I have eaten a lot of Japanese this year in NYC and have been blown away with several meals I have had, and amazed at the rather consistent excellence of multiple places I have tried. In vain, I have kept trying to find Japanese places that disappoint, and until last night I had failed. I adore Kaiseki and was anxious to try the one place in NYC that is known for Kaiseki (besides Sugiyama), though little discussed, Nadaman Hakubai.
Its in the basement of the Kitano hotel, and when you call to ask for reservation, you get about 5 lines of Japanese in your ear (not English), an encouraging sign of something authentic. To get the omakase kaiseki you have to order a day ahead of time, which I didnt do (perhaps dumb). Menu has usual items-soba, sushi etc. And if you dont want to do that, there are 3 kaiseki meals-tenpura, steak and sushi. I chose the tempura because it seemed more unusual.
Service was very competent and warm. But the whole dining experience from the service to the food down to the decor had this very strange mid 80s vibe. It felt like I was in an aging museum that was intended to transport you back to 1987, 88 when Japan was on the verge of overtaking the US as the next economic superpower. The restaurant seemed fueled by the memories of this glimpse of Japanese economic and cultural hubris, and now it feels just stuck in time, while the decor has worn away. Yet everyone has been content to keep doing things the same way, as if this were the only way. It just vibes once new, once 80s, once great from the aging unvarnished wood that is now strangely stained here and there, to the flight attendant name tags that the slightly aging wait staff wears. Hotel meets museum.
Kaiseki meal was 6 courses.
First course was sea cucumber in grated Japanese white yam with wasabi, and separately soft tofu in ponzu with some hot stuff on top. These were both excellent. The sea cucumber was tough but worked really well with the yams and wasabi texturally and tastewise.
Second was assorted sashimi which was rather tasteless and bland and just unfrozen
Just unfrozen and tasteless were the taste themes of the night.
Third was clear broth soup with shrimp cake, tasteless mushrooms and greens. Soup was murderously wonderful and everything else was soggy or bland.
Fourth grilled veggies and various seafood-yam was good, everything else sort of tasteless.
Fifth was cool looking salad with cold broth, watercress and mullet. No taste and some aging textures.
Sixth just unfrozen items tempured up. Overcooked, uninteresting. This came with rice and miso soup. The rice was really good.
I was still hungry, so I ordered zaru soba, which for me is often a decent litmus test of the quality of a Japanese kitchen that is willing to offer it. Zaru soba when you eat it in Japan is a big slurp fest of wonderful cold textures over the sweet mirin broth and some wasabi fire that is just incredible. Honmura An on a good night takes you 90% of the way to Japan. This was just OK and again bland--a good metonym for the entire meal.
I may go back one more time and give the place the benefit of the doubt by trying the omakase kaiseki, just because they did hit one or two high notes in the first few dishes, but then again I may not. I have heard some damn good stuff about Taka.