This Covert New Kaiseki Den Builds Stunning Meals With New York Ingredients
The term "speakeasy"—attributed to covert drinking dens throughout America during Prohibitions in the 1920s—serves as the unlikely connective tissue binding new New York mini bistro Hall, and its rear, hidden kaiseki counter, Odo. Both are helmed by Hiroki Odo, one of Manhattan’s most respected chefs known for his elegant, Japanese-vegan tasting menus at Midtown’s one-Michelin-starred Kajitsu. Odo designed Hall, a cozy, all-day café dressed in 115-year-old oak, to look like a modern speakeasy, and the snug space doubles as the discrete entry point for his namesake 14-seat speakeasy restaurant—one proffering far more than illicit booze.
For the last five years, Kyushu-born Odo has impressed New Yorkers with his stunning, meticulously-crafted, hyper-seasonal shojin-style tasting menus; a type of ancient temple cuisine originally consumed by Zen Buddhist monks that predates kaiseki—today considered Japan’s highest form of culinary art. It’s a style of cooking he learned in Japan at places like Kyoto’s two-Michelin-starred Kodaiji Wakuden.
And now via his new dual-concept, 1,200 square-foot Flatiron space, Odo is continuing to tell the story of refined Japanese cookery. While 20-seat Hall serves as a place for Ippodo tea matcha lattes and Nobletree coffee espresso drinks during the day, which lead into classic cocktails by night, Odo also organizes a concise bill of fare, the kind of Japanese-European bistro fusion one would encounter in Tokyo. Dishes like washugyu meatball with French demi sauce, Japanese fried chicken, and leek vinaigrette.
But the real action is hidden behind a substantial brass door toward the back of Hall. Guests step through a narrow passageway, entering what feels like a portal into Japan. One decorated with rough and smooth surfaces in soft, natural hues of white and brown conceived by Tokyo-based design firm SIMPLICITY, known for their subdued, yet chic aesthetic at places like Ginza’s HIGASHIYA tea salon. A sleek, 12-foot oak dining counter spans the length of the room; in the center of the space, behind the bar, a team of chefs quietly prepare dishes; grilling duck breast over binchotan charcoal and seasoning steaming sushi rice with a blend of vinegars.
Here, Odo embraces the multi-course kaiseki philosophy, building a meal that pays respect to seasonality and balance, with regard to ingredients’ color, flavor, temperature, texture, and aroma. But, rather than import premiere products from Japan—the practices carried out by most of New York’s top Japanese chefs who can afford it—he’s creating his own, new kaiseki style contingent on the best seasonal ingredients sourced from New York State and elsewhere in the country.
“[T]there are a lot of high-quality ingredients in the U.S., and we work with amazing local suppliers and purveyors to showcase their produce,” states Odo, who believes that, by “[u]sing the right ingredients, and applying the right skills, we can create provide incredible flavors with these local ingredients.”
Odo rewrites his $200, nine-course omakase every month, and depending on the season, diners could begin with a cauliflower chawamushi (egg custard) imbued with a dashi stock made from Long Island topneck clams, brightened by fresh yuzu zest from Nagatoshi Farm in California. Next might come sashimi of Long Island tilefish carefully fanned out on a plate beside a small mound of California wasabi, and a mini mountain of “kimo” a play on ankimo, or monkfish liver, this version made from the tilefish’s liver.
Following the hallmarks of classic kaiseki in which courses incorporate various cooking methods—from raw to fried, boiled to grilled—an umami-rich soup flavored with sake lees sourced from nearby Brooklyn Kura, studded with black truffle-flecked mochi, could follow, after which one might try binchotan-grilled washugyu (a beef crossbred from wagyu and American black angus), then a seasonal assortment of sushi.
Chef Seong Cheol Byun, previously of decorated West Village fish den Sushi Nakazawa, heads up the sushi block here, and to each diner he carries a box of freshly sliced seafood—like ika from Long Island anointed with caviar, nine-day-aged sawada via North Carolina, and cushy Santa Barbara uni. Nigiri here isn’t entirely traditional though. While Cheol Byun is experimenting with a kimchi-laced akami tuna hand roll, his biggest challenge lies with this fish. When blue fin isn’t available, Cheol Byun swaps in big eye, and he has been playing with different curing techniques to recreate blue fin’s meaty, rich flavor. Not at all an easy feat.
And herein lies the challenges of building a Japanese kaiseki meal with American ingredients. Sure, the U.S. grows many incredible products, but sometimes that unique Japanese taste is missing. Which is why it takes a skilled chef with a sound understanding of Japanese technique to scheme creative ways to build umami in everything from fish to ramen, sometimes a final savory dish option here—guests can pick from three pasta and rice-based dishes, or try all.
Odo isn’t the only restaurant in the U.S. finding innovative ways to elevate American ingredients. One of Tokyo’s most revered sushi chefs, Keiji Nakazawa, who relocated his iconic sushiya, Sushi Sho, to a tiny 10-seat bar within the Ritz-Carlton Residences in Honolulu two and a half years ago, today builds his omakase almost entirely of domestic ingredients. In place of pickled ginger he serves pickled palm hearts as a palate cleanser, along with entirely unorthodox bites incorporating local ingredients, like ahi with Maui onion, and local onaga with black Hawaiian salt.
The idea of a speakeasy might not sound as though it would jive with a Japanese restaurant, but when it’s a Japanese restaurant inspired by America’s best products, the concept comes into focus.