I took one look at the menu, and immediately thought, Okay, that’s it, I’m out of here. Instantly forgotten was how overwhelmed I’d been by this massive, stunning red-white-and-gold design, filled with mirrors and illusion, built around a 600-pound temple bell. Dismissed was the incredible civility with which we had been greeted and escorted to a table. Overlooked was the invigorating balance of calm and drama infusing this subterranean dining room like incense. All I could see before me was Megu’s daunting, nearly incomprehensible, thirteen-page menu. Trumpeting more than 100 dishes characterized with such florid descriptions as “exquisitely composed masterpieces of rare extravagance,” plus a 63-item glossary and a map pinpointing locations for the best ingredients in Japan (next time you’re in Rishiri, be sure to stock up on kelp), this tome exemplifies exactly what I loathe most when dining. Taking a crash course in culture and geography before getting fed makes me cranky. I don’t want to work this hard. I already have a job.
Happily, having spent three months prior to the restaurant’s opening studying the intricacies of each dish, Megu’s servers are some of the most graciously knowledgeable folks ever to guide you through a menu. So, you don’t have to work, as long as you’re willing to relinquish control. Hard as that is, follow their lead and you’ll soon discover those ornate menu descriptions aren’t idle boasts. Megu offers so much distinctively magnificent food, often presented with such staggering beauty, that, though your initial disorientation never fully subsides, you wind up too exhilarated to care.
To complicate matters further, appetizers and entrées don’t exist. The menu is divided into eleven unilluminating categories (Crown Jewels, Gems From Japan), and though everything is presented for sharing, portion sizes vary wildly. But you quickly discover that size doesn’t matter. Each memorable cube of Kobe beef, whether topped by wasabi-soy, Gempei miso, Rikyu sesame, or garlic chips, is a small wonder. Ditto for six firm but rich sake-steamed slices of grilled abalone in a soothing ganseki sauce. Fast eater? The beef is $60 for four skewers; the abalone is $100. That should be incentive enough to take your time.
Expensive or not, just about everything is worth lingering over. Each piece of sushi, whether a velvet-smooth horse mackerel, a sweetly bracing uni, or bluefin tuna, sparkles. Caesar salad, seemingly a throwaway on this menu, is dressed with a refreshing splash of yuzu. Small skewers of ground chicken in garlic miso or fresh wasabi are presented like jeweled bracelets, and deserve the setting. Sautéed shrimp generate a soothing heat in a chili-garlic cream. Panko-crusted pork tonkatsu makes a terrific snack food. And the inviting smokiness in snapper broth comes from the essence of black truffles.
“Megu debuted not long after Masa, and is close to that restaurant’s culinary equal.”
Certain dishes are simply conversation-stopping. Fried rice tossed with oysters and kimchi prompts a giddy dive for the sake. A glorious chunk of tuna-neck toro crowned with caviar melts on the tongue far too soon. The bones of panko-crusted needlefish, speared whole as if swimming into the bowl, literally dissolve during frying, turning their miso-scented meat pâté-smooth. (My guests found them creepy; I couldn’t have been more delighted.) And onyxlike bits of sesame, mixed with grated ginger in soy butter, transform Kobe beef into a steak dish you will recall to your grandkids (along with the $180 price tag).
Desserts further proclaim the kitchen’s daring. Luscious cream in puff pastry startles with the addition of salt-laced vanilla ice cream. Yuzu chocolate becomes the gourmet’s equivalent of charmeuse. First you marvel at a green-tea crêpe’s myriad layers, then at its rapid disappearance.
Megu’s creator, Koji Imai, debuted his establishment quietly, not long after Masa’s much-hyped opening, and while he comes close to crafting that restaurant’s culinary equal, such excellence wasn’t his only goal. Imai wants Megu to be a hot spot, too. From the ice-sculpted Buddha (carved daily) to the house cocktails that will have you swearing you just heard that enormous temple bell chime, Imai aims for Megu to be both gastronomic palace and panoramic theater. The result is a restaurant unlike any you will find in New York. Eventually, the menu even starts making sense. Provided you have a yen for rare extravagance.
Megu, 62 Thomas Street (212-964-7777). Dinner, Monday through Wednesday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday till 12:30 a.m. All major credit cards.