Rosanjin (NYC) – Undiscovered Gem?
Before this latest trip, I would have said that I was tired of eating high-end cuisine in New York City – expensive meals and lackluster results. But something nearly miraculous happened this past weekend: I ate four very good meals, the only clunker being the cheaper Momofuku (still a favorite of mine.) When was the last time you, dear reader, will have read four sequential good reviews? A kinder, gentler ChuckEats or a satisfied one?
Rosanjin was suggested nearly a year ago as a possibility for “off the map” dining possibilities. Interestingly, the reviews were, and still are, scarce. Country Epicure has been twice, impressed with both visits. The New York Journal gave it a very favorable review. The New York Times, New York Magazine, and New York Sun all reviewed it, but focused more on the kaiseki experience instead of the food. Otherwise, reviews are hard to come by.
My personal motivation for trying Rosanjin was to begin acquiring reference points for my eventual Japan trip. There are very few kaiseki restaurants in the United States. The only two kaiseki meals I’ve eaten are Sugiyama (NYC) and Kappa (SF). Urasawa (LA) and Masa (NYC) are inspired by kaiseki traditions but they are loose translations from what I’ve read. As such, I can’t comment on Rosanjin’s adherence to tradition and ritual. I can only comment on the food, its relation to those other kaiseki meals, and my desire to return.
My expectations for Rosanjin were confused at best. How could a stellar restaurant experience fall so far under the radar? Did the kaiseki experience scare away New York? Where Sugiyama and Kappa came off somewhat casual, would Rosanjin fulfill the ritualized and formalized aspects purported to be the spirit of kaiseki dining? The questions were many and, upon stepping inside Rosanjin, the two-party dining room triggered alarm bells – no one is eating here.
The ambiance is hushed and quiet, almost to the point of caricature. Very mellow, though somewhat staid to my ears, jazz played through the speakers. If nothing else, this would be the antithesis of my earlier Momofuku lunch experience. The tables were fairly spaced for a New York restaurant and, subscribing to the atmosphere, the other two parties spoke just as softly as the waiters. There wasn’t the subdued awkwardness you’d find at Alain Ducasse (Paris) at lunch; instead, every party had their own temporary autonomous zone.
The Japanese to English translation and my inexperience with this dining, combined with too many years of loud, raucous music (that last one is for Stephanie, my newest reader), left some holes in my notes. I’ve done my best to capture the ingredients and forms, but please post any corrections, or color, in the comments – it’s a learning experience as much as a review.
The meal began with a trio of tastes hidden in hollowed orange shells. A very silky tofu, with hints of sesame, stood out most. It was covered in a tomato gelee (more on this below) which imparted the faintest hint of acidity. The seaweed/mushrooms/pine nuts bowl, land and sea, had a delicate balance of flavor and texture. Texture would be an important, and repeating, element found throughout the meal, possibly bridging the courses.
Tofu w/ tomato gelee, Seaweed w/ mushrooms & pine nuts, Vegetable paste
A yuba custard with shiso buds and fresh wasabi followed. Again, the custard was of an extraordinarily silky texure, a wonderful mouth-feel. Its texture, a link to the previous course, ephemeral and fleeting. The shiso and wasabi gave one the tools to cut the custard. In particular, the fresh wasabi was of a very high quality – its nutty flavor not overbearing.
Yuba custard, shiso leaf, flowers, and fresh wasabi
An asparagus soup was served next; again, its texture somewhat silky. The asparagus flavor was subtle in what seemed like a cream-based soup. However, given what little I do know about Japanese cuisine, it seems unlikely it was cream-based. The pink mochi flower added texture to the soup, giving it some chewiness.
Asparagus soup, mochi flower
The next course, lightly roasted tomatoes with asparagus, was the lone question mark of the meal. It was an odd dish considering that kaiseki is purported to be an overly seasonally-based cuisine, sometimes to the day. Tomatoes are clearly not in season and they tasted as such. How did they find their way in the meal as a centerpiece of a dish? However, I’ve had a terribly unripe beet at L’Arpege (Paris) and a pineapple at L’Astrance (Paris) that Safeway would be embarassed to sell. I can let this one go. If the tomatoes were in season, the dish would have nicely referenced earlier themes (tomato, asparagus, tofu, mushrooms) and provide an interesting arc for the meal.
Tomatoes and asparagus, lightly roasted; mushrooms; tomato gelee; tofu
Interestingly, at this point, I realized that no fish or meat courses were served. Uh oh. I made the reservation through OpenTable and, appropriately enough, my request got lost in translation. At first, I was slightly upset, particularly after the tomatoes, but I wonder if I might enjoy the vegetable menu more? I’ve had sashimi and sushi but these dishes were new experiences for me. When I return, preferably in spring or summer, I will probably opt for the vegetarian option again.
Daikon, boiled to a perfect consistency, topped with a miso yuzu sauce completed the main dishes. The sauce was bright yet still restrained, providing a taste counterpoint to the daikon. The yuba gave the dish a varying textural component to offset the daikon. As with the previous dishes, it sounds simple but there was a meticulous attention to detail.
Daikon w/ miso and yuzu; yuba
The last savory course was vegetable nigiri – pickled ginger, asparagus, and avocado. Again, the limits of seasonality reared its head with this dish. The pickled ginger nigiri was particularly tasty; it was lightly pickled, with more of the fresh ginger taste showing through.
Dessert was simply two scoops of sorbet – yuzu and a forgotten flavor. The yuzu was very bright and refreshing. Despite it being 30 degrees outside, I’m glad they went with a sorbet option instead of fresh fruit.
Yuzu and something else sorbet
Overall impressions? This was a very good meal, one of the better ones I’ve had in NYC. It looks simple reading the review and pictures, but there was a zen-like quality to it. The food was carefully prepared; a lot of attention was spent on the presentation; and the dishes/ceramics were beautiful. It was exotic and I didn’t feel too many concessions were made for the American palette.
I will have to repeat on my next NYC trip. If it is anything but winter, I will try the vegetable tasting again. At $100, it’s a great deal (Fish option is $150.) If I were to place it in the context of what I know, I’d say it rests just below the Urasawa and Masa level for cooked dishes and just ahead of Sugiyama. It is a very solid and legitimate 1* place.