In the middle of bustling downtown New York, there is, of all things, a 6½ Avenue. And on this 6½ Avenue, nestled between West 53rd and West 54th Streets, is a tiny enclave so small and quiet that for a few hours within its wood-lined walls, New York disappears completely. Seating only 20, Kaiseki Room by Yamada is a respite from the roar of the subway and the honking of taxis, a moment of zen delivered via Japanese cuisine in its highest, most meticulously crafted form.
For the uninitiated, kaiseki is an elegant, centuries-old tradition in the Japanese culinary world, a formal, multi-course menu considered the pinnacle of Japanese dining experiences. Originally, it was a minimalist tasting menu to accompany tea ceremonies performed by Buddhist monks, but over time it evolved into meals for samurai, the luxury clientele of the red light district. of Tokyo and visitors to teahouses, among others. Heihachi Jaya, which opened in Kyoto in 1576 and is still operating, is currently one of the oldest places in the world to experience kaiseki. Still central to kaiseki, however, is to avoid: the use of ingredients at their first seasonal freshness. The food is considered at this stage to be both the tastiest and the most visually appealing.
Kaiseki Room chef Isao Yamada began his love affair with kaiseki at age 19, when he read legendary Japanese restaurateur Teiichi Yuki. The floral spirit of Kitcho cuisine, Kitcho itself a famous kaiseki restaurant. Yamada was so in love that he dropped out of college and went to cooking school at Tsuji Cooking Academy in Osaka. After a year, he earned a spot at Kitcho in Kyoto and has been creating kaiseki experiences ever since, both at the Ryotei Hanzuiryo Hotel in Nagasaki and at his own restaurant, Kaiseki Hanaei, in Fukuoka.
When celebrity chef David Bouley invited Yamada to join his restaurant Bouley Upstairs in 2006, Yamada moved to New York. He then became executive chef of Bouley’s Brushstroke, which incorporated the Japanese kaiseki format with a menu of French influences and French techniques. While Brushstroke closed in 2018, Yamada has since been able to expand Yamada’s Kaiseki Room, where he wants to return to more Japanese influences.
“The Brushstroke restaurant, where I worked as executive chef, had a lot of French influences on the menu because it was a collaboration with chef David Bouley,” Yamada said via email. “At Kaiseki Room here, I aim for Japanese cuisine that is purer than Brushstroke but incorporating a technique from French cuisine. And I would like to bring innovation to Japanese cuisine. His goal, he says, is to build a style that is both “Kaiseki from New York” and “Kaiseki from Yamada”.
In accordance with the principle to avoid, this includes the use of fine and classic seasonal ingredients, but also luxurious and rare items in an 11-course tasting menu at $300 per person. Amur caviar and wagyu with olives – among the rarest steaks in the world, produced only in Kagawa prefecture in Japan by a small number of farmers, with only a few thousand cattle in existence – are among them, as are French black truffle, duck, foie gras dashi, Maine lobster, Kue (a long-toothed grouper that is one of Japan’s most expensive fish) and more. Many ingredients are imported directly from Japan.
“I select the most delicious Japanese ingredients of the season and invent combinations with local mushrooms, ducks and truffles from Europe,” explains Yamada. “I always think of the best way to bring out their delight and surprise my customers with joys. Our menu changes monthly, so I keep thinking of new menus every day.
And while the kaiseki experience is traditionally formal, Yamada hopes visitors will have fun above all else. “Of course, the Zen spirit and culture within Kaiseki cuisine is important, but I would like my customers to enjoy the deliciousness of our food first. My goal here is to share the most delicious moment with my customers. in the same space,” he says. That is to say, there is no need to worry, and you don’t have to be a Japanese food expert to appreciate it either.” You don’t need to study the spirits of Zen or Japanese culture!” he laughs. “Please savor the flavor of our food. The most essential spirit of Kaiseki cuisine is to share the delightful moment in the same space with others.
The space itself was deliberately envisioned as a cocoon by creative director Emil Stefkov of restaurant collective The Group, who partnered with Yamada for Kaiseki Room. The restaurant is wrapped in a curved, lightly colored wood design created by French designer and cabinetmaker Pierre Renart, its interiors are the brainchild of designer Julien Legeard. Twelve counter seats face the chef’s preparations for the evening, each slice of buri (yellow series) or botan ebi (a large sweet shrimp) lovingly placed in a dish, huge pieces of lobster swirling with rice and ikura, tiny pots filled with tender mushroom and abalone architecture, and much more. The menu changes both weekly and seasonally and offers a drink pairing of sake, wine, or shochu if desired, as well as an a la carte drink menu.
For Yamada, the Kaiseki Room experience is indeed ultimately about joy, for visitors and for himself.
“For me, Kaiseki is the best tool to express myself and also, it is one of the tools to make people happy with the ability I have. I wholeheartedly devote myself to the customers who come to our restaurant and feel happy with them. This is the spirit of Kaiseki cooking, called “Ichigo Ichie”, he says. This last principle roughly translates to “once in a lifetime”.
And while Kaiseki Room by Yamada doesn’t have to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience – go twice or more if you’re lucky – there’s something magical about sitting down for a few hours and enjoying the intelligence and complexity of a meal, down to the unique and careful presentation of dishes and glassware. Each course tells the story of not only Yamada’s tremendous skills and dedication to his craft, but also his commitment to using his own voice within it.
This article was published in the InsideHook NY newsletter. Register now to learn more about the five boroughs.