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Manhattan Kaiseki

Kai and Kaiseki in NY

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Kai and Kaiseki in NY

Mao | Apr 12, 2002 11:12 AM

I went to Kai for the 1st time last night and my overall impression was: bland. The wonderful textural aspects of a great Japanese meal were present, but only at the start of the meal. A couple of things were brilliant, but most of the meal was unremarkable. Not surprisingly, the tea was superb--there is a tea store downstairs and that a Japanese tea company owns the restaurant. My favorite places for kaiseki in the city remain in this order: Sugiyama, Hatsuhana, Kai and Nadaman Hakubai. Donguri has an omakase offer, but its not kaiseki by name.

The highlights included the first course, which consisted of about 5 to 6 little tastings of mostly seasonal vegetables. The most memorable of these was a gelatin tomato cake with caviar. This was art. Embedded within the gooey cake taste was just about every smell and nuance of tomato that I have in my memory banks. One of those truly memorable food moments in life where your entire experience with tomatoes passes across your tongue. There was also some home-smoked duck that was superlative. The other highlight was the sea bass, which was cooked in a helmet of sea salt and tea and accompanied by a yuzu? sauce (the smoky flavor that typically is an ingredient in Japanese clear broth soup) and mushrooms. Sea bass should never be served any other way again. It was very delicate, fleshy and supremely smoky odiferousness.

Other items in the meal were a lily bulb soup that tasted remarkably like Western potato soup, and while fragrant, really had nothing going for it beyond this initial whiff. I have had excellent lily bulb mouthfulls before at Sugiyama, so this was disappointing. Sashimi was OK-kampachi, giant clam and one other forgotten item. Soba, which are made on premises, were under-brothed and not particularly special (Sobaya and Honmura An have much better soba). The final main course of steak with various sautéed veggies was one of the blander versions of this combo I can remember. There was one other dish with mushrooms and another with bamboo that left no impression. Desserts were a little piece of slightly dry chocolate cake (intentionally so) and one or two more traditionally Japanese-like desserts with sweet beans/rice. The hoji cha (burnt rice tea) that went with this was excellent.

So overall probably worth the trip for those one or two memorable moments, but a surprisingly bland and atextural meal to my mind. Nao Sugiyama has little to fear from the upstart.

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