January 21, 2013 | BITE: My Journal

It’s Not Just the Ceiling That Soars: En Japanese Brasserie

Celebrating the fattiness of the marinated thigh against the tang of pickled okra.

          It wasn’t my idea to go to En Japanese Brasserie that evening last May. I try not to be too bossy when this particular food-obsessed fivesome I adore gets together every few weeks. Obviously, the Insatiable Critic is invariably focused on what’s new and needs to be discovered. I’d sat at the bar when En arrived in 2004 promoting itself as an izakaya a Japanese style pub – and had been only mildly impressed.

What tiny fingers plucked these bitsy radishes in tonight’s astonishing crudités?

          Now we’re back at a corner far from the open bar. I’d forgotten the drama of the soaring, shadowy, glass-wrapped space, with its theatrical spotlights on imported antique panels and tropical plantings. We order from the menu, too much as usual to indulge everyone’s whims. And then come gifts from owner Reika Yo – salmon smoking under glass before our eyes. It’s her bow to one of my pals, Barry Wine, as an early champion of Japanese style at his high-priced and innovative 4-star Quilted Giraffe, so sadly defunct.

 

The salmon is smoked in a bell jar before our eyes at dinner that night of revelation.

          Then as the evening stretches on and on, with smoke-filled terrariums and radishes no bigger than a pearl among exotic crudities on ice, and sublime broth simmered  mysteriously flame-defying parchment, approving nods dissolve into an irrepressible chorus of sighs and cries.  I’m trying to recall another Japanese roller coaster ride as exhilarating as this one. Alas, my plan to write a BITE on this triumph of astonishment got lost in a crush of restaurant openings.

 

In Abe’s Kitchen, the chef never stops smiling: Here he presents warm just-made tofu.

          But now Barry and I are back, just the two of us, curious to explore “Abe’s Kitchen Counter” Chef Hiroki Abe’s $125 omakase dinner, available the last Tuesday of every month in two seatings of eight. I order a ginger cocktail. Wine orders narutotai sake, 10oz for $32.  It comes in a bamboo pitcher, packed in an ice-filled bamboo bucket delivered by our waitress. I can’t tell if she’s a natural geisha or just playing into Wine’s teasing.

 Tiny river crabs succumb to the smoke as we sprinkle nori powder on our tofu.

          Meanwhile Chef Abe, after clattering around the kitchen on his wooden shoes collecting supplies, is now calmly smoking a live crab inside a glass dome. He opens the tasting with the house’s signature just-made tofu, ever so slightly watery.  It’s all about texture, of course: a delicate custard with a sprinkle of seaweed dust to add a pop.  (The house makes tofu six times a night on weekends. You hope to time it so yours arrives still warm.)

 Abe-san prepares two platters for our lobster shabu shabu.

          Hiroki works ahead on a stunning platter, setting out a small dish of ginkgo nuts for each of us. Another texture feint. Fun. I’ll call it an amuse.  He is dissecting our lobster live. Now the claws and spiny things go into a broth of shabu-shabu in a cone of pleated parchment.  He lights the flame and instructs us to cook the sticky gray flesh. “Not too long,” I say, loving raw lobster.  “I’ll just warm it a little."

It’s a mystery why the pleated parchment doesn’t burn as we warm our raw lobster.

          “Why doesn’t the paper burn?” Wine asks. The chef smiles, not about to tell. It’s not like the haughty silence at Momofuko Ko. It’s very smiley. Time to cook scallions and some odd unidentifiable greens, Abe-san says, and then he pours the perfumed broth into little cups for us to sip.

 

Gelatinous konnyaku with dabs of miso mustard escort one zonked out river crab.

          “My cocktail is wrong with this food,” I complain. Barry hands me his sake cup and sends for another. A lone, small river crab, asphyxiated, I guess, is presented on a piece of slate with konnyaku (devil’s tongue), a gelatinous wheat gluten made from potato, with a dab of miso mustard. This is one of those moments when you have to appreciate what the Japanese can make out of nothing at all. Like a Ferran Adrià revelation. But you don’t have to like it.

Waste not. The chef scrapes the last morsels sticking to this tuna skin.

          The chef’s burly assistant hands him a tuna carcass. He could poach us a few ribs, I suppose. But no. Instead he meticulously scrapes away the bits clinging to the skin, collecting enough scraps to create two small triangles of fragrant maguro, each wearing a frizzy pompadour of scallion threads presented alongside Santa Barbara sea urchin.  I eat it slowly, wallowing in the slink and brine.

 

Tuna tendrils dressed for success, served alongside Santa Barbara sea urchin.

          I’m not sure if it’s our second ration of sake or a third.  I’m high on the unctuous fatty elegance of the tuna. There is barely time to parachute down from that high as the chef holds up two huge scallops, still moving, spurting them with lime.  The sticky satin fills my mouth. I bite a slice of lime for an aftershock.

 

Live scallops one minute, lime-doused satin in my mouth, the next.

