One evening had been set aside for taking him around town. I decided that rather than taking him for a meal at one of the obvious choices, we would go on a restaurant crawl. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s modeled after a good olde fashioned English pub crawl, where a marauding group of pub-goers spend an evening visiting a series of pubs, each one with their own list of virtues. Even though it is easier to down a half dozen beers over the course of the evening than to have five or six meals, even if they are small ones, I said what the heck, let’s give it a go. I thought about it for a day or and organized a schedule of five restaurants and a dessert bar. It was all going smoothly until the day our outing was scheduled for. I called Sergio in the morning and he misunderstood our plans. He had booked Masa for 9:00 that evening. He called Masa in order to change his reservation to Saturday, but it seems that Emporer Hirohito himself must have made the cancellation policy at the restaurant because there is a huge penalty, something like $150 a person, if you don’t cancel 48 hours in advance. This even holds if you want to switch your reservation to a different day. So we came up with a contingency plan, which I would reveal now, but describing it sequentially will make for a much better read as they say in the business.
I started my day at Kitchen Arts & Letters at 12:30. I live right around the corner and I had been in the shop a week earlier inquiring as to whether they carry his cookbook. Not only did they have it, they had a large stack of them. So I arranged for Sergio to sign their copies, and when I got arrived he had already been there for a few minutes and he had done the deed. Now it was 12:45 and we jumped into a taxi headed to Kuruma-Zushi for our first lunch. Chef Toshihiro Uezu gave us a warm greeting and I told him we wanted a mini-omakase. "Mini-omakase, ha ha ha ha ha" he laughed, thinking I was joking, and within minutes he was placing cuts of fish on our little wooden tables while announcing their variety. Some pieces, like some Japanese yellowtail, were so succulent that it caused me to audibly say “yum,” which chef Uezu responded to by saying “you like, ha, ha, ha, ha.” or its variation the sing-songy “thank you, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.” After we were served around 6 cuts each (each service being two cuts per person,) he gave us a little break and he started tidying up his station. With time running short, I called out to him and said we needed to finish, that I wasn’t joking and we were going for a second lunch. A more serious look came over his face, but then he digested the info and got back to work. While slicing up some Japanese snapper, he asked me where we were going and I told him Yasuda. “Yasuda, say hello for me, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha" causing another few rounds of fish flying out of his hands onto our little boards.. I asked chef Uezu if he had small sweet white shrimp and he made us a small roll with them that was unbelievable. He then said "I have live shrimp from Japan" while rattling off the name "you want to try?"
By now it was 1:30 and when I called Sushi Yasuda earlier in the day, they told me the last reservation was 1:45. Still, how could we pass that up? "Raw or boiled he asked" and we actually spared a few seconds to think about it and then said boiled. He returned with some large shrimp that he was slapping on the counter and he began the laborious process of peeling them. As an aside, what is it with sushi chefs and slapping live crustaceans on the counter? Is it a show for the customers or are they trying to kill them right in front of your eyes? The shrimp were good, but not as good as the tiny white ebi. But then he had a surprise for us. He handed me an invitation to the restaurant’s 30th anniversary party which was taking place the next day with, if I got this correctly, all the sushi you can eat. We walked out the door around 1:45 having consumed two complete omakases (mini omakase? ha, ha, ha, ha, ha) and two small carafes of sake. In 35 minutes time we had managed to run up a bill of $589.
Now we were walking quickly to Yasuda. During the shrimp peeling period I had called there to see what time we could arrive and they told me as long as we got there by 2:00 we were fine. Walking, walking, walking, quickly through the rain, while I'm pointing out NYC landmarks all the while since this was Sergio’s first visit to NYC. We arrived at 1:58 and were shown to a table since all of the places at Yasuda's station were gone. I explained that we had already had a first lunch, and could he make us a small omakase. They were happy to oblige and they delivered a platter of tuna, hamachi, salmon, oysters, uni and sea bass and one or two other cuts I am not recalling and a toro roll which had the thinnest nori I had ever seen. Having been at both restaurants in such a short period of time, the inevitable question of which one was better came up. We both concluded that Yasuda was better. Not that Kuruma wasn't great in its own way, but the experience is monolithic compared to the way Yasuda combines the ingredients, where the result transcends the category. An added bonus was that David Chang was having lunch at the counter and he came over to sit with us after he was done. Yasuda stopped by the table on his way out, telling us he was rushing to the gym. I made him stop long enough to have a short discussion about the grade of seaweed he used for the toro hand roll he served us. After he left Chang started in. “Yasuda is god” said Chang and I thought he was going to praise the way he slices his kampachi. But Chang’s admiration was reserved for non-culinary skills. He went on to say, “Yasua’s 61 years old and he cleans his own station. And look,” he said while pointing to the sushi counter, “ it’s 2:30 and he’s out of here while the other chefs are still wiping their stations down.” I guess different strokes eh? Maybe next time someone asks me what to order at Yasuda I’ll tell them, “Forget the food. Just get there slightly after 2:00 to so you can see him break his station down." I walked Sergio the few blocks to his hotel and I jumped in a cab to go home. I was stuffed, and it didn't take me long to fall asleep on the couch. I woke up at 4:30, and I started to put the balance of my day in order as our eating spree was going to continue at 7:30.
