NYC Kaiseki: Soto (Dec. 2012)
Authors: Monty and Tad
Chef: Sotohiro Kosugi
Date: December 8, 2012
“Soto is like a kaiseki love-letter to uni. You must love sea urchin to eat here. Those who merely like sea urchin may find an overabundance of sweet, nutty richness. Those who don’t even like sea urchin should probably curse their parents for not giving them the correct genes or for an insufficiently worldly upbringing.”
“A Japanese business associate of my father once told me that the Kaiseki meal is very infrequently eaten by Japanese people. It is the equivalent of a high-end Western tasting menu, but with more ceremony, tradition, and attention to aesthetic elements. But I eat tasting menus all the time, so I am sure there are some people in Japan that eat Kaiseki meals pretty regularly.”
Monte: I love Japanese food. Soto only confirms how real our amour is.
-black and white tofu.
-with wasabi soy sauce and soy foam.
-with unfiltered sake.
Tad: “How to describe this tofu? Like silk and velvet, draped with accents of gossamer. If I were to stretch my poor simile to its breaking point, I would compare the wasabi to pearls, little highlights of flavor that accent an already flawlessly smooth texture. Look, I don’t make clothes. I eat good food. And this is about as good as it gets without creating a pie of foie and truffle.”
Monte: This silky tofu is so much more complex than the simple “extra soft tofu” that comes out of the plastic carton. It really is velvety and yet rich at the same time. The soybean flavor has such a wonderful body and nutty flavor as to make me think I’m eating a black sesame pudding. Wunderbar.
-with chives, shiso leaf, ginger shoot, and scallions on top.
-served with ponzu sauce.
Tad: “Another delicate and perfectly balanced dish. Don’t let its appearance fool you: those that approach this dish as if it were sashimi will be smacked in the face with all the different aromatics and flavors at play here. Actually, on second thought, do approach this dish as if it were just sashimi. Being pleasantly surprised has its merits – this is why I sometimes eat at non-Michelin starred restaurants.”
-egg custard with shrimp, chicken, and shiitake mushrooms.
Tad: “Okay, I know I am going to come off sounding like a snob. But this dish was kind of uninspired. I don’t know if this was supposed to be something special, but it tasted just like a steamed egg custard in chicken broth. I don’t think the marginal utility of Soto’s preparation is worth the markup; money is not really an issue, but value is.”
Monte: Tad thinks he wasn’t a snob before his chawanmushi allegory :)
Scallop and Fluke
-wrapped with a yuzu leaf, fried, and served with agedashi tofu.
Tad: “Delightful delightful. The variety of texture in this dish reminds me of the last time I took the subway in New York. You don’t expect all these disparate elements to combine well, but with unifying flavor of the dish cramming them all together in a tight little space, a little bit of magic occurs. I should ride the subway again one of these days to see all the interesting people.”
Monte: This is unlike any tempura I’ve had before, and yet it was. It was perfectly fried and crispy, and yet soaked in a sauce! You’d think it’d be soggy but it’s not – thus making me think the flavors and texture is everything in a good tempura, but reminding me that it’s so much more special than just that.
Sea Trout Carpaccio
-with black truffle sea salt, chives, and caviar.
-served with watercress and sesame salad.
Tad: “A very unJapanese dish, but not necessarily worse because of it. The salad I didn’t care that much for, but the fish was excellent. One complaint I did have: why truffle salt? I could purchase something like that for $20 at any grocery store…I want slices of truffle next time. Caviar was fine.”
Monte: I enjoyed this dish, although a little less than the prior ones. I actually didn’t think the caviar added all that much since the truffle salt already added the salty flavor. The usual textural delight of the briny caviar bursting in my mouth was somehow lost among the trout. Still a solid dish, just not trascendent like the other ones.
Steamed Red Snapper “Carpaccio” (They called it carpaccio even though it wasn’t raw.)
-with ginger, scallions, and chives.
Tad: “Good flavor, fresh fish. Solid, serviceable, and very Japanese. A Lexus… but not a Ferrari.”
Monte: I love how the charred snapper was. But I also feel like a lot of sashimi pieces, when paired with scallions and ginger, and paired even perhaps with a ponzu or uni sauce, is going to have a very high chance of at least tasting good, if not amazing.
-with chives, ginger shoot, and green onions.
Tad: “Although the prior two dishes looked similar, they actually tasted quite different. This one definitely had more of a kick, and was more exciting. I credit the ginger root and the finish of the green onions and chives. Interesting to use chives as well as green onions here: the difference between fistulosum and schoenoprasum is subtle but definitely detectable for someone with a sensitive palate.”
Monte: Agree with Tad, even though the prior 2 dishes would seem similar, they are not. This one was much more pungent and had fresh spicy herbacious to it. It didn’t overpower the fish though, and I really enjoyed this dish.
-with seaweed, wasabi, and soy reduction.
Tad: “Uni. Uni uni uni in cocktail. This is like an uni sashimi dish where all the components are intensified oh so strongly. The finish is like a typical Japanese uni preparation. So, if you’ve eaten this dish, it’s like you’ve had double or triple the uni experience of people at other places.”
Monte: Holy cow that was a rich piece of uni. It was salty, sweet, creamy…the flavors were all just so exaggerated and punched the eater into submission with a satisfying “mmmm…..:)”
-with soy, ginger, yuzu, and caviar on top.
-seaweed salad underneath.
Tad: “When you cluster enough rich and luxurious ingredients, you know a dish will be good. To fairly assess these dishes, they must be measured against other experiences with the same caliber of ingredients. Viewed in this light, this dish was only okay. Another solid effort, but caviar and lobster can be harnessed to do so much more. It’s like my mother always says of cousin Geoffery Vanderbilt, my great uncle’s son: he IS a Vanderbilt, but clearly from a less illustrious branch of the family.”
