the grub street diet

Maison Kitsuné’s Masaya Kuroki Pays Close Attention to the Menu

“You’ve got to focus.”

Photo: Christian Rodriguez
Photo: Christian Rodriguez

When Masaya Kuroki and former Daft Punk manager Gildas Loaëc founded Maison Kitsuné in 2002, it was a fashion and record label. They’ve since expanded their scope. In 2013, they opened the first Café Kitsuné, which was something of a natural extension for Kuroki. Born in Tokyo, he moved to Paris at age 12, then spent time in New York, where he learned more about Jewish cooking. “When I discovered matzo-ball soup, I was like, ‘Oh, what? This is so good,’” he says. Over the past five years, the pair have expanded Café Kitsuné to Tokyo and, now, New York. In town for the opening, Kuroki spent his days, between meetings, visiting favorites both old — Russ & Daughters, B&H Dairy — and new, including Bar Pisellino. Read all about it in this week’s Grub Street Diet.

Wednesday, November 6

After a 13-hour flight from Tokyo’s Haneda airport to JFK, I have to say the first cup of coffee had to be good. As my flight landed at 9 a.m. and my hotel check-in is usually after lunch, I headed straight to Gimme! Coffee on Mott Street to get the New York hard-knocking espresso. Two words to describe their coffee blend: sexy and tough, like real New Yorkers! (P.S. I used to be a coffee geek searching and chasing every day the best in town, but these days I’m more in the mood of loving simply a good taste of coffee.)

Back to the hotel. My jet lag started to kick in real hard, so for the first lunch of this journey, to keep me awake and focused, I went to my favorite place since my first visit to New York over 20 years ago, Russ & Daughters. Their café on Orchard Street has been my favorite haimish place since five years ago — I would sometimes go twice in a day. They’ve got great taste in interior design and all the best of Jewish appetizing. And they know my usual: sturgeon, eggs, and onions with toasted pumpernickel, a few slices of Gaspé nova smoked salmon on the side, half a portion of kasha varnishkes with poached egg, and a cup of black coffee, no milk, no sugar.

Early dinner. A good friend of mine took me on my last trip to the coolest restaurant downtown, Crown Shy. Surprisingly, it’s in the middle of the Wall Street area in an Art Deco–type office building. Had dinner with Preeti Sriratana, the architect of this high-end and stylish modern place. The moment we sat at the table, we got the Gruyère fritters — the chili-lime will blow up your mind, and the cauliflower-Parmigiano sherry will wake you up from your jet lag. The branzino with brussels sprouts and squash is my favorite dish, but this time I had a counterattack of lasagnette with smoked mozzarella and chestnut and it was just tremendous. When I tasted the food, damn, it’s fire, man.

Thursday, November 7
My best friend jet lag woke me up so early in the a.m. Nothing was open outside, so I went for room service. Just yogurt. I needed a little rest for my stomach.

Lunchtime at a real New York institution: 2nd Ave Deli, which is not located on Second Ave for X reasons. (Can’t tell the story to everybody, but those who know, know.) The hot pastrami sandwich tastes so ’90s for me. Dry white bread holding endless slices of juicy pastrami with a side of pickles the color of fresh green grass. The more bites you take out of this old-school sandwich, the more you get the joy of eating Jewish culinary traditions. And, of course, a spinach knish plus potato pancakes served with applesauce are must-haves.

How to not be knocked down by the terrible East Coast jet lag? Easy. You call your friend Nes, a.k.a. HeavenSake, and hit Coppelia on 14th Street for a late dinner. This place is packed all the time, and the Cubano, spicy Latino-vibes music is played loud. Vamos with tasty empanadas (sweet corn and cheese, chicken, and beef picadillo), flautas de pollo, and fish tacos to start on the dance floor. Then the party got serious with lomo saltado and white rice and beans, a couple cervezas, then the after-party with camarones enchiladas. I wish I could have Coppelia in Tokyo.

Friday, November 8
It was going to be a long, Italian giorno. Started my morning with the best fareti and espresso in town at Bar Pisellino. The atmosphere in this place is like an old-school Milanese café with classic double-breasted-gangsta-suited-up men with Borsalino hats at the counter talking about life all day long.

Lunch was at Gustaly, my latest discovery in the city. A small trattoria with high-quality authentic Italian food and homemade fresh pasta. As I am a very complicated person with tomato sauce and disappointed often by the American version of Italian food, I usually ask if the kitchen can do a very simple spaghetti al dente with pomodoro e basilico sauce. Well … here we were to satisfy my complication. Their spaghetti al pomodoro was a real taste from Bologna, and the ravioli ricotta e spinaci was just an in-and-out to heaven. Their menu is simple, not too much talking and just straight to the point.

