The room isn’t all that different from your neighborhood Japanese, done in comforting shades of brown made a tad more elegant by a pair of vertical rock gardens composed of black and white pebbles pinned behind sheets of Plexiglas, and overhanging boughs that spread tiny bamboo lamps across the ceiling. We sized up our fellow diners without much success: a few obvious tourists, a few apparent connoisseurs, none particularly wealthy looking, and three tables where customers were celebrating birthdays, punctuating the evening with loud choruses of “Happy Birthday” as a single lit candle arrived, poked in a bowl of grapefruit-wine jelly.
Sugiyama is New York’s most celebrated kaiseki, a name designating a type of restaurant—said to have been inspired by the Japanese tea ceremony—in which the chef sends out a series of small dishes made with the freshest and weirdest ingredients. Priced at $100 plus tax, tip, and beverages, the meal affords a chance for bored sushi chefs to show off, and compete with their haute-cuisine colleagues to pluck the largest bills from your pocketbook. At Sugiyama, chef Nao Sugiyama and his cooks stand behind a low partition that looks like a sushi bar, but without the refrigerator showcase. They affect a boisterous demeanor, and when a table pays up and leaves, they give a collective cheer, as if savoring the cash flow.
Our omakase (chef’s choice) kaiseki involved eight courses, but other options range from $60 to $130. It began auspiciously and simply with a perfect cube of splendid beige mousse fashioned from tofu and monkfish liver, beside it a tiny bowl of raw baby eels lounging in dilute soy sauce. Course two was more cluttered: a long green plate with 11 tiny morsels, boasting a thumbnail-sized crab, a bayberry planted in the center of a clear gelatin box, and fish paste painted brown and formed into a popsicle on a bamboo stick. The plate was delivered too cold, though, as if just pulled from the fridge.
Next the sashimi arrived, the beautiful crockery resting in a black lacquer box filled with ice. This assortment provided no disappointments—perfect swatches of medium fatty tuna, novel yellowtail toro as rich as raw bacon, tilefish, an amorphous blob of orange sea urchin without the slightest whiff of iodine, and amaebi, a disarmingly sweet raw shrimp. Segregated in its own miniature dish was a kumamoto oyster ceviched in lemon. After that, a simple bowl of clear soup with a dashi stock.
By the fifth course, however, our appetite and interest began to lag. A broiled half-lobster arrived split down the middle like an anatomist’s model, still sizzling with a dab of sea urchin deposited in the head. The waiter instructed us to dip the meat in the urchin. But as we picked at this course, the action began to heat up at the surrounding tables. To our left, the handsome young woman and her older male escort had imbibed too much premium sake, and, egged on by the birthday celebrants and cheering chefs, the lady began to make her own noise. As her companion extracted the gooey creature from a baby conch shell, she pointed at it and began to shout, “He’s eating a frog!” while pounding the table. She hiccuped, became morose for a moment, then proclaimed, “That’s disgusting. I want to vomit right now.” Meanwhile, the balding man at the table on the other side raised his head from his food for the first time, looked deeply into the eyes of his companion, and asked, “What’s your name again?” To which the full-figured blond with the Russian accent replied, her voice dripping with acid, “Does it matter?”
Next sailed in an agreeable course of pressed sushi, including lacquered eel and red snapper, accompanied by another clear cube of gelatin, this time with a few threads of blowfish, and a few slices of abalone that tasted like rubber ducky. Our very own conch arrived with this course. Luckily, the gal at the next table didn’t notice, having excused herself and wandered, purse in hand, toward the end of the room. Then, just as the meal was becoming a full-day march in bad weather, the rock appeared.
Though heretofore the meal had been mainly sushi, the hot rock signaled a shift into the world of teppanyaki, a style of Japanese restaurant where the cook shouts nerve-wrackingly as he cleaves and cooks steaks and shrimp on a griddle in the middle of a ring of spattered diners. For a panicky moment we felt ourselves trapped in a Benihana of Tokyo. In the rock version, called ishiyaki, the diner does the chopping. We had a choice of steak or seafood, the former a mere three slices of well-marbled meat, the latter a much broader selection of the same seafood we’d been eating raw. I sat wishing I’d brought my can of Pam, because my precious beef was sticking to the hot rock and burning, and no amount of chopstick wielding could dislodge it. The seafood fared no better. I thanked my lucky stars I hadn’t paid the extra $30 for kobe beef.
The penultimate course was oddly plebeian: fish and rice wrapped in a magnolia leaf furnished with a side of Japanese pickles. Then came a dessert of the aforementioned grapefruit-wine jelly, flooded with a mixture of heavy cream and Scotch. It was with real relief that we finally paid the hefty tab and sought the front door. As we turned to size up the place one last time, the gal returned on wobbly feet to her table, but before she sat down, she fixed the man with a triumphant stare and announced in a voice loud enough to be heard by the whole room: “I got my period!”