Order the grilled romaine ($13, YOLO) at Bessou and a sea of eyes stares up at you from the plate. They’re the dumbstruck peepers of jako, tiny dried baby sardines that pull double duty moonlighting for the usual anchovies and croutons in chef Emily Yuen’s play on Caesar salad. Fried crisp and heaped onto the charred lettuce leaves, the wispy fish look like a furious shoal from The Blue Planet fossilized mid-motion. Their brittle oceanic crunch inundates every bite, punctuating the smokiness of the wilted greens, the sweet creaminess of toasty sesame dressing, and the unctuous jiggle of soy sauce–marinated soft-boiled quail eggs with their sunset-orange yolks exposed. There’s no need for a showy tableside tossing. Eating this reimagined classic is thrill enough. And despite recent headlines, it’s not going anywhere; “it’s been on the menu since the beginning and is a customer favorite,” owner Maiko Kyogoku writes via email.
Bessou opened a year and a half ago along a quieter stretch of Bleecker Street, not far from where the thoroughfare peters out and funnels into the Bowery. It’s the brainchild of Kyogoku, a born-and-bred New Yorker whose fondest food memories are centered around her first-generation immigrant parents’ Upper West Side kitchen. The handsome, minimalist nook is devoted to coloring outside the lines of traditional Japanese home cooking, featuring dishes from the country’s northern prefectures, where her parents hail from.
While countless restaurants aim to evoke the feeling of eating in someone’s house, few do so as stylishly or as explicitly as this one (bessou loosely translates to “second home” in Japanese). The dining room has the open floor plan and functional design of a photo shoot–ready loft apartment, and Kyogoku, who was a project manager for the artist Takashi Murakami before working for chef Daniel Boulud’s restaurant group (she and Yuen met at Boulud Sud), has outfitted the space comfortably. Potted plants and mismatched ceramic dishware fill the shelves that hang from the ceiling, and a flotilla of spice jars nestle in the cubbies built above the L-shaped chef’s counter where diners observe Yuen and her team in their element. The walls are mostly bare save for a few framed prints and a floating bookshelf at the back of the room crammed with cookbooks in the haphazard way that lets you know they’re being used constantly. It’s a lived-in, blissfully welcoming place, the kind that makes you want to linger.
Kyogoku in turn is a gracious host, ardently checking in on diners, pouring cups of chilled barley tea gratis in lieu of water, and making sure her staff replenishes the nutty, straw-hued beverage with an uncanny prescience. Other drinks flow just as liberally, including Japanese beers and bottles of moderately priced European wines that largely buck the current natural fad in favor of more conventional tastes. Sake is represented by a baker’s dozen bottles and also comes as a summer-appropriate slushy. And despite a lack of hard booze or a proper bartender, the two available cocktails are killer. One’s a smooth and fruity clarified sake milk punch garnished with pomegranate seeds, mint, and orange peel. The other is the Bamboo cocktail, one of Japan’s first mixed drinks with roots dating back to the late 1800s, which mingles sherry, vermouth, and orange bitters for a dryly sweet and floral finish.
Working with Yuen, who grew up cooking Chinese food at home in Vancouver before training in western kitchens around Europe, Australia, and the U.S., Kyogoku celebrates her culinary heritage through the kind of organic multicultural prism you’d hope for from a native of this city. Dish after dish, the gastronomic dialogue taking place between these two well-traveled women amounts to some of the most spirited cooking in town. Hefty pieces of fried chicken karaage ($22) intended for tzatziki sauce laced with minty shiso leaf are coated in a heady Moroccan spice blend that includes cinnamon and cumin, and a trio of succulent mahbo prawns ($25) pairs the grilled crustaceans with eggplant and pork belly in a moat of slow-burning Sichuan-style chile sauce. Crispy rice balls ($13–$15) get their own section of the menu, topped winningly with everything from sticky fermented soybeans to fatty curls of salmon sashimi joined by the fish’s caviar. Then there’s the hillock of seared wagyu sirloin cubes ($18) rocked by crunchy fried capers, viridescent scallion-radish salsa verde, and an earthy teriyaki sauce imbued with the garlic that Kyogoku’s father, a retired sushi chef, ages until it darkens and turns sweet like allium ganache.
Kyogoku’s family recipes are at the heart of many of Bessou’s dishes, down to the house-made condiments. Some, like the rayu chile oil that anoints pristine miso-brushed brook trout ($31) roasted with meaty king oyster mushrooms, have been adapted by the kitchen staff, but Dad still makes the aged shiso-garlic sauce that Yuen spoons over duos of salt-and-sake-cured sardines ($14) grilled whole, their paunchy bellies splayed and stuffed with chunky walnut-shiso pesto.
Served as a $6 snack, iburi gakko are incredible smoked daikon pickles from Akita Prefecture, where Kyogoku’s mother was born . Yuen hotboxes the sweetly sour radishes until they have the intensity of Allan Benton’s Tennessee bacon. Take it from this half-sour hog: These are some of the best pickles to be found in the five boroughs. Chilled Inaniwa udon ($19) is another gift from Mom’s neck of the woods. Unlike those in the hearty one-pot short rib oden ($33) with root vegetables and savory beef dashi broth, the thin and springy noodles are served separately alongside bowls of lightly battered greenmarket vegetable tempura and shiitake-kombu dashi for dipping. Toss in some plump fried shrimp for an extra $3.
The occasional special notwithstanding, dessert at Bessou is as artfully unembellished as the deep indigo noren curtains that punctuate its entrance. Yuen opts for ice cream ($5 a scoop, or $10 for all three) in flavors like roasted green tea, coconut-azuki bean, and salted miso caramel, the latter of which can be mixed with crushed-up roasted soybean flour cookies for an inspired interpretation of cookies and cream. I ate them the way I would at home — oblivious to my surroundings, and fast enough to induce brain freeze.
5 Bleecker Street