Where To Bite – EN Japanese Brasserie [Manhattan, NY]
Becoming a vegetarian was a slow process, which left me, for many years, as a sushi-loving pescetarian. And when I finally did away with the final remnants of meat in my diet, I mourned only the loss of true sushi. I will be the first one to tell you there is no Morningstar alternative to smoked unagi, no soy-based replica of sashimi-cut salmon or a vegetable that can be cooked to replicate the texture and flavor of spicy maguro.
With that being said, I have finally discovered what I thought was impossible. A vegan sashimi, so delicious and interesting in its own right I may never again crave ebi sashimi.
On Thursday, I had the honor of attending a dinner celebrating the release of Suntory Japanese Whisky’s Hakushu 18-year single malt, hosted by EN Japanese Brasserie.
Guests ranged from an editor at Food & Wine magazine to Suntory’s Global Ambassador, Mike Miyamoto. And then there was me – the lone vegetarian without a drop of whisky-knowledge of which to speak. Of course, in my attempt to broaden my knowledge of all things travel and leisure, it seemed that there was no better time to learn.
The five-course meal was an exquisite exploration of Japanese ingredients and how their distinct flavors play with the whisky – even with the vegan version Chef Abe Hiroki curated for me, I could taste the way the smoked salt tofu complemented the herbaceous Hakushu Highball, and how the truffle and yuba salad mellowed the spice from the American oak cask raw sample.
The first course was a zensai, or plate of assorted appetizers. I sampled Hiroki’s soft, fresh-scooped tofu, made fresh every hour and paired with smoked sea salt. The hijiki seaweed salad was full of shiritaki mushrooms, edamame, snow peas, and green beans simmered in shoyu. Perhaps most strange was the Mozuku – a seaweed salad in vinegar, used often as a palate cleanser, topped with fresh grated ginger.
Recommended Dishes: It was here, on this first plate, that I discovered the great magic of vegan sashimi. Known as konnyaku, this colorful bite is known playfully as devil’s tongue, and is referred to as sashimi because Buddhist monks thought the texture was comparable. Made from the starch of a mountain yam, En Brasserie mixes theirs with seaweed, giving it a vibrant green color, and it is the closest thing I have ever had to the texture of raw fish. You can order it off the a la carte menu, or sample it as part of their vegan kaiseki prix fixe menu. Also recommended is the Smoked Yuba Salad, which arrived as our second course.
When the salad course arrived it our table, it came shrouded in a cloud of cherry wood smoke, contained beneath an elegant glass dome. Meant to accent the smoky finish of the Hakushu 12-year, this course was a beautiful combination of mizuna greens with tomatoes, yuba, (tofu skin), and thin-shaved black truffle. The presentation was complete with a generous douse of soy milk dressing. If you’re ordering this for yourself, keep the dressing on the side and use sparingly.
The Not-So-Good Bite: The Smoked Yuba Salad is not available on the a la carte menu, and plates are small given the price tag. However, the dishes are thoughtfully crafted, delicious, and a unique exploration of traditional Japanese cuisine. Worth it for a special occasion – such as the launch of Hakushu 18-year.
The Good Bite: Refined flavors and unique textures make En Brasserie a perfect spot for trying something unfamiliar.
The Mushi Yasai, available a la carte, was my third course. The bamboo steamer accompanied a miso dipping sauce. While a typical Japanese restaurant may fill theirs with baby corn, broccoli, snow peas and the limp crinkle-cut carrot, En Brasserie blew me away with the unexpected contents.
The Ganmodoki, for example, was another dish from the vegan kaiseki menu. The tofu fritter is a combination of the restaurant’s fresh tofu with lily root, wood ear mushroom, carrot, edamame, and mountain yam. The result is a soft, slightly sweet dumpling. The dish is completed with a slice of lily root and nama-fu, or housemade wheat gluten with black sesame. The three items sit together in – essentially – a cold kombucha tea broth, thickened with seaweed.
Forget whisky on the rocks. At the Suntory Dinner, we sampled a Hakushu highball with mint and club soda, Sherry-cask 12-year whisky with a single spherical ice cube, and the lauded 18-year single malt served oyuwari. Mixed with hot water in a stone cup, this final sip accompanied our dessert – the only non-vegan item on my menu.
Chestnut panna cotta with a candied chestnut was the perfect finish to the strong whisky. A green tea chocolate – made with fresh matcha and cocoa butter – and a hoji cha cookie (made with roasted green tea) concluded the meal.
The Best Bite: Most of the dishes I sampled during the evening are available in some capacity on the full dinner menu, which often includes seasonal specialties and changes at least twice a year. EN Japanese Brasserie is a stellar place to celebrate with a large group, because it’s spacious, and caters easily to every diet. Even if you’re the only vegan at the table, you won’t for a second feel as though you’re missing out. The menu also provides a number of gluten and grain free options.
Thank you, again, to EN Japanese Brasserie and Suntory Whisky, for their hospitality, generosity, and incredible culinary offerings and spirit. Both kinds of spirit.