Japanese Modesty

Photo: Kenneth Chen.

In the preening, showy world of New York’s new Japanese restaurants, Hedeh, which opened several months ago on Great Jones Street, is a quirky, even quaint anomaly. There are no great Mothra-size lanterns at Hedeh, no Buddha ice sculptures, no renderings on the walls of gigantic yakuza body tattoos. What you get instead is an idiosyncratic trip down memory lane. The restaurant is modestly sized (it’s in the same arch-windowed building that once housed Jean-Michel Basquiat’s studio), like Japanese restaurants used to be. It’s a sushi restaurant, mostly, and also a bar, with rows of backlit sake and beer bottles lining the walls in the front of the room. The dining area is dominated by the sushi bar, and behind it stands the diminutive head chef, Hideyuki Nakajima (“Hedeh” is his nickname), dressed in natty whites and a jaunty baggy white cap. His assistants wear the baggy white caps, too, and the effect you get, as they boom out their Japanese greetings, is of entering a neighborly, slightly offbeat dining club in one of Tokyo’s more eccentric nightclub districts.

Most of the new Japanese establishments are designed around big, circuslike themes, but at Hedeh, the focus is on the food. With only six entrées listed (excluding sushi and sashimi), the menu is small by today’s standards, and lends itself, in the leisurely Japanese tradition, to a series of appraising bites, instead of the kind of two-fisted group dining that’s in vogue around town. If you have the cash, the place to begin your meal is with the sushi, which is as pure and professional as any you’ll find downtown. Nakajima gets his uni from Santa Barbara and his anago from Tokyo Bay, and his highest-quality toro is milky pink and almost worth its exaggerated ($7 per piece) uptown price. There’s also an inventive selection of signature sashimi (order the “chef’s choice,” and hope it includes the sweet baby shrimp stippled with uni and caviar), plus a wide array of traditional and futuristic maki rolls stuffed with yuzu-pepper hamachi, or foie gras (in the house special), or sweet, creamy scallops folded with flying-fish roe.

As with any good Japanese restaurant, the place to enjoy all this food is at the sushi bar, and the proper way to enjoy it is as part of the chef’s omakase tasting menu (eight courses for $70). Mine began with a little ball of taro stuffed with minced chicken, followed by a fleet of the chef’s signature sashimi, including a single Kumamoto oyster cloaked in a tiny potato croquette, with a dab of ginger-lime sauce on top. There were slices of softly braised duck, too, crispy rock shrimp drenched in a creamy, spicy Nobu-style sauce, and a strangely satisfying seafood mousse made of shrimp, eel, and crab buried in a dome of puréed cauliflower. These dishes are all pocket-size, and a few of them show up on the appetizer list, along with peculiar Japanese fusion dishes like smoked mozzarella and Brussels sprouts flavored with oba miso. There are big, plump scallops sitting in a shallot-and-vinegar mignonette, with a crunchy potato top, and if it’s seared foie gras you like, Hedeh seals his version ingeniously, in a candied, ice-thin brûlée crust.

When I dropped into Hedeh, most of the crowd was young and Japanese, including, one evening, an entire table full of gentlemen sporting leather bomber jackets with thick woolen cuffs. They didn’t seem fazed by the quality of the entrées, which range from grimly bearable (fatty lamb chops caked in wasabi paste) to good (filet mignon dipped in chive oil with tofu purée). The desserts are elegant by comparison, in a subdued, Japanese way. There’s a superior slice of cheesecake (served with butterscotch ice cream), a rich, chocolatey chocolate-soufflé cake (with very good blancmange ice cream), and little white cups of crème brûlée flavored with, among other things, green tea. Best of all, though, is the strange, fusion “mont blanc.” It’s made with vanilla ice cream, red beans, and chestnuts, all bound together in a chilled, faintly glutinous sweet-potato soup. The culture clash between gummy and sweet is lively and soothing at the same time. It manages to get your attention without really trying, which is as good a description as any of the restaurant itself.

The original Franco-Japanese “re-construction” concept is a pretty good one, although it would probably work better in a restaurant a third the size. You can get a decent “steak frites” maki roll at Komegashi (rib-eye steak on a rice roll, with green-pepper sauce), and a “bouillabaisse roll,” which tastes uncannily like the real thing. There’s also a nicely jellied slab of sukiyaki terrine, a delicate veal cutlet served with an omelette made with truffled eggs and rice, and a crisp duck leg, sunk in a bowl of soba. But my “miso cappuccino” was tepid, and the “tofu blanc manger” tasted like a chalky version of tofu Jell-O. The grilled skewers, which are various but not cheap, were fine on some occasions, but tough and greasy on others. Other aggressively fashionable Japanese establishments compensate for these kinds of inconsistencies with theatrical diversions. But there aren’t enough diversions at Komegashi. In the end, the narrow, occasionally inspired menu is left to carry the entire muddled enterprise. In the end, that’s not enough, and the whole production falls flat, like a second-rate Broadway show.

57 Great Jones Street; 212-473-8458.

Komegashi Re-Construction Cuisine
928 Broadway; 212-475-3000.

Address: 57 Great Jones St., nr. Lafayette St.; 212-473-8458

Hours: 5 to 11:45 P.M., Monday through Saturday.

Prices: Appetizers, $12 to $15; entrées, $23 to $27.

Ideal Meal: Chef’s omakase. Or, scallop maki roll, spicy rock shrimp, fillet of beef, and mont blanc.

Note: A good selection of the fashionable Japanese rotgut shochu is available, and if it’s sangria you like, there’s a nice sake version, spiked with vodka, Japanese-pear slices, and maraschino cherries.

Komegashi Re-Construction Cuisine
Address: 928 Broadway, nr. 22nd St.; 212-475-3000

Hours: 11:30A.M. to 11:30 P.M., daily.

Prices: Appetizers, $6 to $16; entrées, $20 to $24.

Ideal Meal: Sukiyaki terrine, veal cutlet, Japanese mont blanc.

Note: The lunch menu contains some inspired fusion dishes like the tonkatsu panini (breaded pork pressed between flat bread) and a curry croque monsieur made with Gruyère cheese and a faint layer of Japanese-style curried beef.

Japanese Modesty