“Meet me at Sakagura!” was the only thing my ex texted. It was the day before my birthday and she happened to be in town, so decided to surprise me. (A little explanation—through the years and across the miles, the beautiful mother of my children and I have maintained a strong and solid relationship, co-parenting and co-celebrating all their joys.)
My ex understands, probably more than anyone else, how my line of work requires me to be in complete control all the time. Consequently, she also understands how much I love relinquishing that responsibility from time to time and just letting things unfold, one surprise after another.
So, with her in charge, I did as asked and met her at Sakagura, a small izakaya style restaurant, hidden in the basement of an anonymous office building near Grand Central. As we descended into this Japanese portal, the faint sweet smell of steamed rice, along with hearty irashaimases from the chefs welcomed us. The tranquil atmosphere had an immediate impact. Gentle bamboo influenced everything from the furniture to the linens, extra large sake barrels neatly lined high shelves, and the polite bows of the wait staff transported us straight to Asia. I could feel my inner Buddha exhaling.
With every plate that passed by our table, we knew it would be difficult to decide what to order. Not surprising, the menu design was brilliant--color codes and cross references helped us non-Japanese patrons know that slices of chilled roasted duck or pork shumai might pair well with Tateyama sake. The numerous choices on the menu, the temptation to try a variety of things, along with the casual atmosphere made sharing small dishes quite natural. Also in abundance was sake! Offered by the glass, carafe, half bottle or bottle, was convenient since there were an overwhelming 200 kinds of sake to choose from.
In the end, we shared sashimi and donburi, quite possibly the most exquisite I have ever eaten. As we languished over this peaceful meal, I realized that this is what the Japanese lunch experience is meant to be. Small bites, sharing plates, sipping sake and taking time. This kind of attention to detail made my “quick sushi lunch” habit seem all wrong.
With the warm April sun overhead, we decided to take a walk across Bryant Park. Continuing with the Japanese theme, we thought it might be fun to peek in the window of Lady M on 40th Street. The empress of Japanese style confections, Lady M creates the most refined of pastries and cakes, known for using the freshest and most exceptional ingredients.
As we peered guiltily into the window, we looked at each other with those same eyes our kids once gave us when tempted by something. One shared smile, and a giggled “it IS your birthday” later, we were seated and sharing a Mont Blanc! For us a Mont Blanc is reminiscent of our childhood in Istanbul—pureed chestnuts with a snow cap of whipped cream. Lady M’s Mont Blanc was melt-in-your-mouth, and close-your-eyes divine. It’s obvious that the pastry chefs at Lady M follow recipes that have been refined over the years to provide not only the highest quality in taste, but also in appearance--Japanese precision, austere presentation with traditional French recipes and the palette to match.
After Lady M’s delicious Mont Blanc, we stopped by Royce’ Chocolates to pick up a gift for a friend. This is definitely the “Rolls Royce” of chocolate, and also Japanese, founded in Sapporo in 1983. What makes this chocolate unique is that it is made in Hokkaido, where the climate and clean air result in a chocolate unlike any other. The best thing about Royce Chocolatier? Free samples.
As the afternoon faded, we just had to complete the “trek through Tokyo” with a final stop on 6th Avenue at Kinokuniya, the most amazing bookstore ever! This Japanese establishment is nothing short of an exotic adventure! There are three huge floors—one dedicated to traditional crafts, stationery and all things quintessentially Japanese; the second is Japanese media and the third a traditional bookstore. Kinokuniya is a wonderland! Washi paper as far as the eye can see, precisely sharpened pencils organized by color in every shade of the rainbow and stacks of anime graphic novels and phone-book thickmanga. If you haven’t been to Kinokuniya, go. It’s a carnival for the senses!
As the rising sun quickly became the setting sun, I realized how incredible the afternoon had been. No passport, no baggage and I had spent the last 4 hours in Japan. Just one more reason why I am in love with the one, the only, the incredible New York City.