          Meanwhile, Abe is working on the two scallop muscles he removed. It’s what you throw out when you cook the precious bivalves. But you wouldn’t, if the chef lived in your kitchen, slivering each muscle till it opens up, thin as tissue paper, tenderized with a squirt of lemon.

          I first braved monkfish liver in the early 80s at David and Karen Waltuck’s Chanterelle. But I’ve never tasted monkfish liver like this, soft from warming, with swirled threads of shiso adding its familiar pow and a shiso flower on top.

No surprise, sperm tempura tastes like brains since some males think with their c—ks.

          Yet even as I shiver in concentration, I sense a new excitement in the kitchen. It’s as if a shipment of gold had just arrived. “It’s sperm,” the chef announces. 

          “How do you feel about sperm?” Barry asks.

          “I’m not sure how I feel,” I say, remembering the time he laughed as I ate hideous aged squid intestines. So I’m shocked by the delicate taste of shiroko tempura – the sperm almost as soft as brains, which I love. The chef has saved a portion for himself.  He signals a server to take it away for later.

 

Yuba (tofu skin) wraps amazingly tender little eel shu mei.

          Eel stuffed into yuba becomes a duo of delicious little shu mei inside a small steamer. The surprise is how much more delicate the tofu skin is than even a perfect dim sum wrapper.  I’ve always been a pushover for the subtle flavor and seductive texture of chawanmushi custard. This one comes in a crystal dish, with fresh-cut truffle slices wafting their powerful scent toward my nose.

 

Chawanmushi custard doesn’t need truffles but then, no one needs an emerald either.

          Abe-san is always working ahead. Now his assistant delivers a huge tuna jaw to his boss. The chef dons protective gloves to wrest ribbons of flesh from the bones, producing meat that is much too fishy for me. I clear my palate with the pile of freshly grated daikon alongside, refusing to let a misstep push me off  the high wire.

 

What will the chef do with this tuna collar? Cook it and pile it in very fishy ribbons.

          Next, chicken.  What can you do with chicken? Marinate it with a bit of sorcery, I suppose. Hiroki slices a just-cooked thigh into juicy skin-on strips, setting them on a bamboo leaf, alongside an okra pickle wrapped in prosciutto and a blushing burdock spear. The fattiness of the bird against the crunch of the pickle strike me as dazzling.

          “The mother of the pickle is 10 years old,” the chef informs us. Barry starts to explain, but I interrupt him. I know all about this mother. It’s the nutrients and bacteria that turn cider or wine into vinegar. I remember when Craig Claiborne tried to shock me, holding up a crock, and asking if I’d like to see his “mother.”

 

Chopped maguro is too fishy for me but the grated daikon is a good palate cleanser.

          I’m not expecting much from the beef either.  And I’m sure I can’t manage another bite. The chef is cooking two slices of beef with a blowtorch. Wrapping warm rice.  I venture a small bite. I’m not sure what else is inside but the combination is thrilling. I can’t believe I’m eating it all in one of those carpe diem urges.

 

While I wasn’t paying attention, the chef performed some alchemy on this beef sushi.

          As I nibble a bit of black sesame pudding with a flutter of gold leaf, and then find appetite to finish off the matcha tea ice cream sandwich that follows, Barry and I are agreeing that this might be the most innovative Japanese chef we know.  Is he the best? Was this tasting better than Soto, better than Neta, better than a long ago wooing at Masa? Granted we’ve finished three rounds of sake.  Barry is definitely high. But I am only a bit tipsy..

 

Golf leaf flutters on this black sesame pudding (kuro goma).

          The excitement is discovering that En Japanese is not the modest brasserie it used to be. What lifted the self-styled pub to this ambition? Is it the chef? Did he just arrive? No, he came here at the age of 25, when Bunkei and Reika Yo launched their modest pub. Brother Bunkei went home to run the family’s Japanese restaurants. Abe-san did his coming of age right here, on this stage.

 

A crunchy biscuit gets stuffed with matcha tea ice cream to eat as a sandwich.

          It was Reika’s art director husband, Jesse Alexander, becoming a partner, who thought the house ought to reach higher. And so the menu has blossomed. Working with their own forager and favorite farmers – finding green garlic and mugwort alongside the road on the way to a weekend home in Bear Mountain – the house dares new invention. Its owners and knowing Japanese fans have watched Hiroki Abe rise to the challenge.

 

Reika Yo launched this brasserie with her brother. Now she directs its highs with her husband.

          You might want to reserve soon for “Abe’s Kitchen Tuesday.” But you needn’t wait to explore this remarkable evolution. Just look for Kaiseki listings on the ambitious and possibly confusing  menu. Experiment with icy sake, preferably enough to soften shyness and tension, without inducing raucous inebriation. Bring savvy friends. Be ready to spend money.

435 Hudson Street between Leroy and Morton Streets. 212 647 9196. Lunch Monday through Friday noon to 2:30 pm. Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 2:30 pm. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 pm. Friday and Saturday till 11:30.

 

Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

 

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