When you go to the best restaurants in the world, the probability that the dishes you enjoy are made at the hand of the actual chef (Boulud et al.) is fairly close to zero. In all likelihood, what you eat is made by the cooks under the supervision of the sous-chef. For better or worse, the best chefs have more important things to do like orchestrate the show (this is what I saw of Jean-Georges Vongerichten at his namesake last night), plan/originate the dishes that will be the future signatures of the restaurant, or plan the next satellite of their empire. One could make a legitimate argument that this is not such a bad thing, since while some may say this theory is heresy, I think you can make a pretty decent argument that those who execute the same dish over and over may surpass the creator's original through the learning process of its perpetual execution.
This argument dissolves rather quickly, however, if the restaurant you are eating in makes its name by constantly innovating new dishes or transforming the freshest ingredients into new and interesting creations. Here, at least, one would prefer to be in the actual master's hands.
At Sugiyama, at least, about 90% of what you eat comes from Nao Sugiyama's hand, or happens while he is watching his two assistants do his bidding. Which in my humble opinion is a rather marvelous and rare thing. This is made possible because Sugiyama is small (an attempt at quality control?) and you are basically eating in the kitchen.
I arrived expecting something larger on the scale of Hatsuhana or perhaps Daniel, but the place can't have a capacity of much more than 35-40 people. I sat at the bar, right in front of where Sugiyama himself does his stuff, while most patrons eat at tables.
I ordered the omakase kaiseki, though there were 4-5 other kaiseki possibilities (vegetarian, one focused on kobe beef, and another one I can't recall) and a full bore menu. The whole bill, including tip came to $ 230 per head (same as last night's Jean Georges meal). Unlike last night, this was worth every penny if not more.
In all honesty, this was among the most startling meals I have ever had. Having said that, I must confess that my food biases tend toward trying lots of little and interesting things (rather than one massive portion of one good thing), that I adore Japanese food with its emphasis on the small, the fishy and the fresh, and that I speak some Japanese (which may or may not have affected the food prepared for me, since I spent about half the meal conversing with Sugiyama, who was very amiable and jovial, almost the Zen stereotype of a giddy Boddhisatva).
I had 2 different kinds of cold sake with the meal, one quite dry and the second much more aromatic. On to the food
The meal started with two small plates - one of monkfish liver with grass onions in a light salty sauce and the second was caviar over fresh sautéed Japanese greens in a mushroom vegetable broth of some kind. Both were wonderful but the latter was truly breathtaking. Unlike the egg caviar that I had at JG last night which was killed by butter, the caviar popped perfectly into a sensual salty squish that was exquisitely offset by the softness of the greens that came with it.
Second came a beautifully presented Japanese basket of zensai- a tiny crab that was interesting, some sort of aspic fruit which was very good, some sashimi-sh unknown things, and a simple shrimp that looked innocent enough-sort of the generic thing you expect to have with shrimp cocktail. But this one shrimp, let me tell you, redefined my experience of shrimp. It was firm, but then yielded to bite before popping away in the mouth into a rich succulent bite of wonder. The best Italian food can be like this-food you eat daily suddenly served with a freshness and bareness that is startling. This one shrimp was like this-revelatory, a totally new experience of the familiar.
Next a soup of fresh Japanese mushrooms, tofu and fresh greens that was close to the highlight of the entire meal and was certainly among the greatest soups I have ever had. I literally did not eat or drink the soup for about 3 minutes, because I just sat there taking in the aroma over and over again because it was so transporting. It had a smoky quality that you smell only late at night in certain Asian cities. This sounds patently absurd, but if you have ever had a midnight grill on a street corner in Kyoto or Beijing this soup pulls you there. The tofu in the soup was soft and lovely, but the broth was the highlight and it was simply magnificent.
And then came the sashimi, which is where the meal peaked. Toro, whitefish, other tuna, octopus some kind of roe, and an oyster were served. This was, hands down, the greatest batch of fresh raw fish I have ever had. It was soft, buttery where sashimi should be and then crisp (octopus) where sashimi should be. I have had pieces of fish that were this good at Karuma Sushi, but it was not this consistent. Every piece of sushi I was served was out of this world. I asked Sugiyama why it was incredible, and where they got fish in NY. He replied that in fact that they get all they fish from Japan and informed me of something I didn't know: that there are about 9 Japanese couriers who fly fresh fish in from Japan daily to JFK. I learned something new.
From here, the meal was very good, but dropped a modest level as more of the items were cooked in some manner or another. I should also mention that I was almost full, and there were 5 more dishes on the way. In retrospect, and next time I go, which will certainly be next weekend, I would have made some requests- that the meal focus most of its dishes on soup, sashimi and smaller lighter fare, and that the kaiseki be capped at around 6-7 dishes instead of 8-10. The last dishes were as follows:
An interesting twisting plate of two pieces of whitefish sushi, a wonderful boiled base of some kind of green vegetable with a sweet hoison like sauce, some very good strange shrimp that was rather salty, and something else that I can't recall.
Sugiyama pulls stones which are sitting in the stove in full flame for hours and have turned bright red, plops them on a plate with tinfoil as thermal buffer, hands you some fresh Japanese mushrooms and vegetables and a few slices of Kobe beef and you stone
bbq away and dip in a sweet sauce (a rather Korean experience). This was the least interesting tasting portion of the meal, even if it was the most unusual and interactive. Mushrooms were very good stone grilled (burned?), but I actually though the Kobe beef was simply fatty and almost tough. It was impossible not to eat the beef in less than one whole bite because the fat in the meat bound the slice so tightly. This was the one dish that was only OK.
Next split lobster grilled with fresh vegetables and a mushroom here and there in a unknown broth. The Lobster was very good and tender, but this was not as interesting as other dishes.
Onto duck in a thick soy sauce and some half avocado looking vegetable that was actually rather fiberous served with a bit too much sauce and all cooked on a iron plate. Duck was remarkable, but at this point, I am honestly stuffed.
Finally 3 staple Japanese dishes -Japanese pickles, large leaf steamed rice with pork (shrug) and a miso soup- in case you weren't actually full at this point. All way above average, but if you could finish them all then you are a bigger person than me.
Desert was very fresh grapefruit in a blended scotch malt and cream sauce and was out of this world, served with jasmine tea.
Not a perfect meal, but I have only had one meal that was ever perfect. And overall this was a remarkable experience and I am longing to return 5 days hence. Very magical food.
Mr. Sugiyama handed me his card at the end of the meal and I floated away happy and with my faith restored in the potential wonders of cuisine, a faith that had been rather damaged after a very disappointing meal at Jean Georges last night.
I would recommend eating at the bar if you want to meet the Boddhisatva himself. As I said, I am going back as soon as possible.