Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Dinner | Bohemian

A couple months ago, Lisa and I were trying to figure out where we'd have our annual birthday dinner (just the two of us, as always) this year, throwing around possibly attempting to get a pair of coveted seats at the Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare or venturing to the Dining Room of The Modern adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art. After several futile attempts to call the Chef's Table on a few Monday mornings and our desire for something original and unexperienced by either one of us, I remembered something about a "secret" Japanese restaurant in the city somewhere that we could consider. I have my former co-worker, Christine, to thank for telling me about that very restaurant -- Bohemian, a speakeasy-esque (i.e., members only or by "invite") restaurant/sushi bar over in NoHo. She mentioned it in passing that a friend of hers had been trying to figure out how to get a reservation, as the restaurant has a "secret" telephone number which you'd have to get by word of mouth. Somehow, Christine's friend discovered the number to score a reservation and subsequently had a great dining experience there. With that, I knew I had my in!

After generously getting the number from Christine, I called a month before the intended reservation date (per Bohemian's policy) for a later dinner reservation and was greeted with a very friendly hostess. Once the reservation was finalized, the hostess wasn't ready to let me go just yet. She subtly asked how I heard about them (aka, how did I get the number), so I just said the name of Christine's friend. The hostess happily thanked me and ended the call. Quite the elusive dining establishment, for sure. I also later found out via the restaurant's website that you can try e-mailing them at ny-info@playearth.jp with a brief introduction of yourself. This may result in your favor with the restaurant inviting you over, bypassing the need for the " secret" number or becoming a member.

Bohemian is the sister of a bar found in the district of Nishiazabu in Tokyo. Housed in a former space that belonged to Andy Warhol (thus from where the restaurant's name is derived as the artist frequently spent his time among such eclectic folk), {
1} the entrance to the restaurant is located behind warehouse door, followed by {2} a long corridor, adjacent to a Japanese butcher shop, Japan Premium Beef, Inc., leading to a glass door that can only be opened by pressing the chime and confirming you have a reservation.

Once we were confirmed to enter, we were lead into a space resembling a generously sized studio apartment. With four tables at the center, two banquettes off to the side, and six seats at the bar, Bohemian was pretty roomy considering the intimate size of the space. It was cozy enough to feel warmed and welcome, but it was spaced enough to be able to carry on personal conversations without the interruptions from the other tables.

In the rear of the restaurant was a peaceful little garden -- very much of Japanese bonzai influence.

{1} We had these bold colored "scarfy" napkins, which {2} Lisa is showing off here -- an outlined cartoon dragon.

The cocktail menu had a trove of concoctions from which to choose. To start off, our dinner began with {1} glass of cava (Spanish sparkling wine) for me and {2} a lavender-vanilla infused cocktail for Lisa, as recommended by our waitress. During a future visit back to Bohemian, I would love to explore the rest of the list!

Initially, Lisa and I were going to do the tasting menu which consists of six courses (five savory, one sweet), but since the menu would require participation of the entire table, we surmised that it would be best to just select the top 6-7 seven dishes (menu items are mostly small plates that are meant to be shared anyhow) that stood out to us, where the said dishes made us drool simply from their descriptions -- I mean, c'mon, Bohemian basically had us at uni.

The first course was the washu-beef short rib sashimi with citrus, pickled cauliflower, wasabi, and soy sauce. The beef sashimi had a very similar texture as toro (i.e., fatty tuna), where its richness gradually melts in your mouth, resulting in one of the most savory things you'll ever experience on your palate. This unique texture in the slices of beef is a direct result from wagyu cattle's predisposition to intense marbling. These marbling characteristics yield an increased eating quality through a naturally enhanced flavor, tenderness, and juiciness. I haven't had much beef tartare/carpaccio in the past, but this particular dish reminded me of something Lisa and I had at Takashi last year -- the niku-uni had chuck flap served on leaves of seaweed and shiso topped with raw sea urchin. What does that mean, you ask? That this is undoubtedly a definite must-order, too.

