Taking Their Lumps
From humble beginnings with a single Tokyo yakitori joint, Koji Imai has built a Japanese-restaurant empire. He makes his American debut this week with Megu, a striking space where columns are built of interlocking rice bowls and sake pitchers, walls are covered with antique kimono fabric, and an ersatz temple bell hangs from the ceiling. Rather than rely on a name-brand chef (Megu isn’t some unheralded maestro; it means “blessing”), Imai hired 25 cooks after Iron Chef–style auditions and divided them into four teams, one for each section of the menu. Though he spent months sourcing the best American ingredients and products, from Arkansas sushi rice to Fat Dog Stout from the Pennsylvania microbrewery to gingko nuts (pictured), he imports his bincho-tan charcoal from Japan. No wonder: It’s reputed to do everything from deodorize the air to absorb electromagnetic waves.
62 Thomas Street
Where’s the Boeuf?
Laurent Tourondel gave many a virtuoso performance at Cello with his French-inspired seafood before the curtain dropped two years ago. This week, he resurfaces at BLT Steak (short for Bistro Laurent Tourondel), his interpretation of an American steakhouse with a menu that shares Craft’s à la carte sensibility, not to mention a signature side or two. There are separate categories for mushrooms (including hen-of-the-woods) and potatoes (including gnocchi), and a choice of sauces to accompany your New York strip, Kobe flatiron, or porterhouse for two.
106 East 57th Street
City of Brotherly Love
Considering that Aaron Hoffman managed bars for Rande Gerber for the past three years, it’s no surprise he decided to open one of his own. But instead of hiring waitresses in catsuits to serve $12 cocktails, Hoffman and his brother Todd specialize in cheesesteaks and $3 draught beers at Wogie’s, their new Greenwich Village pub. (Wogie was their dad’s football nickname.) “We’re from Philly,” says Aaron, explaining the menu’s raison d’être, available in multiple versions including—yikes—vegetarian. Variety comes in the form of Buffalo wings and fries, but no burgers: “I’m not gonna compete with Corner Bistro.”
39 Greenwich Avenue
object of desire
Choucroute garnie served in true Alsatian fashion, from heaping platters by sturdy barmaids, can make a Carolina whole-hog barbecue seem effete. DB Bistro Moderne’s Monday-night-special version, however, pulls off the neat trick of appearing simultaneously rustic and refined. Alsatian-born chef Olivier Muller flavors his sauerkraut with Riesling and juniper, and uses acorn-fed suckling pigs from a Pennsylvania farm for his smoked and poached pork shoulder, mustard-crusted pork chop and leg, and crisp pork-belly confit, to which he adds smoked bacon, sausages, and a sumptuous pork liver–and–foie gras quenelle. In fine (and physiologically prudent) contemporary fashion, all the cuts are small enough to savor, while keeping the cholesterol count down to, say, that of two DB burgers.
55 West 44th Street
Aureole’s seven-course citrus menu ($89) may be the late-winter lift you need, and its swift kick of vitamin C certainly can’t hurt. Grapefruit, shiso, and shaved fennel add sweet bite to hamachi sashimi to start. A small rectangle of rare-ish char is lemon-crusted on endive with Meyer-lemon marmalade. Blood oranges are an odd note in lamb osso buco on fabulous lentil risotto. But for me, the house’s vegetarian citrus tasting outshines. Each course in both menus sports a similar garnish—grapefruit and fennel on goat-cheese fritters and with lemon-crusted tofu, the lemon marmalade adds fitting pizzazz. That lentil-studded risotto is actually more successful with roasted root vegetables and blood orange. Alas, warm white-chocolate-and-macadamia foam is a hideously soapy palate-clogger in a spot that calls for a really tart sorbet. A choice of Aureole’s desserts—golden-pineapple cannoli, perhaps—follows, plus, of course, the house chocolates. All in a serene grown-up setting a world apart from the madding across the street at Geisha. Gael Greene
34 East 61st Street
Will $500 buy piscatory nirvana?
It’s a moment of high drama as Masa Takayama, taut and precise as any star athlete, jiggles his cutting board and slashes away at the first omakase tasting of his Manhattan career. Two of us—alone at Masa’s 26-foot imported hinoki-wood sushi counter—inhale the scent of cedar with each sip of icy sake from wooden cups. And suddenly I am eating something I’ve never before tasted. Eel liver tossed with odd little greens. Masa the master surgeon slices, shreds, chops, seasons, as a duo of nurselike assistants fetch, simmer, toast, anticipate his needs. Tonight’s brilliant mackerel tickles his imagination. We taste it in a few guises, first slivered with fried shiso in mysterious dribblings. A small, shovel-like wooden spoon is for minced toro under a drift of Iranian Osetra. Hairy crab flown in that morning comes tossed with just-grated yuzu peel in a sublime salad. There is raw lobster and foie gras to simmer in one’s own hot pot. And then, as the eight other seats fill up, our march of sushi begins. Even everyday squid gets a couturier gilding, with yuzu zest, sea salt, and a slick of soy-sake sauce. A rice tuffet bearing embryonic shrimp raw from Tokyo Bay is thrillingly sweet. “Now I can die,” says my companion, Masa’s architect, Richard Bloch. I’m delirious, too, wondering if $500—$300 plus tax, tip, drinks—for this theater is merely indulgent or actually immoral.
Time Warner Center, 10 Columbus Circle, fourth floor