Surprisingly when I walked into Degustation at 7:30, I had gotten my dining legs back. They were ready for us and chef Wesley Genovart had saved three seats at the back corner since my friend Toby was joining us. I told Wesley we had a half hour and could he serve us the egg with serrano ham, the squid with short ribs, and the lamb belly, which I hadn't had before. Jack Lamb appeared out of nowhere to open the bottle of 1954 Lopez de Heredia Bosconia I had brought (which was fantastic) and somehow in the 30 minutes we were there we managed to get in an entire evening of schmoozing. The food was excellent and I especially enjoyed the lamb belly which is prepared sous vide, and then grilled. Quite good with an interesting firm texture though not at all tough and chewy. But one of the things I enjoyed the most was the deference showed to Sergio, addressing him by his title. Next on to Momofuku Noodle Bar.
The place was packed but we didn't have the time to wait for seats. Joaquin greeted us and I told him we were short of time, can he give us a bowl of ramen that we will eat while standing at the small corner of the counter at the beginning of the kitchen. "Fire up a momo" yelled Quino and five minutes later we were taking turns eating out of the bowl. If you have ever been to the restaurant you know how tight the space is that I am talking about it. The funny thing about it was, Sergio couldn't stop eating the various parts of the soup. After he had five or six spoonfuls, I tapped him on the shoulder and told him we had to get to our next destination. But he ignored me and he kept on eating. Somehow, in that short period of time, in that cramped little space, he fell into a small bit of gustatory bliss as his chopsticks rummaged around the bowl picking up some meat here, some vegetables there, and some noodles from underneath, taking a moment to weigh the impact they were making on his palate. Finally I dragged him away and we waved goodbye to Quino and we were off to Saam bar. "What kind of pork was that?" he asked me while we were walking up First Avenue. When I told him Berkshire Pork, he nodded and said that they also have it in Holland.
Ssam Bar was slamming. We arrived at 8:35 and the wait for three seats looked to be about 15 minutes. Unfortunately, Sergio had a 9:00 reservation at Masa and we didn’t have time to wait. So Chang tells Cory to set us up at a small counter they have in the middle of the restaurant and the dishes that comprise the Ssam Bar tasting menu started flying out of the kitchen. In the 20 minutes were standing there, they sent out 6 dishes for the three of us to split. They even opened a bottle of Donhoff that Toby brought and we drank it while standing at this little counter. By now it was five minutes to 9:00 and it was time to get Sergio into a taxi so he could have dinner at Masa. He hugged us goodbye and told us that the next time we come to Holland he will return the favor and take is to all of the special places he likes eating at himself. A few minutes later, two seats opened up at the counter and Toby and I were able to finish our meal in peace.
It was quite a day. First, Sergio found out that New York is not just a place in the movies and he couldn’t get over the amount of energy there was on the street. He also had never seen anything like Degustation and the two Momofukus, where they are offering high quality food using artisanal products at a very low cost. The concept of an inexpensive restaurant using many of the same artisanal ingredients as the top restaurants in town, with a check ranging from $20-$25 like Noodle Bar, or maybe $50-$60 at the others, was outside his level of comprehension based on the way the restaurant business works in Holland and Belgium. Which of course, is exactly why I brought him to those places. But I learned a few lessons as well. One was that people can eat a lot more than they think they can, with much of it being psychological. But I have to admit, a series of walks at a rapid pace between meals, along with a nice long nap, helps a lot. But more importantly, despite the binge eating, where at the end of the night I swore that I wasn't going to eat again until I arrived in London on the following Sunday night, I woke up the next morning and I said to myself, “Hmmm, I just might have some lunch today.”