A Kaiseki dinner at Nadaman Hakubai is one of the more unique dining experiences one can have in NYC. The first thing to be said is that it is very unlikely that you will in fact feel as if you are in NYC: Hakubai cultivates an atmosphere of intense serenity, and the quiet is arresting. Dinner is served either in private tatami rooms or in a general seating area by Kimono-clad waitresses. The clientele is almost entirely Japanese — we have yet to hear English spoken in the restaurant by another party. Some of the food will be exotic to a Western palette, even to one fairly accustomed to Japanese cuisine. And the elegant simplicity of the room, filled with Ikebana compositions and art work by contemporary artist Tatsuya Ishiodori, doesn’t look like anything else in Manhattan. Hakubai is authentic in a way that very few restaurants that are designated as such ever are.
Hakubai serves a variety of different items, including à la carte sushi, sashimi and rolls, shabu shabu, cooked dishes and a tempura menu. But the proper way to experience it is the omakase kaiseki tasting menu, which must be reserved in advance. The core of Kaiseki, an ancient art form that is the Japanese counterpart to Western haute cuisine, is balance – of flavors, textures, colors, aromas, temperatures. It originated in the Zen monasteries of ancient Kyoto, evolved to an accompaniment to the Japanese tea ceremonies served at ryokan and eventually to the elaborately choreographed multicourse tasting menus that were served to Kyoto’s emperors. Kaiseki meals typically involve 7-9 seasonal courses and follow a highly ritualized progression involving an appetizer, a lidded dish (typically, a clear soup), sashimi, a simmered dish, a grilled dish and a steamed course. They are always served on elaborate, beautiful servingware meant to complement the visual beauty of the intricately composed dishes. Hakubai has a veritable treasure trove of porcelain, pottery and lacquer dishware that is used to heighten the visual beauty of your meal.
Hakubai’s best dishes are often fried - a deep fried asparagus, fatty tuna fried in egg yolk, sizzling tempura. The sashimi and sushi is impeccably prepared and extremely fresh. Hakubai’s miso soup is perhaps the best in town; the fact that it is such a common dish actually makes it all the more impressive when it lingers in the memory. And a wonderfully light green tea crepe cake is the perfect coda to the evening. It is something of a blessing for regulars that the restaurant has so successfully flown under the radar all these years (Hakubai was last reviewed by the New York Times in 1996, when Ruth Reichl pronounced it as “New York City’s most expensive restaurant”), but it is also lamentable that more people haven’t yet had the opportunity to experience its many charms.
66 Park Ave.
New York (at 38th St.)
(212) 885-7111 Mon-Fri, 11:45am-2:30pm, 6pm-10pm
- Yukihiro Sato, Chef
- BYOB Corkage: $46; limited to not on wine list
- Private Dining Room Private Dining Room: 8 seated Kuretake (seated): 2-3 seated Private Dining Room: 10 seated Private Dining Room: 16 seated Fuji (Tatami): 4-5 seated Matsukaze (seated): 6-16 seated
- Tasting Menu Omakase Kaiseki: $170 Okonomi Kaiseki: $98 Lunch Kaiseki: $70 4 Course Kenbi Dinner Course: $60.25 4 Course Kenbi Lunch Course: $36.25 6 Course Weekend Special Dinner: $69