Vegan dim sum restaurant in NYC

Some thoughts on last night’s kaiseki ryōri at Fire & Water:

This was the second time I’ve eaten a formal kaiseki meal; ironically, despite having lived for over four years in Japan, I’ve had both kaiseki dinners at restaurants in the U.S.

Kaiseki is a style of refined, formal cuisine emphasizing fresh seasonal ingredients prepared with both subtlety and intricacy of technique. Generally, one is served several courses (we had eight last night), each quite small, that add up to a very complex and filling meal.

I don’t really want to tell you how much our dinner cost, so I’ll simply say that we wouldn’t have gone without the assistance of a very generous gift certificate from two of the professionals for whom my wife regularly works miracles. But we’re leaving New York very soon (I’ll be gone in a matter of days); it’s nearly Valentine’s Day; and we figured, go out with a bang.

The evening began inauspiciously, as both my wife and I had to trudge through sleety rain and deep, icy puddles to get to Fire & Water, conveniently located just west of Alphabet City and thus next to no subway stations. Despite having brought an umbrella, I was soaked when I first sat down at the counter, and grumpy.

It was a beautiful counter, though: a great slab of maple-stained wood, all whorls of smooth grain punctuated by exposed burl and black lacquer: very wabi-sabi. And when food and daiginjo sake began arriving, my mood lifted considerably.

The last kaiseki meal I had, in 2004, took place at Bizen in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. It was far more traditional: the dinner took place in a small room with tatami and shōji looking out on a lovely courtyard garden. Our server was Japanese and dressed in yukata, obi, and geta, and the food was very conservative. I mean, it was amazing and delicious (and vegan that time, too), but it was all carefully respectful of Japanese culinary tradition.

Our meal last night was much more experimental and avant-garde: homemade soba cut like fettucine; fig ponzu over fresh tofu; miso caramel—that sort of thing. It was clearly food rooted in Japanese flavors and techniques, but it was also food determined to express innovation and play; it wanted to honor the verities while twisting them a little. (That this sort of thoughtful whimsy is very much in the spirit of, say, Zen calligraphy and tea ceremony, two arts with ties to kaiseki, makes it arguably less a departure from tradition and more a reclamation of it.)

Not everything was astonishing: the initial seaweed salad was…fine, and as much as I enjoyed the hardcore buckwheatiness of the soba, there’s a reason the noodles are traditionally made thin. The ginger cake was dry. The tempura kabocha was more of a kushi-katsuesque croquette than a proper Kyoto- or even Tokyo-style tempura.

When the meal sang, though, how it sang! One of the marks of masterful Japanese chefs is their mastery of clear soup; Suimono (literally, “sipping food”) is a traditional component of kaiseki, a palate cleanser between heartier courses, and last night’s ginger broth with salsify and fried tofu was a revelation: clear, lambent, and just barely sweet.

The other mark of a true Japanese chef is, of course, rice, and the evening’s other standout course was the maitake and shimeji mushroom chirashi with grilled leeks and shio kombu over sushi rice. As I said to my wife Fire & Waterthis morning, if you gave me a trough of this stuff, I would eat it until my stomach tore. I would literally kill many people I have met—most of them annoying, to be fair—in exchange for the secret of those leeks, which were sweet, smoky, and sour all at once.

I was also thrilled to see homemade yuba on the menu; having eaten yuba pretty much every time I went to Nikkō, I’ve become a massive fan of the stuff. This was a little runny (I like mine slightly drier), but still incredible, especially considering that the chef had never been to Japan and had learned all his techniques and dishes through experimentation. (He told us he used to buy Japanese-language cookbooks and ask one of his coworkers, a Japanese man, to translate them for him. This fact would horrify a fair number of purists in Japan, but I thought it was awesome.)

The sake was overpriced but terrific, and when we finished our tokkuri my wife ordered wine and I had a rice lager. We were both quite stuffed when we finished dessert (which included kurogoma brittle!), but pretty much as soon as we got home, I wanted more chirashi.

Sayonara, New York. Part of me wishes it were still just mata ne, but if I have to leave, that was an amazing meal to go out on.

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