Sunday, March 21, 2010
Zenkichi: A Taste of Japan
Japanese food. Loved by practically every New Yorker, it seems there is a sushi joint located next to the ubiquitous bodega and laundry mat lining every block. I had the pleasure of living and eating my way through Tokyo for almost half a year and think I know a thing or two about Japanese cuisine; so when I left Zenkichi, I felt as if I had was back in Japan. Self-described as a modern Japanese brasserie, Zenkichi offers both a-la-carte and tasting menu options. The omakase menu changes every six weeks to accommodate products at the height of their freshness and MW and I ate the late-winter menu that emphasized some of our favorite ingredients: sea urchin, oysters and scallops.
One regret during my time in Japan was not traveling to Hokkaido to eat fresh uni (sea urchin) and scallops; considered the best in all Japan. Before entering the bamboo-lined exterior of Zenkichi in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I read the current omakase menu consisted of Hokkaido scallops, Kumamoto oysters and uni from Aomori. It may be more than a mere coincidence that the word "zen" is found within the restaurant name. Entry to Zenkichi is a shock to the senses; darkness save dimly lit lanterns and spotlights on bamboo combined with the sound of water falling transport you from the concrete jungle outside to an intimate space within. Even seating is intimate as parties are led to booths entered though a curtain, shielding you from all other diners. The difference between a good dining experience and a great one is all about the details; something that Zenkichi understands well. One component of eating out that may be the most controversial and subjective is service. Service often toes the line between being too attentive (aka hovering) to non-existent. To remedy this issue Zenkichi, like many restaurants in Japan and Korea employs a silent ringer at each table where guests can summon the server when needed and are otherwise left to enjoy each other's company.
MW and I selected a semi-dry cold sake with the help of our server and both choose the late-winter omakase, easily one of the best bargains in the city at $48 per person. Don't let the bargain label lead you to believe that the quality of food is somehow compromised due to the price; on the contrary, the 8-course meal is one of the best in the city at this price point. Because MW and I wanted to take full advantage of scallops and uni we opted to add an additional course that included both ingredients to our meal. The first course served was a Miso Soup. Good but not great, it was one of the few issues I had with the entire meal as the soup course was served first when traditionally served later in a meal along-side rice and pickles. Still the soup provided a nice start to the meal warming one from the cold outside.
Next was a chilled plate that included: Kumamoto Oysters, Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp), Braised Japanese Eggplant and the sashimi of the day which happened to be Hamachi (Yellowtail). The Braised Japanese Eggplant was served cold but was full of flavor. During my time in Japan I developed a newfound respect for eggplant. Here, the meaty texture provided a perfect vehicle for absorbing the rich braising liquid; transforming a simple vegetable into something more substantial.
The Hamachi tasted great. Silky, fatty goodness with a clean finish that exemplifies fresh seafood elicited smile after smile as each piece was consumed.
But perhaps the best two pieces from the plate were the Uni and the Kumamoto Oyster. The Amaebi or Sweet Shrimp dish was more complex than being a simple piece of shrimp. Instead, a piece of uni lay atop amaebi cradled in a hollowed-out cucumber. Sweetness of the shrimp mixed harmoniously with creamy uni with the crisp texture of the cucumber providing a nice textural contrast.
The Kumamoto Oyster was creamy and briny as any good oyster should taste. The ponzu citrus sauce and lemon were not needed for oysters this fresh but provided a nice touch of acidity.
The Winter Salad contained grilled scallops (roe and all) from Hokkaido, over a bed of greens with turnips with an onion-ginger dressing. The salad was constructed with thought; sweet scallops were paired well with turnips, a root vegetable whose sugar levels are at their peak during the winter, and the onion-ginger dressing helped round out the flavor with the greens.
The fried course or tempura followed the salad. I've lamented to MW how I miss restaurants devoted only to tempura in New York and was eager to try cod milt or sperm that was listed on the menu. Unfortunately, the waiter informed us that the restaurant ran out of the ingredient and would instead serve a Madagascar Shrimp wrapped in a Shiso Leaf served with Matcha (Green Tea) Salt. The tempura came straight from the fryer, evidenced by its temperature, and like good tempura was neither heavy nor oily. The herbaceous flavor imparted by the shiso was a great match for the sweetness of the shrimp and was a delicious when dipped in the matcha salt then dipped in the dashi.
The server then brought us two pieces of the Saikyo Miso Cod with pickled daikon radishes, shaped in the form of leaves. Though this dish is attributed to Nobu, and lacked the creativity of some of the other courses, Zenkichi's version of grilled miso cod was still flavorful and perfectly cooked. The miso provided the right amount of salinity, allowing the natural sweetness of the fish to shine through and take center stage. The daikon, in addition to its aesthetic purpose, also served as a palette cleanser.
A long rectangular plate was then presented before us with several pieces of Roasted Honey-Soy Duck. The duck was cooked medium-rare with the majority of the fat being rendered yet still having a nice layer to provide additional moisture to the meat. The honey-soy marinade penetrated the meat and combined with the grilled scallion provided a sweet accompaniment to the duck.
Next came the additional course I added to our meal: Scallop and Uni Gratin. Hokkaido scallops, uni from Aomori with enoki mushrooms swimming in a rich bechamel sauce and topped with toasted panko bread crumbs was actually a let down compared to the other dishes we ate that night. The bechamel seemed to overpower the subtle sweetness of the scallops and even the flavor of the uni.
The last savory course of the night was the Jidori Gohan; flavored rice with free-range chicken and mushrooms and Japanese pickles. While it may seem strange to many Americans, I quickly learned from co-workers, friends and my own dining experiences that a quintessential Japanese meal ends with rice and pickles. While this rendition was good, the chicken and mushrooms didn't add much for me. Instead, I was more impressed with the side of pickles served with the rice.
For dessert we were allowed to pick from several options. MW chose the Frozen Black Sesame Mousse, a chocolate-based silky frozen sesame mousse that resembled black sesame ice cream from Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. The mousse was silky as advertised and has a strong nutty-sesame flavor and was a nice ending.
I chose the Pear Cream Cheesecake, a Japanese-style non-baked cheesecake studded with pears. For being a non-baked version of cheesecake this was still savory and smooth, yet lighter than traditional New York cheesecakes.
As we paid the bill we were presented with a small dish containing two small Sesame Cookies, Japanese petite fours of sorts that was a nice parting gift. From the quiet, almost zen-like atmosphere, to the silent buzzers at each tables and the rice and pickles ending our meal; Zenkichi was one of those restaurants provides more than just simple nourishment. Instead, the restaurant transports you to another place, and in our case, a return to Tokyo, at least for a couple of hours.
77 North 6th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11211
To see all our pics, please click the flickr link.