From Tokyo to Tribeca,
Koji Imai Sends Forth His Blessing
Kobe beef is grilled over a charcoal called
bincho-tan, found only near Kyoto and said to have purifying minerals.
Megu’s immense two-story dining room, surrounded by a wall made of interlocking porcelain sake pitchers and rice bowls, is dominated by an 800-pound Buddhist temple bell, lined with red velvet imprinted with Japanese characters, that hangs from the ceiling. Under the bell and in front of a lighted candle is a large Buddha (thin and meditative, not fat and jolly) carved out of ice, who sits in the center of a black pond strewn with scarlet rose petals.
The Buddha was not looking at all happy on a recent night. Nor was Megu’s owner, Koji Imai, whose black coat and red scarf matched the color scheme of the pond into which the statue was slowly melting before his eyes. Just before dinner the power had gone out, and with it the Buddha’s cooling system. But Megu’s kitchen has its own generator, and although there was no hot food being served, the chefs were able to deliver sushi to a handful of lucky people upstairs in the Kimono Bar/Imperial Lounge (named for the rolls of antique silks that are displayed opposite the bar above the white leather booths).
And what sushi! It’s the freshest I’ve had in memory, flown directly from Japan, and brought to the table on black lacquer plates inlaid with mother of pearl. There are eight kinds of tuna, the most highly prized of which is toro tuna, made from the head of the fish. “It only serves four people,” said our waitress, a fresh-faced blonde whose uniform was a white high-necked blouse printed with a gray bamboo motif and the wide, black skirt-like pants worn by samurai warriors.
Our special order of tuna toro head, called noten top toro-along with a couple of pieces of black abalone-came on a pink-and-white porcelain platter decorated with delicate drawings of Japanese figures so exquisitely done that it could have been lifted from the Oriental collection at the Met. “They’re painted with a special brush that has 16 bristles made from the hair of a field mouse specially bred for the purpose,” our waitress explained.
“Is the mouse fed a special diet?” we asked.
“No, that’s for the Kobe beef,” she said. “The cow is massaged, too. Sometimes they let them listen to Mozart and take them out for a walk. It sounds silly, but the beef is very good.”
It is indeed. On a normal night when the power is on (and the place is packed with a crowd whose average age can’t be more than 30), your waitress will sizzle thin slices of the beef at your table on a large hot stone from the Nakagawa River, which she periodically rubs with a piece of fat to stop the meat from sticking. Kobe beef is also served on skewers, grilled over a special charcoal called bincho-tan found only near Kyoto and said to have purifying minerals. Afterward, to cleanse the palate, you’re offered a small glass of fresh Japanese grapefruit juice.
Megu’s owner, the 36-year-old Mr. Imai, who is a former baseball player, has a diverse and highly successful collection of over two dozen restaurants in Japan. A fanatic about ingredients, he traveled extensively in the United States for a year to meet organic farmers and fishermen before opening his first restaurant here, with a team of 25 chefs.
The dining room is manned by a large, well-trained international staff. The service at Megu (which means “blessing”) is first-class, but it’s also a little comic at times. A sweet young, blond waiter, who looks straight off a Kansas cornfield, earnestly described the properties of three different kinds of soy sauce to go with raw fish: “The one for sashimi has more vinegar and lemon, but we use another for sushi, since there’s already vinegar in the rice,” he said. “Mirin soy sauce has 10 percent sake.” And this from a guy who probably grew up on Mom’s meat loaf and hot dogs. “Would you like to order one of our lip-smacking cocktails?” a pretty Eastern European waitress wanted to know when we sat down. And a rosy-cheeked all-American country girl, no doubt accustomed to trencherman portions, worried about us having enough food. “Are you feeling full yet?” she asked at one point.
Fried calamari arrived on a square platter with pink Japanese lampshades the size of a child’s fingernail painted on each corner. A small hole had been bored into the plate to hold a bamboo stick topped with a tentacle flying like a banner in a Kurosawa battle scene. The calamari was tender as butter, the batter greaseless. Whole fried mackerel, served on a clay plate (that, we were told, was “baked for two weeks at 1,000 degrees Celsius”) was perfectly cooked and had a smoky charcoal taste. When you cut into it, you found a soft miso stuffing.
Our waitress set down a white plate of salmon toro tartare topped with wasabi soy mousse and sprinkled with salmon roe. She held a white-hot stick of charcoal over the plate to melt the mousse over the fish, which we then ate on pieces of crisp fried salmon skin; we used a long silver spoon to scoop up the unctuous, pleasantly salty sauce. “It’s Kasekei dining!” she said. “A big feast for the royals.” Cod is also considered food for the royals; it’s “traditionally used by the emperor of Japan because it’s the king of fish,” the waitress informed us. It was baked in parchment with miso and slices of yuzu. The fish was impeccable, but the sauce a little sweet.
Megu makes a big deal about its sakes (there’s a display of labels on the wall as you descend the staircase to the dining room, which is a work of art in itself). There is a sake sommelier, who not only helped us pick out a bottle of light, crisp “mountains of the moon,” but brought a plastic-covered map of Japan to show us where it came from. “It’s near where the snapper in your sashimi swam,” he said. “It’s a fast stream, so the fish has a firm texture.” If you order beer at Megu, it comes in on a bed of crushed ice inside a birch barrel. A blue-and-white bandanna is tied around the neck of the bottle, which the waitress pours into a thin, curved glass.
For dessert, get the wonderful yuzu chocolate soufflé, served in a gorgeous red lacquer bowl with a creamy green-tea ice cream. Yuzu kiri with kuromis-tsu sauce is a curiosity: leaves of arrowroot shaped like pappardelle-afloat in a bowl of ice-that you dip into treacle sauce. Tea comes in a futuristic-looking pot that is kept warm on an indented square white plate with a piece of charcoal in the center.
Every detail has been seen to at this great restaurant. On the way out, pick up a toothpick. They come in holders shaped like kimono dolls-and, by the way, they’re handmade by Megu’s vice president’s mother.