I get to eat food fit for royalty on a regular basis. It’s just part of the gig. As a restaurant reviewer and culinary travel writer with Le Cordon Bleu training, I’ve been privy to some of the best cuisine on earth. Unabashed personal endorsements aside, my point is that if you hear me say something like, “that’s the best freakin’ meal I’ve had in recent memory,” you can’t take it lightly.
So listen up:
This sake-pairing Valentine’s Day couples dinner coming up at Hakubai, the Michelin-starred eatery at The Kitano, NYC’s only Japanese-owned hotel, is something you shouldn’t miss if you consider yourself and your significant other to be food connoisseurs.
Here’s the deal: you’ll get a five-course kaiseki dinner that’s as experiential as a meal can get. Each course paired with a different sake from Niigata, Japan’s Haakaisan Sake Brewery to add allure (and inebriation) to the mix.
Just what is kaiseki, you ask? Don’t worry, we’ll get to it (and it’s a really good thing, so you’ll be quite pleased).
On top of a meal that will forever mark your mouth as the night your tongue tasted paradise, you’ll also receive nifty take-home treats that you’ll want to break into right away: a small bottle of Haakaisen sake, some special sweets dubbed “Haakai Baum,” and admission for two to JAZZ at KITANO, along with two complimentary cocktails. All in all, a pretty nice haul.
The damage: $170 plus tax per couple, along with a 20% service charge -- not too shabby for a remarkable meal you won’t soon forget -- plus gifts -- on a romantic holiday that virtually guarantees you’ll be paying for dinner in some form.
Interested in learning more? Excellent.
So now let’s talk kaiseki; just what exactly is it?
Well, it’s more than just fantastic-tasting food. In fact, a true kaiseki meal will have all five senses heavily engaged the entire time. With small courses paced over an extended serving period, each is presented like edible artistic masterpiece.The purpose of kaiseki is to pay close attention to everything about what you’re eating. From the color of the food against the shade of the plates and bowls to the sounds of your chopsticks clacking against the table when they accidentally slip from your grasp while a-chew in ecstasy; the texture of the dinnerware as you brush your fingertips over roughness or smoothness of clouded glassware, turquoise porcelain, and ornate metal utensils to the temperature of each dish and the morsels within; this meal is all about the details, and the people in charge here consider everything.
Hakubai’s GM was adamant that we should pick up each of the many receptacles holding our food and then feel them in the palms of our hands. Rumor has it that The Kitano spent well into six-figures for Hakubai’s tableware. As weird as it sounds, inspecting it -- carefully, of course -- adds a relaxing intimacy to the experience, prolonging the sensuality of each course and allowing you to hone in on different sensations, whether visual, olfactory or otherwise, and relish the individual nuances of each component of every course.
Concentrating on the temperature, surface texture and color design that went into the designing (and curating) of each piece of dishware used during a dinner is a heady concept for most diners to handle, which is one reason why space is limited to just 34 seats, or 17 lucky couples, for this special occasion.
More than caressing every sense, though, kaiseki is concerned with expert technique, so expect your chef to showcase proficiency in as many methods of classical cooking as possible across the span of the meal. You should find boiled, braised, sauteed, fried, steamed, baked, poached, and even smoked and pickled elements to your dinner, including dishes like butter-grilled lobster with sea urchin, hot Inaniwa udon, fresh raw oyster with ponzu sauce, and Yuan-style black cod. And, of course, you’ll sample some of the best sashimi in NYC (make sure to wrap a piece of tuna in the decorative shiso leaf, which is anything but garnish in my world).
During this epic V-Day event, your hosts will wax poetic about kaiseki in their own impassioned way. They’ll also teach you a thing or two about how to match sake with food, which will be a blast for open-minded oenophiles since it opens up a whole new portal of pairing possibilities. All of these unique aspects will make this one memorable meal, set in Hakubai’s bright, clean and upscale minimalist interior, featuring light wood, sliding doors, floral arrangements, and servers dressed in traditional Japanese garb.
Make sure to book your reservations by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 212-885-7072 before February 12, as 34 seats are not enough to guarantee a space for you and your Valentine if you wait until the last minute. And, be on the lookout for more sake-pairing dinners coming up at Hakubai in March and running throughout April, featuring other prestigious sake breweries, including nearly 300-year-old Urakasumi who will be there to debut their top-shelf Junmai Daijingo in the U.S. this spring.