At the back of a warehouse in Greenpoint, past high-end Japanese home goods and displays of custom dashi, sectioned off behind an unmarked sliding teahouse door, lies a restaurant called House. The space consists of a wooden tasting counter, almost as long as the room itself, with eight widely spaced seats facing the open kitchen where chef Yuji Tani and an assistant prepare a nine-course, $180 tasting menu.
On a Saturday in early March, the dinner started with a “snack” of apple compote and foie gras mousse sandwiched between two crispy-chewy mochi wafers in the style of Japanese monaka. Next came lightly cooked Spanish mackerel with a swirl of bonito flakes and sesame seeds rolled into the flesh, served over daikon radish that had been coarsely grated on a piece of bamboo that gave it a distinctly irregular texture. That was followed by a dish of burrata with pomegranate, olive oil, and a cagelike strawberry tuile that after it had been gently smashed with a spoon, mixed into the creamy cheese and fruit.
That dish is a signature of chef Tani; he became known for it at the original House restaurant that he opened in Tokyo 15 years ago. It also made me wonder: Why did an established Japanese chef choose to open the second version of his French restaurant in Greenpoint of all places? That’s the question I asked him, via a translator, when we met up at the restaurant last week.
“The idea is to have a relaxing space in a busy neighborhood,” he said, explaining that the original House Nishiazabu is walking distance from Roppongi, one of the flashier parts of Tokyo, “but it kind of, all of a sudden it becomes a little, a little more quiet, a little more residential.” The nexus of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, he said, reminded him of that same feeling. As the name suggests, he wants diners to feel like they are in his home kitchen “and try to forget the business of their things.”
Touches like an antique cabinet at the entrance (which chef Tani brought from Japan), and heavy earthenware plates, do evoke a cozy, informal atmosphere, but many of the actual dishes on the menu reminded me of classic French cuisine that was more geared to the palates of Michelin’s inspectors. A dish of leeks — cooked until tender and topped with rare, barely warm wagyu beef and a sprinkle of toasted breadcrumbs — was surprisingly gentle, while red snapper was served on a bull’s-eye of dill aioli and surrounded with a moat of broth.
The next course, venison wrapped in a blanket of cabbage, felt like a course that might appear at a resort in the Alps, not a new restaurant in Greenpoint. The meat was rare all the way through and more tender than filet mignon, contained within a leaf of steamed savoy, set on koji-cashew cream sauce with a sprinkling of pistachios on top.
The final savory course is another of Tani’s specialties from House in Tokyo: foie gras pilaf, made with Japanese rice and pickles. It’s also the one communal dish on the menu, which he presents in a pot garnished with two thick slices of seared liver surrounded by a ring of red pickles and finely sliced scallions. To serve it, he vigorously stirs the entire pot until the foie gras has completely disappeared into the rice, such that each grain is glazed with a layer of fat.
It turns out Tani doesn’t particularly enjoy foie gras. Seven years ago, he tried to take it off his Tokyo menu, but his staff balked, knowing that people largely go to French restaurants expecting some foie gras. So he tried to find a foie gras dish he would enjoy, which meant glazing the foie gras in teriyaki to enhance the umami, while adding some crunch with the pickles.
When composing a dish, Tani wants it “to feel French at the end,” which is a good way of summarizing the overall House experience. This is not the kind of French cooking that’s available within the city’s endlessly proliferating brasseries. Tani’s food is remarkably personal, and in my opinion that makes it worth seeking out. House is also proof, to some degree, that a restaurant can honor the traditions of fine dining while simultaneously presenting a case for its continued future.
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