Monte: The presentation of this dish actually made me laugh out loud, it was so gaudy! How could one not be surprised and just giggle with gleeful delight and the prospect of eating such a large amount of lobster sashimi and caviar? The taste was pretty good, although perhaps it didn’t meet up the hype built from the presentation. The lobster just wasn’t as sweet and juicy as I thought it’d be. Still really really good. But maybe my imagination ran too wild.
-with shrimp, caviar, seaweed, and bonito-tataki broth.
Tad: “My friend once told me to be inherently suspicious of tartares; when all the proteins are chopped up and mixed like this, it might be harder to tell the quality of the ingredients. With delicate seafood like this, however, the danger is not so present. This was such a light dish that the caviar was almost too much. Soto-san, I get it, I am paying you a lot of money so you are using top-shelf ingredients. But you don’t really need to, I am happy to pay to see your culinary virtuosity on even humble ingredients.”
Monte: I loved this dish. It was a different variation of the sweet salty creamy interplay previously experienced in the uni dish, but in a much more subtle way. The shrimp had a slight crunch to its otherwise sweet and creamy meat, and added a hint of additional sweetness to the sweet broth. I don’t mean sweet in a pure sugary way, but in that “sweet seaweed” kind of way – kind of like how miso soup can sometimes seem sweet.
Steamed Lobster with Uni Mousse
-garnished with uni powder, chives, caviar, black truffle sea salt, and lotus root.
Tad: “When I spoke of harnessing lobster and caviar earlier, this is the type of dish I meant. There was so much more going on in this dish, an interesting mix of crisp, crunchy, and creamy textures, the interplay of salty, savory, and sweet flavors, richness and pungent truffle in every bite. I wished this dish would never stop.”
Monte: The textures were definitely fun and interesting, but I thought the lotus root and cucumber were fresh clean flavors that didn’t have anything to cut. The lobster and uni wasn’t especially salty or rich, and so the dish felt rather plain to me. Perhaps, the subtleties of this dish escaped me.
-with avocado, seaweed, chives, and caviar.
-served with sesame ponzu sauce.
Tad: “A signature dish, and definitely deserving of praise. I only had one niggling critique. I’ve heard that the first California roll was invented when a chef found similarity between the richness of avocado and the same in toro. This dish, having been made with chutoro and avocado, reminded ever so slightly of California rolls. Luckily, the strong presence of the caviar rescued the dish before it was cheapened by the association.”
Monte: I didn’t think this reminded me of a california roll, but even if it did, then hooray! California rolls are good in their own right. But I digress – the creamy toro melted incredibly in one’s mouth and created this euphoric smile to just creep up on me. The seaweed and chives definitely added something new to the dish that distinguished it from other places that serve toro nigiri.
Atlantic Hokkigai (Surf Clam)
-thinly sliced with ginger.
-marinated with sweet miso mustard.
-served over lime.
Tad: “I enjoyed this dish, reminiscent of a Japanese ceviche. There was good balance, and of course, the freshness of the seafood was beyond reproach. A little too sweet to start, but balanced by the miso, lime acid, and ginger. I also appreciated the craftsmanship of the presentation; ever since becoming an art collector, I find that my aesthetic senses have become sharpened to a point where I actually am annoyed at bad plating.”
Monte: I think the lime and mustard definitely made this dish ceviche-like. The clam had a slight crunch to the bite but was still really sweet.
Uni Ika Sugomori Zukuri (“Bird’s Nest from the Sea”)
-uni wrapped in thinly sliced squid with shiso.
-served with quail egg and tosa soy reduction.
-meant to be mixed gently using chopsticks!
Tad: “Delicate, sweet, rich, savory, and briny. I think Soto-san should rename this dish ‘Tad from the Sea.’ I kid of course; I am neither savory nor briny. But this dish was excellent.”
Monte: This was my favorite of the night, and made me feel like all the flavors of the ocean were melting delightfully in my mouth. The quail egg and uni were sweet/creamy, while the seaweed and soy reduction created a salty contrast to the dish. Also, the seaweed was woven together in a way that you had to eat a whole biteful of the seaweed along with the rest of the dish, thereby also giving it a textural contrast. The seaweed wasn’t crunchy, but it was slightly crispy and yet soft at the same time. Fantastic.
Tad: “The sushi here was solid. Nothing outrageous, just fresh, well-cut fish on top of warm, excellently seasoned rice. The one thing worth commenting is that the sushi was necessary due to the small portions of the previous dishes. Next time, I should just order the omakase for three people and eat it myself.”
Monte: I liked the sushi: the rice was warm, slightly sweet but yet tangy. The fish was fresh and after the entire meal above (which I didn’t think were portioned badly), the amount was just right. Some of us are just fattys.
1. Ika (squid).
2. Isaki (grunt).
4. Shima aji (striped jack).
5. Ocean trout.
6. Amaebi (sweet shrimp).
7. Seared madai (snapper).
9. Hotate (scallop).
10. Aji (horse mackerel).
11. Uni (sea urchin).
12. Unagi (freshwater eel).
Mochi with ice cream. Served with green tea!
Left to right:
Tad: “It was sticky rice and ice cream. I’m no longer twelve so it takes more than ice cream to excite me.”
Monte: I’m pretty close to my inner child and this mochi ice cream was DEE-waitforit-LIGHTFUL! Delightful. I tried to make mochi in high school as part of my japanese class project and pounding the rice with giant mallets is hard work – so I really appreciate how smooth the texture of this mochi was, and without being overly sticky. It was a fantastic end to a fantastic meal.