After several meetings in the West Village, I stayed in the neighborhood for dinner a few blocks down from our new café on Grove Street. I hit Via Carota. Got my usual seat at the counter and ordered a Campari-soda to read the menu. Their menu is like a newspaper of Italian foods. You’ve got to focus and read from the top to the bottom to make sure you don’t miss any of their specials. I had tonno e fagioli for my antipasti, carciofi alla griglia for my verdure, and then I had their famous polpette, Sicilian meatballs with pine nuts and raisins, all this escorted by great Pelissero from Piemonte.

Saturday, November 9

My now-annoying enemy jet lag, woke me up again early in morning, so I took a cab and headed to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where Russ & Daughters built a commissary kitchen for their world-famous bagels, the best on the East Coast. Mazel tov to them.

I saw one of the owners, Josh, in the building, and he took me behind the scenes. We saw the prep room, the stylish kitchen factory where they produce all the bagels, and he showed me how they make their homemade baked goods.

Back at the counter, he sliced different types of salmon for a tasting: Scottish smoked, belly lox, Gaspé nova smoked, pastrami cured. Then I ordered a classic salmon bagel with scallion cream cheese on the side with a cup of black coffee, no milk, no sugar. Such a privilege to start the day learning about a 100-year-old family-run business.

On the way back to Manhattan, I quickly swung by Burrow in Dumbo to say hi at Ayako; we are going to work together on our sweets for the café. Their Japanese pastries taste so fancy. I really wanted their pastry art at the café.

The fourth lunch during my business trips to New York is always confusing. I am stuck between my terrible jet lag and many meetings. My brain and appetite started to slow down, so I went to Tartine, which is very close to our café. The menu is simple, French-bistro style. Real food. I had a house salad with frisée, baby arugula, watercress, grape tomatoes, parmesan cheese, and grainy mustard vinaigrette. Just a good combination of fresh seasonal vegetables to keep my mind clear and focused.

For dinner, I had very fancy Italian at one of my latest discoveries in town: Don Angie, where not only is the food excellent, but their playlist is really cool. From the Smiths to the Raconteurs, passing by Roy Ayers, Bobby Humphrey, and so on. The lighting is pretty dark and mellow for an Italian restaurant; it was a very sexy atmosphere. Anyway, let’s get to the real deal. We started with appetizers of vitello tonnato and stuffed garlic flatbread. For pasta, we had buffalo-milk caramelle and lasagne pinwheels. Then for our main, we got prime-rib braciole to share. Wow, absolutely hands down, ma che buono!

Sunday, November 9

This was my last day in New York. Outside, it was chilly cold with beautiful blinding sunshine. I took a 20-minute walk from my hotel to my “can’t get enough of it” Bar Pisellino morning set: two tiny brioche with Italian espresso, a perfect combo to kick off a Sunday. After that, it was a five-minute walk to join my team for the last check before the opening on Monday.

The cold air reminded me of my Jewish, born-and-raised New Yorker friend from Queens who took me to the unforgettable old-school diner B&H Dairy on Second Avenue. My stomach voice of joy came out from my mouth when I had first my bite of their blintzes. At that time, I had no idea what the magic dish was because we didn’t have a smartphone to Google it or check on Instagram and there was no picture on the menu. So it was a real surprise.

This place is nothing special with its interior design; it doesn’t have the nicest service in town or have an amazing history or so on. But for me, it’s the most soulful and comforting food in the city. For old times’ sake, I had their matzo-ball soup with home-baked warm brioche (do not forget to put butter on it!) and obviously their incredible blintzes with a cup of black coffee. Sounds like a light lunch, but trust me, after this your body and soul is warmed up. I was ready to go back to the concrete jungle to continue the hustle.

For my last supper of this trip, I hit up the most stylish theater in town, the Metrograph on Ludlow. Not only is the movie programming on point at this place, but they built a really cool restaurant-bar upstairs called Commissary, where the coolest crowd hangs for late bites and drinks.

For my last dinner, I had their fantastic cauliflower cake; steamed broccoli; tremendous french fries; very fancy arugula salad with pear, fennel, almonds, and ricotta; and the incredible chicken with peas, dates, lemon, and capers. All this with an excellent choice of natural red wine picked by a very charming server. I will say it’s a perfect modern version of a French bistro menu here.

After dinner and a few drinks, I still felt like I needed a snack or something. On the way back to the hotel, a few blocks away from the theater, I saw that Scarr’s Pizza was still open. Instead of jumping to a cab, I ended up at the counter of this small, very New York slice joint to bury my Japanese stomach with their tasty cheese slices for my final bite of this trip.

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