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brushtroke: A French Chef’s Ode to Japan

David Bouley, the local Tribeca personality and Michelin-starred chef most known for his flagship restaurant Bouley, has opened a Japanese kaiseki restaurant after ten years of preparation. Bouley, somewhat of a legend in New York dining and perhaps one of the most quintessentially New York of the city’s superstar chefs, is known for many things – including use of the sous vide bag in cooking, nouvelle cuisine, and, in a DeNiro-like way, boosting the Tribeca community. However, he is not known for Japanese cooking, which is perhaps why his newest venture brushstroke is something of a marvel and an oddity.

Situated in Tribeca, like all of his New York restaurants, in the space formally occupied by the unsuccessful brasserie Secession, brushstroke is mellow and refined. The angular space is divided into two sections: a main dining room/sushi bar and a bar. Both are of modern Japanese design – sparse decor, almost completely covered in blond wood, rice paper ‘curtains,’ a substantial sushi bar made of a wooden slab. The atmosphere is hushed, elegant and contemplative – diners sit quietly awaiting the wonders to come, speaking quietly over glasses of sake or perhaps just watching the masterful sashimi skills of the sushi chef behind the counter. Staff linger everywhere. Men holding plates stand behind diners as head waiters then place the dishes in front of guests, explaining what is involved in each offering; a ‘sommelier’ hovers, eager to explain the ‘notes’ of each wine and sake on the extensive menu; hosts and hostesses not only lead patrons to their seats, but also assist in serving; and, of course, Bouley himself, in a chef’s jacket, often wanders the dining room, speaking to regulars, watching over the ceremony.

The food at brushstroke is authentic Japanese, served kaiseki style in either 8 or 10 courses, arranged through 2 prix-fixe menus. There is little choice involved and after sorting out what rice dish you want, the waiters merely start bringing out, in rapid succession, course after course after course. The courses build on each other, starting with light and refreshing raw fish, culminating with a rich cod course followed by a beef course, and descending to the denouement of a surprisingly lovely Japanese dessert. The difference between the 8 and the 10 course menus, besides $50 in total price and 2 more courses, primarily involves higher quality ‘artisanal’ ingredients and the sense that the kitchen is just working harder on the 10 course.

The 10 course menu started with a few slices of hamachi, Japanese yellowtail, folded on top of each other, doused in an acidic tomato vinegar, and topped with sliced grape tomatoes and smoked seaweed. It was a light and refreshing, and the quality of the fish was truly remarkable. Next, the least likable course served that evening – a cool and unusual sweet potato potage with yam mousse and thick swatches of Santa Barbara uni. Each individual part seemed wonderful, yet when put together, the result was bitter, salty, and unsatisfying. Third was arguably one of the best courses offered, a cold smoked duck breast served top marinated Japanese eggplant with a tangy miso mustard dressing; it is a beautifully-executed dish with tender slightly-chewy duck and a sauce you just to lick off your plate. Fourth, three nuggets of seared toro with a chunky relish-like sweet/savory sauce – each nugget, cooked a pink medium-rare, melts in your mouth like only toro (the fattiest part of tuna belly) can, and the acidic flavorful sauce cuts the overwhelming richness of the toro perfectly.

Starting with the fifth dish, the meal moved into a heavier and more luxurious stage. Fifth was a steamed egg custard, served in the bottom of a cup and topped with a black truffle broth and bits of Dungeness crab. This dish tasted like money – rich, fragrant, textural, and truffles, lots of truffles. Seared unagi, or eel, followed. Billed as a truly traditional dish, the rich buttery slices of eel sat atop steamed okra and a mysterious yet addictive sauce – marvelously-prepared, there wasn’t an ounce of ‘too fishy’ in the unagi. Next, a dish beloved by Japanese restaurants all over New York, the seared miso-marinated black cod. Bouley’s rendition is topped with finely-chopped walnuts and surrounded by a deep orange pool of peach carrot melon puree, turning a Japanese fusion standard into something refreshing, luxurious, and unusual.

The wagyu beef course follows, a duo of cold and hot preparations: on the one side, sliced wagyu tataki in a light ponzu sauce, and on the other, sliced wagyu steak, prepared medium rare, with a zingy garlic and sansho pepper sauce. Though not the best wagyu dish ever put in front of me, it’s hard to deny the rich flavorful quality of the beef when prepared with such care. The last of the savory dishes, the rice dish, is the only course where diners have a choice. The options are assorted sashimi slices over rice, dungeness crab steamed with rice, a lobster sushi roll with soup, lobster steamed with rice, and rock shrimp and corn steamed with rice. Where the rock shrimp and corn option is too salty and oceanic for my taste, the dungeness crab is simple, filling, and stuffed with generous helpings of fresh crab meat. Whereas all previous courses were small ‘tastes,’ the rice dish was substantial, transferred from a big black pot into a small bowl three times over.

And with that, the savory course marathon came to a close. Lychee sorbet, presented atop a hardened raspberry puree, was a palate cleanser – cold, clean-tasting, bright citrus flavors that reset our taste buds for the sweet course to come. brushstroke’s final farewell was a two-part dessert, consisting of a soy panna cotta with matcha green tea sauce and a matcha green tea pastry along with a large bowl of matcha green tea and stuffed baked rice paper. The soy panna cotta was absolutely delightful, light and airy with a creamy subtle flavor; the traditional matcha green tea pastry, a gelatinous cube reminiscent of a gelee petit four, was not quite as successful, though rapidly adored by my dinner date; the stuffed and baked rice paper was a final palate cleanser, crispy and air-filled; and the matcha green tea, sipped slowly from a bowl as a classic Japanese digestif, was the cherry on top of a remarkable meal.

Dinner at Bouley’s brushstroke is a marathon. It takes awhile, close to or over two hours in most cases, and is a very formalized process. There are periods of waiting, almost too many staff members, and inexplicable moments when your food is standing behind you, in the hands of staff, yet not placed in front of you for your enjoyment. The experience is unusual in a dining scene where restaurants serve lavish meals quickly and a la carte. But, for those looking for a special experience, brushstroke is a wonderful and unique option in a city where so many ‘gourmet’ restaurants offer the same experience in the same sort of atmosphere over and over again.

Perfect For: justifiable splurging, serious people serious about food, sake aficionados, special occasions, decadent sushi dates, celebrity chef spotting

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