Among all the great cooks who made New York their playground during the go-go nineties, David Bouley has a special place. Like Batali, Jean-Georges, and Daniel Boulud, he’s run seminal restaurants (notably the original Bouley, which opened in the late eighties). He’s pioneered culinary trends (nouvelle American cuisine, the sous vide bag) and helped train many great chefs (Dan Barber, Anita Lo, Eric Ripert).
Unlike his other superstar brethren, however, Bouley has rarely strayed far from his New York roots. His restaurants have generally opened in that little three-block corner of southwestern Tribeca known to my gourmet friends as Bouley Land. And like many residents of this lunatic city, he’s had his dramas—shuttering several of his operations, battling creditors, and shaking his fist wildly at the fates. Through it all, he’s persevered and survived. Among his generation of hypertalented New York superstar chefs, you could say Bouley’s the quintessential New Yorker.
His latest quixotic venture is the long-awaited high-end Japanese establishment Brushstroke, which opened about a month ago in an angular ground-floor space on Hudson Street, a location the chef’s fans will recognize as the former home of his doomed French brasserie, Secession. Before that, the narrow, high-ceilinged room housed the excellent multi-star Austrian restaurant Danube, a place famous for its delicately puffy Wiener schnitzel and its glittering Klimt-style murals. Now the room has been redone again, by Bouley and his Japanese partner (Yoshiki Tsuji, head of the Tsuji Culinary Institute, in Osaka) in the spare, woodsy style of a Shinto shrine. Instead of curtains, the windows are inlaid with thin layers of rice paper. The former anteroom at Danube has been turned into a slightly cramped bar area, while the main dining space has been fitted with planks of blond wood and a long wraparound dining counter, which give the space an airy, contemplative feel.
It wouldn’t be a Bouley project, however, if there weren’t some unexpected, vaguely annoying wrinkles to the proceedings. The head chef is a talented young cook named Isao Yamada, who has trained with a variety of esteemed masters in Kyoto and Osaka. Yamada is an accomplished sushi chef, but his real specialty is the abstrusely refined Japanese school of cooking called kaiseki, which originated in the imperial courts of Kyoto. There’s a full selection of sushi on the menu, but when I asked if I could have a sushi dinner in the dining room, the hosts at the door shook their heads with a collective polite sigh. Yamada’s multicourse “kaiseki-influenced” tasting menu (eight dishes for $85, or ten for $135) was the main thing available there, they said. If I wanted to order only sushi or any of the kaiseki-style dishes à la carte, I’d have to enjoy them crouched in the bar.
Not that this was such a disastrous thing. My tasters and I sampled an array of impeccably made maki rolls on my first visit (spicy tuna, crab, and eel-and-cucumber), and a wide futomaki roll stuffed with lobster and popping bits of salmon roe. If you have the resources for it, the milky, rose-colored o-toro tuna belly ($18 per piece, depending on availability) is as good as any you’ll find in the more established fat-cat sushi temples farther uptown. Ditto the pearly white slices of squid ($8 per piece) and the creamy sea urchin ($8.50), which is flown in daily from Santa Barbara. The little wheel of tuna tartare I ordered on my first visit was less successful (it’s drowned in a weirdly large quail-egg yolk), and so was the seared lobster tail, dressed with white-miso sauce and slivers of seaweed, which was cut into small, rubbery pieces and cost $15.
The same lobster preparation was included in my ten-course prix fixe feast in the dining room. Only this time, it came along with a variety of stylish kaiseki-style creations carefully arranged on shiny lacquered trays. The first thing out of the kitchen was a soft square of sea-urchin-topped mountain yam set in a pool of elegant, palate-cleansing gelée made with tomato water. After that came a smoky bowl of clam broth filled with crunchy tips of white asparagus and a plump egg dumpling stuffed with fresh scallops and crab. There were delicately articulated curls of “chef’s choice” sashimi (tuna, squid, and jack mackerel, among other things) and cool, faintly candied strips of duck breast smoked in sencha tea. The oysters at Brushstroke are flown in from Washington State and served in a large, mossy shell, and the melting squares of seared Wagyu beef come from Texas and are tipped, deliciously, with garlic and white miso.
I’m not sure how many of Bouley’s impatient fellow New Yorkers will be willing to sit still, in this era of instantly gratifying retro comfort foods, for this kind of stately, slightly archaic prix fixe meal. But if you ask your waiters in the main dining room politely, they will (for a small fee, of course) slip you a few off-the-menu Osaka-style sushi items in between the courses of your kaiseki dinner. You can also wash these intricate delicacies down with a series of artisanal “farm fresh” cocktails from the bar (try the Ginger, made with shochu, housemade ginger ale, and lime) and six esoteric varieties of green tea. Best of all, however, are the sakes, recommended by the restaurant’s expertly sake-versed sommelier. These include a white, unfiltered elixir known as Summer Snow from Hiroshima prefecture, which goes surprisingly well with the silky house panna cotta dessert, a soy-milk creation touched with a sweet sauce flavored with matcha tea.