The postcard from Japan made us rather jealous: "We have smiled under the cherry blossoms here in Kyoto. The juxtaposition of old and new is stunning—telephone poles along the ceremonial path to an urban temple, an age-old house abutting a bustling galleria." In contrast, we spent sakura matsuri
in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden
. Some days later we enjoyed our celebratory kaiseki
meal at Rosanjin Tribeca
, where we found our colleague's comments about Kyoto quite reflective of the tranquil glory of this handsome restaurant. For the stunning juxtaposition of Japanese tradition and modern elegance is more pronounced here than elsewhere on this continent. We patiently waited several months for the former delivery-only establishment—with its attractive cedar bento boxes—to open the dining room, and then waited additional months to see how the service and presentation would measure up in this sedate space with a mere eight tables.
Greeted by name upon our arrival by the hostess, the dashing owner/host Jungjin Park then introduced himself and sat us across from a stunning floral display whose cherry blossoms were augmented by a number of flowers painstakingly arranged according to ikebana
principles. As with the many dishes we would consume, harmoniousness was the defining principle at work here, and it was no surprise that a group of three stylish Japanese ladies asked Mr. Park to pose for a photograph with them in front of the arrangement. For this master of ceremonies has attempted to marry the aristocratic customs of courtly society—think of Lady Murasaki's 11th-century epic Tale of Genji
—with the less courtly inhabitants of Manhattan, on whom many of these intricate details are sadly lost in translation. We noticed Mr. Park repeatedly fiddling with the futuristic console that sits squarely embedded in the red brocade silk wall, adjusting the volume of the minimalist music, which at times ranged from the familiar drums of a Mahayana Buddhist ceremony to John Cage-like syncopated rhythms. Mr. Park discreetly suggests to his guests to remain focused on the experience by avoiding excessive talking during each course, and he is quite right: There are so many details to be consumed. Our New York predilections for loquaciousness and gregariousness do not match well with a multi-course meal intended for a near-meditative reflection. The colleague in Japan had regretted being rather sleepy during the kaiseki meal in Kyoto after spending hours at the spa, yet clearly that contemplative mood brought on by relaxation was far better suited for kaiseki
than a BlackBerry-wielding banker after business hours. Indeed, our propensity for prolixity—we kept chatting over endless cups of sake, silently refilled after nearly every sip—made it at times difficult to focus reverentially during the more than two hours at the table. This meal offers so many diverse flavors and textures—a crunch here evoking a scene from the movie Tampopo
, a composition there recalling a charming moment long ago at the Osaka airport. At the chic and sleek tables, very little visually distracts you from the beautiful plates, bowls and crystal. A mere two simple framed works of art—recall Hokusai's many views of Mount Fuji—assist in transporting you mentally to another place. Whereas in certain Mahayana Buddhist practices you might focus on meditational deities such as Kalachakra, at Rosanjin we stared repeatedly at the deceptively simple yet lush surroundings to concentrate on the gustatory senses, here stimulated vastly more than by other top-end tasting menus.
course set the stage, a stupendous grilled Yakishimo scallop with lotus root and kinome along with tender baby octopus and firefly squid and an attractively-arranged variety of fresh vegetables and herbs. The Rape Blossom, tofu skin and Kazunoko (codfish roe) with vinegar syrup that has Karashi paste with caviar on the top were additionally superlative. Visually this dish seemed almost a pity to eat, and we would not be surprised given the recent trend of photo food blogging to learn of diners—however gauche—taking photographs of such extraordinary dishes.
We proceeded to the Wanmori
, an appreciable piece of grilled red snapper with fried tofu and kinome in a masterful fish broth, a harmonious balance of flavors enahnced by the kinome. The effect was a fascinating contrast to the previous course, both with the perceptible effect of the aesthetic change of porcelain and with the presentation technique. For the uninitiated, this is a world apart from the usual experience of fine dining. It is indeed the World of the Shining Prince
updated to reflect 21st-century sophistication. At this point we do recall why Mr. Park has named his restaurant after the well-known Japanese restaurateur from the turn-of-the-last-century, Rosanjin Kitaoji. For this gentleman gourmet was also an adept of ceramics, and at this Rosanjin each plate and each bowl, along with the handsome cedar chopsticks, reflect the pleasingly ingenious aesthetic taste so crucial to kaiseki
. Whereas American porcelain plates simply have become vastly larger in size or a bit oblong in shape in recent years, the ceramics served forth at kaiseki
and specifically here at Rosanjin alone merit extended description.
There followed Mukoukuze
, when we noted Mr. Park took particular delight in reminding us how one can tell a highly-trained chef from an amateur: by his knife and by the cut marks on the fish. You will find few places in the United States that so adroitly serve forth such sashimi, and we were delighted with Tori Gai (leaf-shaped clam), Hirame (fluke), Ika (squid), and the fascinating Tairagai preparation, a giant clam cut and served with buttery fatty Toro. (Were you to contrast such cuts with the flash-frozen and sodden sushi made by eager Tibetans at Whole Foods Markets, it would be akin to comparing Le Cirque
and McDonald's.) Here we must proceed immediately to discussion of the next course, the Nakazara
, astounding fatty Toro that was the freshest we ever ate outside of Japan. It seemed as though it dissolved on the tongue, stimulating the taste buds in multiple ways that few other raw foods do. We were introduced last year to a fellow who keeps his boat in New Jersey and makes occasional forays far out in the Atlantic Ocean to snare his own tuna, boasting that he begins consuming it before his boat returns to shore. Rosanjin's toro reminded us both of this story as well as Tokyo's giant Tsukiji central fish market
, a place that ought to belong in those popular new books about the 1,000 places you definitely must see before you die. Another option for this course was Anago, a spectacular sea eel, not to be confused with either Unaga (river eel) nor the pathetic green moray familiar from our scuba diving experiences. Although much has been written about the $150 price of this multi-course meal, at this point it was quite clear that the cost alone of these fresh ingredients flown over from Japan leaves little in the way of profit for Rosanjin.
