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Restaurants: Raw Talent

For one night, Restaurant Daniel imports fish -- and chef -- from Japan.

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It was a first in the history of restaurant Daniel: Nothing -- or almost nothing -- was cooked, and nobody drank wine. Daniel Boulud, who likes to throw the occasional late-night chefs' gathering, had assembled some of the most illustrious food names in town -- including Charlie Palmer of Aureole, Alfred Portale of Gotham Bar & Grill, former and current Lespinasse chefs Gray Kunz and Christian Delouvrier, Andrew Carmellini of Cafe Boulud, and Jean-Louis Dummonet of Palladin -- to a private dinner. Katsuhisa Hasegawa, a longtime Daniel diner, flew in sushi master Tadao Saito from his ten-seat restaurant on the island of Shikoku in the Inland Sea of Japan. Saito had shopped in the seafood market in Tokyo that morning and hopped a plane to New York with a bag full of iced fish.

The meal began at 10:30 p.m. with the toro, or belly meat -- pale and rippling with fat -- of a prized Japanese black tuna from the waters around Hokkaido. "These are difficult to catch," Hasegawa advised. "They are rare, like blue diamonds, and fetch the top price in the market." It was topped with julienned mountain potato dressed with soy sauce and a rare rice vinegar unavailable in the States. "Super-slimy and delicious," pronounced Carmellini.

Thus began a parade of courses served over the next four hours, punctuated with tall glasses of cold beer and shots of cool sake. Like out-of-towners oohing and aahing over bananas flambé, the New York chefs were fascinated with the wasabi that Saito ground by rubbing it against a piece of abrasive sharkskin. Portale mulled over the provenance of the Beluga and sea-urchin rolls. "I'm sure Beluga isn't Japanese," he said after a mouthful, "but in context, it's pretty convincing." The Fusion Award, however, was won by the foie gras sushi topped with daikon and chilies. Next up was the eel course, which turned the grand private dining room into a neighborhood sushi bar with the addition of a toaster oven plugged into a jury-rigged extension cord so the chef could broil his slices of baby eel.

It was nearly 2:30 a.m. when a smoky broth with bonito flakes and water-lily buds roused nodding heads. ("Sake goes down easy," Carmellini would report the next day. "Boy, am I hung over!") "I have an 8 a.m.," remembered Portale. "Kids' first day of school tomorrow," seconded Palmer. It was time for dessert -- a serving of a single large Concord-like grape, the kyoho. "Religious experience" was the phrase that echoed down the table. Someone began to applaud. The others joined in. Everyone rose, and the claps swelled and then swelled some more. Saito let it wash over him, finally allowing a smile to cross his face. "Thirteen thousand miles is a long way to go in one day for ingredients," said Boulud, "but they were the right ones."


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