Several years ago, the refined Japanese restaurant that sat on the lower floor of The Prince Kitano New York hotel on 66 Park Avenue, closed. Until recent months, the space lay quiet. Last night, however, it re-opened as hakubai – another equally refined Japanese restaurant.
Following the principles of kaiseki – a traditional Japanese style of serving food which, like the better-known omakase, typically follows a tasting menu format, with a series of small, seasonally driven dishes delivered in quick succession.
hakubai is but the latest in the on-going wave of high-end Japanese restaurants that has taken deep-pocketed New Yorkers by storm – this trend is yet to show signs of halting.
To ensure an authentic representation of Japanese cuisine, hakubai’s kitchen is wholly led by a team of Japanese chefs, each of whom has been carefully selected – by Seibu Prince Hotels Worldwide, the renowned Japanese operating group – for their individual skills.
At the helm is executive chef Jun Hiramatsu who has worked with head chef Keisuke Otsuka, head pastry Tadashi Netsu, and chocolatier and pastry chef Mariko Hosokawa to collaboratively create a menu that feels approachably modern while still honoring traditional principles.
As is the tradition of kaseiki, hakubai serves a tasting menu only (although there is whisper of a deviation from this – a la carte is apparently on the cards), with 11 courses highlighting time-honored techniques including decorative vegetable cutting and kama rice pot cooking.
Each dish is fully guided by seasonal availability and designed to capture the philosophy of “shun,” whereby every ingredient is used at the peak of its flavor.
The experience begins with the sakizuke – similar to what the French would call an amuse-bouche – course, featuring a Hokkaido snow crab miso, with finger lime pearls and alyssum flowers, all held within a crimson-colored cut glass.
While meat and fish are prominent (grilled a5 Wagyu makes an appearance, as does a sashimi course) vegetables take a center stage too. The fifth course (also known as the steamed course), for example, revolves around winter vegetables. A tender turnip is transformed into edible art, with a delicate carving revealing the shape of Japan’s national flower, the Chrysanthemum.
Later, the signature oshokuji course is built around rice and lead with rich miso soup before leading onto Tsuyahime rice, served three ways, with each variation celebrating its subtle flavors and versatility.
While the food itself is naturally the priority first and foremost, Hiramatsu and his team have also gone to lengths to ensure that the famous craftsmanship of Japan is honored too, via a series of elegant traditionally made ceramics and glassware.
While many of New York’s favorite high-end Japanese restaurants cater for just a handful of guests each night, hakubai is working on a much bigger scale with 71 seats (including two kitchen-front dining counters), two private dining rooms and a cocktail bar dotted around the moodily-lit basement restaurant.
The space itself was designed by Modellus Novus, who called on Modernist principles to bring the intentionally understated dining room to life. Much of the furnishings reference 1940s through 60s styles, while the ceiling is emboldened with a metal grille and walls are subtle paneled with mirrors and bronze.
From $195 person. Hakubai, 66 Park Ave, New York, NY 10016, hakubainyc.com