After emerging from a near-coma brought on by this exceptional Toro, we upgraded to a different type of sake, and of course noted how the decanting took place effortlessly into an even more attractive vessel than the previous. Cups again were refreshed silently after nearly every sip, affording us the opportunity to imbibe with great gusto. For the next course, the Shiizakana
featured one of our all-time favorites, a fried soft shell crab with erengi mushroom. Having eaten soft-shell crab everywhere from grandmother's table to inland Sichuan province to coastal southern California, outside of Japan this may well be the most exceptional soft shell crab to date.
Still envious of the colleague who had kaiseki
in Kyoto, we also recalled the friend who phoned recently about going abalone diving at Stillwater Cove near Jenner Beach in northern California, one of the lost pastimes of late adolescence during a three-month stay there so long ago. We savored every bite of those rare mollusks, which we caught by prying them from underwater rocks with a flat abalone iron, then later preserved the mother-of-pearl in tribute to those tough dives unaided by oxygen tanks. So it was during our Yakizakana
course, consisting of phenomenal grilled river salmon with steamed abalone and marinated apricot, which reminded us of the tremendous effort both in procuring and preparing these delicacies. Our former colleague in Switzerland, who yearly flew to Alaska to fish for salmon, told us how the Balair flight would go nearly empty from Zürich and return nearly at its maximum load, for so many sportsmen had packed coolers full of their great catch. All these memories flowed forth during the ephemeral experience of savoring this course. As the great teacher Patrul Rinpoche noted in The Words of My Perfect Teacher
(Kunzang lama'i shelung
), even the finest meal turns to ____. Thus these fleeting moments are to be savored, reminding us of the transitory nature of both existence as well as the kaiseki
The final fish course, Hahchi
, consisted of Aburame (flown in from Japan) in a noteworthy fish broth, and here we became somewhat wistful when contemplating the balance of flavors and textures. Though we have had many fine experiences next door at Takahachi Tribeca
as well as some unfathomably rude service at Tribeca's bridge-and-tunnel Nobu
(now a mere farce of its former self), we think Tribeca is the ideal location for Rosanjin. For on this unhurried street in this least-populated neighborhood of Manhattan, time appeared to stand still—yet we had already been at the table two hours! We thought about some intriguing experiences in the previous year, dining with bankers from China, Hongkong and Singapore at a handful of New York's finest restaurants. For unfamiliar as they were with haute cuisine
, service at places such as Daniel
featured ever-patient servers graciously explaining these very unfamiliar dishes to our foreign guests. Similarly, we recall several elegant meals—including one prepared by the most famous chef in Sichuan, who took time to sit with us and declare why his spinach dan dan mien
and má lá tu ding
(spicy peppery diced rabbit) were utterly incomparable. So it goes with Rosanjin, where at a price you enjoy the premium of a dining room with merely eight tables, where the sole purpose for explication by Mr. Park was clearly to enhance our enjoyment of these obscure and rare ingredients. While some Korean and Japanese restaurants (especially in Los Angeles!)—as did Chinese restaurants thirty years ago—inform you when they feel a dish will be unsuitable for you or that certain ingredients might not taste harmonious to you (spicy jellyfish comes to mind), this certainly was not the case at Rosanjin, where graceful explanation made the kaiseki
experience all the more elegant.
Then at last came the final course prior to dessert, served in beautiful lacquer ware. As aficionados of lacquer, we focused first on this stunning service, followed by this combination of Tomewan, Shokuji
: blended miso soup, tofu, mitsuba, sansho, Unagi IImushi (mixed and steamed sticky and regular rice with kinome on top), and pickles. But here one aspect of service deserves fair criticism: as the master of ceremonies does have other guests to attend to, and as he is the only explicator of your meal, we found three courses where we had to balance his desire for us to eat immediately with our patient wait for him to give us an explanation of what precisely we were about to consume. Perhaps a printed menu of some sort would serve both as a navigational aid during the meal and pleasant souvenir of an unforgettable experience? On the other hand, it would be distracting, as we recently learned at a theater performance where the director declined to hand out programs until after the show. At this point, it became clear the extent to which a small staff labors endlessly in this artful form of service. The staff by then seemed exhausted, whereas we felt infinitely refreshed, perhaps aided by all that sake and the delightful tea we consumed with the dessert. Our dessert arrived but two minutes after the final course, and the check arrived, unasked, just after dessert dishes were clear. Or perhaps we had simply imbibed too much sake, hence the rush to keep us on schedule? The dessert fortunately did not cloud our memory of dinner, a simple cup of mango juice as well as a tofu and chocolate blancmange
with fresh fruit. Yet true to form, this fleeting experience did not dissolve into memory; Mr. Park graciously emailed our menu as well as an even more luxurious kaiseki
menu on offer over the weekend. For if you are not satisfied enough with this tribute to the greatest meal in Japan, simply telephone or write ahead to request additional courses. With the sole exception of wines, anything seems possible.