I stepped out of EN Japanese Brasserie last week convinced I had just spent the last three hours in Japan—but I looked up to find myself at the corner of Hudson and Leroy, not on a busy Tokyo street. (Had I just teleported?)
EN Japanese Brasserie hosted a kickoff event for the Masumi Arabashiri, a new seasonal sake of the Miyasaka Sake Brewing Company. A wide selection of the brewery's collection was featured, each bottle continuously refrigerated for the journey from Sumo, Japan (where the company was founded in 1662), to New York City. I went to EN expecting to increase my limited sake knowledge but left with much more—a far deeper appreciation of Japanese food and drink, particularly where tofu is concerned.
My sake schooling came from EN's sake sommelier, Takahiro Okada. Okada grew up in Japan—in a liquor store, appropriately enough—and his expertise was refined working at Sake Bar Decibel in the East Village for seven years. From there, he came to EN, bringing with him his enthusiasm, appreciation, and knowledge of sake.
"Most people apply wine terms to sake," Okada said, "but they are very different." Customers will ask for a "dry sake," but that terminology is difficult to translate into sake, because only its aftertaste exhibits that dry quality we associate with certain wines. One of the first things to recognize in tasting is that sake with lower acidity will be lighter on the palate, whereas a higher acidity will be rich and full on the palate.
But like wine, sake is perfectly suited to pairing with food; many varieties can draw out the taste of food, in fact making certain flavors last longer on the tongue. Cheese, Okada said, is superb with sake. Next time you host a wine and cheese party, consider introducing sake and cheese, as well.
I never thought I liked sake, but, in truth, I'd never tasted sake worth drinking.
Just past the tables of sake was a spread of EN's food, including their specialty, the house-made tofu. It was featured in Bon Appétit's February 2010 issue, and Serious Eats' own Kathy YL Chan once wrote, "It's worth visiting this restaurant just for tofu, if nothing else. Wari-joyu, a blend of fish broth with soy sauce, is gently poured over the tofu, a soft quivering custard. Nothing short of heaven."
Co-owner Jesse Alexander described their soft tofu, made fresh every hour, as "beautiful." I call it transcendental. Alexander called out my newfound tofu admiration with a perfect metaphor: Imagine you had never tasted any cheese other than Kraft Singles, and you think you know all there is to know about cheese—then you taste an exceptional Gruyère. Different? Yes, worlds apart. The same idea can be applied to tofu.
Alexander's wife and partner, Reika Yo, moved to New York City from Tokyo in 2000 with an interest in the jazz music scene. She was profoundly disappointed by the Japanese cuisine here, in a city where she expected much more than cookie-cutter sushi bars. When she opened EN in 2004, she filled the Japanese home-style cooking void. Yes, she serves sushi, but she also serves dishes like fried chicken and grilled fish, dishes she would eat regularly in Tokyo. There is no young hot-shot chef here—only recipes based off of thousands of years of tradition.
In a city where you could eat a different sort of Asian fusion every night, EN strives for authenticity. My advice, if you've never experienced this sort of cuisine: Gather every preconception you have about Japanese food and drink, then go to EN and watch your preconceptions morph into misconceptions before they are forgotten entirely. You might even forget that you're in New York City.
EN Japanese Brasserie
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