Thursday, January 15, 2009

ITO EN Kai Visit

I have a confession to make. Although I have lived in NYC for 2.5 years, drunk tea around the globe, written extensively on tea in NYC and tried many an ITO EN tea, I had never actually been to Kai (ITO EN's flagship store restaurant) before this week. You see, if tea is not a separate item on the menu, I often just skip the venue. Now I know that (unless you just hate amazing Japanese food) this is not a valid excuse. Fortunately, I do NOT hate amazing Japanese food; in fact, I love it. Although I generally have a strict vegetarian diet (no chicken broth, nothing with gelatin, etc.), I have made occasional exceptions for seafood over the last four years thanks to the irresistible nature of seafood in Japanese cuisine. Kai was one of those welcome exceptions. I'm sure you'll see why!

The orchid on each table and the very Wabi Sabi bamboo hot-towel holders visually kicked off the attention to detail that was present throughout the meal. The decor was lovely -- I was particularly enamored with a washi (Japanese handmade paper) hanging that could be seen in the restaurant and the store.

The Kai bento box (for me) and the sushi-tempura lunch (which my friend Evan adored). Before this arrived at the table, we were both served fantastic miso and I was served wonderfully creamy silken tofu with spring onions and ginger. Yum!

Here are some of the goodies from the bento box. The salmon was absolutely amazing. You can't see it in the second photo, but there are two cubes of steak behind the grilled fish. I gave those to Evan. There is also some tempura-fried pumpkin and lotus root hidden in the first photo. Yum!

Throughout the meal, we were served houjicha, which was a perfect pairing for some of the stronger flavors in the meal (wasabi, tempura-fried green pepper, grilled fish). I loved the leaf coasters for the teacups. The silverware pictured here was for the dessert. The forks remind me of some of the handcrafted silver from Penland School of Crafts.

The assorted sweets were a satisfying visual and culinary finish to a delightful meal. They were: yuzu cheesecake (great texture; loved the bits of yuzu zest in it), chocolate cake (rich and creamy with a bit of crunch from a whole walnut), fruit jelly (slightly-sweet agar with fresh fruit, fresh mint and bits of gold), matcha almond (I kid you not, these are legendary. I'm talking cult following here.), raspberry sauce accent.

I wish I knew enough Japanese to give ITO EN an articulate thank you for this meal, but for now I'll just say "Oishii!" (Delicious!)

PS -- ITO EN has a well-curated selection of loose-leaf teas available through their flagship store and online. Expect to pay top dollar and receive top quality. In the past I've bought their Qing Ming Dragonwell, Makaibari Muscatel, Ureshino Tama Ryokucha and Taiping Houkui, all of which were amazing, and this time I bought a magnificent Uji Sencha (a store exclusive that has the marine notes and richness of Uji Gyokuro with the softer, sweeter notes of sencha) and their Linden tisane (which I have yet to try, though in general I love Linden, and the fact that it's where my name comes from). I also bought their new Oolong Shot, which is served hot or cold. I tried it hot, and quite liked it for an RTD.

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