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.


Vegetable nigiri

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.

- chuck

  • http://QuintessentialCuisine.Blogspot.com/ QUINTESSENTIAL C U I S I N E©

    mmmmm… I can’t get any ZEN-LOVE from those busy dishes. They look like cheesy 10¢ Store stuff from the 1950s (find them distracting) but the food part is all there. Good pix again too.

    I’ve never seen or been served REAL “FRESH” WASABI or tasted it … what’s it like compared to the green powder?

    Wilbur

  • jon cooper

    Chuck -

    Jon Cooper here. We went to college at the same time, though not necessarily together. I enjoy your blog! Would love to get together next time you’re in NYC.

    - Jon

  • ChuckEats

    wilbur – Kitaoji Rosanjin was a famous ceramicist. i’m assuming the dishes are not real Rosanjins, but possibly copies? i didn’t know enough to inquire while i was there: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosanjin

    fresh wasabi is not as strong and has a pronounced nutty flavor. it also has the texture of a finer chunky peanut butter.

    jon – welcome to the blog. how are you? i’ll drop you a line the next time i’m up there (spring maybe.)

  • http://jenniferjeffrey.typepad.com Jennifer Jeffrey

    Mmm. The yuba custard looks fabulous, and beautifully presented as well. I’m a big fan of fresh wasabi.

  • Marge

    Hi Chuck,

    Love your blog and enjoy reading every post. As for the soup, I believe it might indeed have white miso incorporated to provide the creaminess? It is quite common to use miso to provide the creamy consistency in soup or sauce in Japanese cuisine.

    Just a thought.

    I look forward to reading your new NYC posts (I live in NYC).

  • ChuckEats

    thanks Marge – i’ve forgotten the intricacies of the soup but that makes sense.

  • http://shizuokagourmet.wordpress.com/ Robert-Gilles Martineau (ロベル。ジル)

    Dear Chuck!
    Greetings!
    If you come to Japan and make a point to visit Shizuoka (I shall be away March 9th~16th to New Caledonia, though), I promise you three things, and everyone is my witness:
    1) I will take you for a visit to Sake Brewery (as I don’t drive, so no worries about tasting!).
    2) I will take you for a visit of the original wasabi fields.
    3) I will invite you to my favourite “kaiseki” restaurant (that is unless you prefer sushi!).
    Cheers,
    Robert-Gilles

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/sifu_renka/ Renée

    Thanks for the report Chuck. I’ve been looking for some good kaiseki meals here in North America, but have been disappointed on too many occasions. I’ll keep Rosanjin in mind on my eventual gut busting trip to dine in NYC!! :) In the meantime, I won’t doubt that you’ll find the kaisekis glorious in Japan (I still count those as my favourite meals). There’s something about simple ingredients being the star player that’s such a revelation to the senses. The epiphany of how much I love food was during my first true kaiseki at Shirogane (in Ebisu – sadly it is of no longer). It probably also had to do with the fact that I dined during Nov (when chestnuts, sweet potatoes and hamachi are at their season – and incidently three of my favourite foods. Call me biased). I’ve had other kaiseki meals (in Japan and here in Canada), all aesthetically beautiful, but not quite the same. Looking forward to seeing where you dine when you’re in the land of the rising sun, maybe you’ll help me narrow down my search. ;)

  • ChuckEats

    Robert-Gilles – thank you for the invitation. as i get closer to my trip, and begin honing in on the places i want to visit, i will get in contact with you.

    Renee – if you’ve got a trip planned for NYC, definitely read the Kuruma Zushi, Sushi Yasuda, and (upcoming) Masa reviews.

  • Ryan

    Hey Chuck-

    I have heard of Rosanjin and heard fairly good things. Did you order a vegitarian course menu or is Rosanjin doing exclusively Shoji Riyori?

    I thought I heard meet in previous discussion of this restaurant.

  • ChuckEats

    Ryan, they do serve meat. Somehow, probably through some error on OpenTable’s part, I got the vegetarian menu. You have to specify which option you want at the time of placing your reservation.

  • http://shizuokagourmet.wordpress.com/ Robert-Gilles Martineau (ロベル)

    Chuck, send me an e-mail or put a message on one of my blogs and I will give you my mobile phone number and amil address!
    Cheers,
    Robert-Gilles

  • http://finefuriouslife.com Michele

    Thanks for directing me to this review. Great photos and helpful descriptions. It’s a pity, both for you and for my curiosity, that OpenTable botched your reservation–I would love to see what these people can do with fish. Seems rather pricey to me, though.

  • chuckeats

    Michele, the Country Epicure review has some pics of the fish
    http://countryepicure.wordpress.com/2007/03/11/rosanjin/

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