This review of a New York restaurant is a break from The Picky Glutton’s usual London-based coverage.
During my most recent visit to New York, I stayed at the Kitano Hotel which is, as far as I know, the only Japanese-owned hotel in the Big Apple. Many of the things at the hotel are designed to make the large number of Japanese guests feel at home and this includes Hakubai, the in-house restaurant and reputed to be one of the city’s best.
Despite the glass partitions designed to resemble traditional Japanese paper screens, the decor at Hakubai is surprisingly bland once you walk past the picturesque foyer. The dull-looking wood panelling is in no way noteworthy, although a more striking private dining room with tatami mats is also available. The waitresses are all clad in kimonos and are so demure and softly spoken that it’s often hard to hear what they’re saying. However, as I found out, they can become much more forthright if they feel you haven’t left a big enough tip – literally blocking your path until you have!
Hakubai’s menu is extensive covering all the classics from udon noodle soups to katsu curries, but I decided to go for the okonomi kaiseki which is a traditional multi course set menu that varies according to the season and the discretion of the chefs – think of it as a tasting menu. Edamame and tofu are common staples in Japanese restaurants, but here they’ve been combined together and the result is divinely delicious. The incredibly soft, custard-like texture is flecked with occasional dimpling and it really does taste like mildly salted edamame. Superb stuff.
A selection of small dishes arrived grouped together in two batches. The first batch contain an intriguing looking dish of salty, dimpled herring skin with a gelatine like appearance (bottom right). Although it has an unusually crisp, bubble-like texture, it tastes salty without being overly fishy.
The small bowl of kelp soup is very tart and moreish with a hint of ginger (top left). Sadly the slices of mushroom topped with bitter green vegetables and bonito flakes was too refrigerated to leave much of an impression (top left). The slices of what I think was salmon skin (bottom left) was more successful with its salty taste and crispy exterior giving way to a yielding softness.
The second batch of small dishes was dominated by the chunks of red snapper (bottom) which were perfectly grilled with crisp taut skin and served with a small helping of pickled vegetables topped with sesame. The surprisingly muted pickled aubergine (top right) can’t match the flavour of the grilled aubergine at St Anselm, but it was still enjoyably moreish thanks to its topping of pureed yam. The octopus slices are incredibly tiny (top left), but their softness compliments the tangy taste of the sliced pickled radishes well.
Although it initially seemed rather bland, the crab cake soup became increasingly tangy, salty and moreish the more I slurped down. The crab cake itself tastes more like a surimi-based crab stick than it does of real crab, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on whether you like surimi-based crab sticks.
Given New York’s huge maritime ports and Hakubai’s predominately Japanese clientele, I expected nothing but the finest, freshest sushi and sashimi and I wasn’t disappointed. The beautifully marbled, fatty chunks of tuna, the exquisitely soft eel and the deliciously fresh seabass deserve particular praise. Even the humble tamago, or sweet omelette coated in mirin, was excellent – its fruity sweetness was addictive and quite remarkable. The miso soup hadn’t been forgotten either and was livened up by sweet, slippery slivers of mushroom.
The dessert wasn’t as universally accomplished as the superb savoury dishes. The green tea and vanilla ice creams were satisfactory, but unremarkable – especially when compared to the excellent green tea ice cream available at Kimchee in London or the inventive mochi at Shibuya in Las Vegas. More interesting was the contents of the small bowl accompanying the ice cream. Inside was a smoky, coffee-flavoured jelly submerged in a pool of coconut milk. It won’t set the world of desserts alight, but it was an interesting and tasty way to end the meal.
Despite the unsettlingly demure yet occasionally schizophrenic nature of the service, I can’t help but recommend Hakubai. The okonomi kaiseki, as a whole, is one of the most exquisite examples of Japanese food I’ve ever had. It isn’t cheap, but it’s worth every penny.
Address: 66 Park Avenue at 38th Street, New York, NY 10016
Phone: 212 885 7111
Opening Hours: seven days a week 11.45-14.30, 18.00-22.00, kitchen closes at 21.45
Reservations: highly recommended.
Total cost for one person including green tea but excluding tip: $104 (approx. £67 at time of writing)