Following the washu-beef sashimi was an uni croquette (one for me and another for Lisa) -- a mushroom cream croquette with fresh sea urchin and grated sea salt atop. The croquette had similar characteristics to those fried taro balls found on a dim sum smorgasbord, only with true Japanese flavors. Its interior had a piping hot, rich cream filled with the strong aroma of mushrooms, contrasting against its crunchy and thinly breaded shell. Oh, and the uni to finish? Mmm -- the ultimate finale to this delectable morsel of intense umami, collapsing in waves of delicious flavor with every last bite. Can't pass this one up either -- order, order, order!

This next course was no surprise, mainly because I was dining with Lisa, after all -- an ice bucket of fresh oysters. Just like the two previous courses, this dish also reminded me of something I fell in love with last year upon first slurp -- the happy hour oysters at Hog Island Oyster Bar in San Francisco. It was the first time I had a raw oyster without gagging or experiencing diner's regret. There wasn't any unwelcome sliminess or briny fishiness to overcome -- just refreshing and zesty when drenched in the accompanying hogwash. It was the winning combination of fresh raw oysters and a well-blended hogwash that reeled me in. Since then, I've been on the search for equitable oysters here on the East Coast.

We ordered half dozen of fresh oysters (Montauk Pearls, to be precise) with apple vinegar and fresh key lime. Ever since returning from San Francisco last year, I've been pushing myself to explore the raw bar offerings of certain restaurants I visit. Nothing really has struck my palate at all -- either too fishy, not meaty enough, or just icky texture. The East Coast oysters that I kept sampling were just not up to par with the ones from Hog Island. So my skepticism wasn't unwarranted, but we were out for our birthday, so why not be adventurous and just take another leap of faith? Just as I was about to hold my nose and take one fast gulp before the supposed gagging would commence, the flesh of the Montauk pearl tickled my tongue as it slid down ever so smoothly from a meaty bite. I was happily surprised and content to be won over by these seemingly iridescent bivalves. Plus, the apple vinegar and fresh key lime mixture was a lovely hogwash-like condiment for the oysters -- I would even go as far to dub it to be a Japanese hogwash. A little more biting and zestier than the one at Hog Island, this little wash has a splash of ginger and some other Japanese flavors that give it some character. You would be a fool to pass these up, too -- at least give them a chance like I did. They might even change your mind about these little suckers :P!

After the oysters, we were served the miso black cod with sea urchin gratin and miniature plums. Silky flakes and the charred surface of each piece glided like smoky butter, but the taste and flavor of the fish were mediocre for us. I didn't think there was enough miso, and the temperature of the fish, even for me, was on the undercooked side. However, the sea urchin grain was a saving grace -- a fondue-like twist on the rich and savory roe. Upon initial scoop, the contents were blazing hot, but once it was safe to sneak a taste, it was another explosion of luscious flavor, creamier with the added layer of nearly liquified cheese. For Lisa and me, this course, overall, seemed quite disconnected -- they seemed to be able to stand alone, without needing the other to enhance its flavors and taste. The sea urchin gratin was cheesier than I would have preferred, so I just had a less cheese with my uni. On the other hand, Lisa didn't seem to mind the gratin -- it bridged the unlikely gap between her inner uni fanatic and turophile (i.e., a cheese lover).

We also had Bohemian's washu-beef burger with fried potato, sautéed onion and semi-dried tomato -- each order comes with a set of two sliders. Considering these were "slider-sized" burgers, they were pretty heavy in taste. Made from the same wagyu beef as with the sashimi we had earlier, the marbling effects were certainly evident here, as a result of the burger's concentrated juiciness. The first few bites were great, but after a while, it got to be a little too much -- the meatball patty was deceptively hefty. Perhaps it was the progression of the meal that was starting to catch up to me (the previous courses were already laden with such a guilt-causing savoriness) that did not permit me to enjoy the burger as I had anticipated. It got to be overly gamy and increasingly difficult to eat. Lisa was a trooper -- she finished hers, while I threw in the towel, at only a few measly bites left. The toppings were nice, just not able to salvage the rest of the burger for me.

