Great chefs don’t always make great restaurateurs. Though David Bouley remains one of the city’s top toques after 25 years as a Tribeca fixture, as a businessman he scores pretty low—with three shuttered restaurants around the block from each other and big plans to expand mostly shelved.
Nonetheless, Bouley’s only new project won’t even be serving his own cuisine. Instead the chef is assuming an impresario role, promoting and funding the work of Isao Yamada, a talented import from Japan. In July, Bouley began hosting twice-a-week previews of that Japanese venture—still at least six months from fruition, and tentatively named Brushstroke—in the spare, brightly lit venue formerly known as Upstairs at Bouley.
For most of the week, the space is in pretty bad shape—a last sad attempt to keep cash rolling in—with a bare-bones staff doling out a limited menu of sandwiches, burgers and salads. But on Thursdays and Fridays, the second-floor dining room becomes much more exciting, offering a taste of some of the most accomplished Japanese food in New York.
Yamada, who’s been working at Upstairs since 2008—biding his time making sushi while his long-promised restaurant stalled on the books—is finally cooking the food that brought him here. (The chef, a prodigy in the intricate multicourse Japanese feasts known as kaiseki, closed his own place in Fukuoka to make the move to New York City.)
His ever-changing seasonal menu, executed in a tight open kitchen, follows the ancient rhythms of a kaiseki meal, offering a harmonious procession of food and an astonishing bargain ($45 for four gorgeous courses or $85 for seven). While everything is also available la carte, the dishes are expressly designed to play off one another in a prix fixe—a parade of complementary temperatures, textures and tastes.
A meal might begin with a sweet cube of Japanese mountain potato, foamed like French mousseline so it has the same appearance and texture as poached flaky fish, then crowned with silken sea urchin. House-made tofu might follow, supple like custard, drenched in sweet dashi and speckled in fragrant black truffle sauce.
The ingredients—like succulent toro just kissed by the grill and slicked with light citrus and soy—mostly speak for themselves. As per kaiseki tradition, cooked fish appears after raw; fatty tuna gives way to gently seared rockfish fillets, stacked like tiles atop a potent puddle of wasabi sauce. There’s meat to follow—a few modest slices of crispy-skinned duck breast, perhaps—and then the rice course that’s the classic prelude to dessert. Delicious pressed sushi blocks—vinegared rice rectangles topped with bright salmon, kanpachi and eel—are offered, like origami gifts, in delicate (and inedible) leaf and husk wrappers.
The warm chocolate bread pudding that followed the sushi one evening seemed to come from out of left field, a heavy conclusion to what had otherwise been a delicate meal. Despite this stumble, Yamada and his team have achieved something great—a stealth bargain, and an under-the-radar glimpse of the next Bouley hit in the making.
Drink this: A small selection of beer, sake and wine is available. A light and crisp Franz Prager grner veltliner ($14) is a versatile match for the seafood courses, while a lush McKenzie-Mueller pinot noir ($16) offers a delicate foil for meat.
Eat this: The menu, which changes weekly, is best experienced as a multicourse kaiseki meal.
Sit here: Every table in the tiny corner dining room offers the same winning views of the chef working in his kitchen.
Conversation piece: Bouley’s in-the-works Japanese restaurant will be co-owned by Osaka cooking-school honcho Yoshiki Tsuji. It will open, according to the chef, in the former Danube space next spring.
See more Restaurant reviews