather slimy seaweed in sweet vinegar proved to be more palate-challenging, while Japanese yam softened in a broth with yuzu was a welcome comfort. The prawn was overcooked for my taste, something I often find with the Japanese style of serving cold seafood.
Clear duck and black pepper broth with aromatic shreds of daikon, carrot and lemon rind, wakame and coriander(?) tied in an adorable knot.
Pristine sashimi - bouncy fresh kanpachi amberjack, firm, sweet red snapper and melting toro sandwiching a slice of lean maguro tuna.
The next two dishes arrived together. Scallops (again overcooked for my tastes) and courgette in a teriyaki sauce that we slurped out of the bowl when our well-mannered waitress wasn't looking.
Miso marinated grilled silver cod. You really can't go wrong with this treatment of fatty fish. Despite its ubiquitous presence on Japanese menus, good and bad, it is almost always reliably delicious.
Another favourite of the night. Ripe tomato slices dressed with miso (red or white I wonder?), rice vinegar, soy sauce and sesame oil, garnished with minced sweet onion, shiso leaf, sesame seeds and shichimi pepper. This is one I would love to make at home. The savoury unami of tomato, soy and miso, set off by vinegar and aromatised by shiso is such a winning combination.
Half of us chose steak and the other chose sushi. Neither party lost. Particularly notable was the porcelain drawer our teriyaki lacquered steak arrived in - it might have been considered a tad twee anywhere else but considering our surroundings it seemed somehow in keeping.
Clockwise from top left - toro, sea bream, sakiyagi(?) a type of Japanese mackerel, sublimely fresh scallop, excellent tamago egg, ikura, perfect uni, anago sea eel and sweet prawn.
Green tea ice cream in all its tannic, creamy glory, chewy soybean dusted yam mochi dipped in brown sugar syrup and a less memorable rooibus tea and milk jelly, topped with cream and rum.
The Kitano New York, 66 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10016
Tel: 212 885-7111