Relieved the burger wasn't the last course for the night, we were glad to be whisked back to culinary euphoria with the most anticipated dish on the menu -- the ikura caviar and uni rice bowl. This incredible combination of roe -- sea urchin and salmon -- carried on clouds of Japanese rice, against which the tiny explosions of the delicate pearls (with texture of tapioca) could dance alongside with the golden, tongue-like strips of butter. While moderation is always key, it was nice to spoil ourselves (our poor cholesterol!) just a little at Bohemian with a rice bowl covered with these full-bodied, resonating delicacies. No complaints whatsoever -- we were extremely content after finishing every last bite, even scraping the remaining tiny bits and grains of rice gone astray. Even days after our dinner, this meal continues to haunt my dreams -- I'm pretty sure I'm drooling in my sleep for this very reason.

Last of the savory was the foie gras soba. Browned evenly on both sides, the foie gras had that nicely seared exterior that had the subtlest of crunches after first biting into it. Fatty, succulent, and so delectable that I can barely phrase it into words, the foie gras was amazingly delicious -- not surprising, as it is pretty difficult to really botch pan-seared foie gras. What really seized our attention was the soba. It wasn't because the foie gras was forgettable or bland -- it was pretty much the contrary. The seemingly bland noodle was not at all that -- served chilled, the soba noodles had more depth than either one of us had experienced previously. And it wasn't due to an excessive amount of salt, either. The soup base was well-balanced with the essence of the typical dipping sauce with cleanly clear flavors that helped cut through the greasiness of the foie gras. The soba noodles themselves were cooked perfectly, to what would be the Japanese equivalent of the Italian al dente. For a chilled pasta in broth, it was quite filling and full of flavor -- definitely a highlight of dinner at Bohemian.

To end our exquisitely savory dinner was the riesling poached pear sorbet by Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams of Columbus, Ohio. Even as a sorbet, this sorbet was surprisingly rich with the flavor of pear and with "notes of riesling on the finish." I could taste the pears used to craft this beautifully churned confection -- grainy and refreshing in texture, almost like a pure pear purée. I was glad to have chosen a sorbet to conclude this otherwise awesome savory meal (and I mean that in the best way possible). The clean, chilling characteristics of sorbet cleansed our pleasantly saturated palates and helped us digest this filling meal of small plates -- like having a fresh piece of ripened fruit paired with a petite glass of dessert wine.

Findings: Our celebratory dinner at Bohemian was nothing short of fantastic and extraordinary. With the exception of our little ordering faux pas with the washu-beef burgers, we loved every single course was an automatic hit with us. The intimate ambiance were more than enough to allow us to catch up with each other while enjoying the impressive dishes served before us. I would've never imagined there existed this hidden restaurant behind a steel sliding door, that created the dreamiest thoughts as small plates. For us, since we didn't go the tasting course route, it was like a "create-your-own" kaiseki (i.e., traditional multi-course Japanese dinner) which highlighted all of our usual favorites in Japanese cuisine (e.g., uni, wagyu beef, ikura, and more uni!) and some fused influences from other cuisines (e.g., foie gras, sliders, gratin, raw oysters). It was nice to also have these small plates bring me back to old, tucked away food memories with a new and inspiring twist, Japanese style, proving Bohemian's menu to be based in the traditional yet still dances with its own originality. I left in a happy daze, wondering how I could have possibly digested all of that sea urchin roe, ikura, foie gras, and marbled washu-beef without having a minor, if not complete, coronary. I'll be laying off the savory for a while -- at least, just having such a dish or two, instead of all. But I have to admit, I'm already thinking about my next trip to Bohemian, haha. While the service was nothing to write home about, the actual eating experience redeemed it in one fell swoop. So if you're fortunate enough to get invited in (or if you're able to get your hands on the *ahem* "secret" telephone number), don't hesitate. Go!

Price point: $10-22 for each small plate, $7 for dessert.

--February 16, 2012

57 Great Jones Street
New York, NY 10012

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