Japanese kaiseki encapsulates the spirit of the season. Each dish of the traditional multicourse meal is made with ingredients that can only be found at that moment.
But one particular course sets the theme for the meal: the “hassun,” an elaborate platter of small bites that are meant to evoke the seas and mountains during a particular season.
Donguri’s executive chef and owner Yorinobu Yamasaki delivers a Kyoto-style hassun, featuring one of the Japanese city’s most famous tofu products, yuba—the layer that forms on top of boiled soy milk during the tofu-making process. Yamasaki imports fresh, creamy yuba from Kyoto and serves it with dashi, soy sauce, and a dab of wasabi. Dashi is a Japanese soup stock made with dried bonito (tuna) flakes and seaweed.
Peeled summer tomatoes, resembling colorful marbles, sit in a pool of vinegar and dashi, tangy and refreshing. That bright acidic flavor is also in the deep-fried fluke, marinated for several days prior in rice vinegar and dashi.
Yamasaki lets time run its course to develop the utmost umami. Monkfish liver, for example, is slow-cooked for hours until it becomes velvety smooth, like foie gras. Its light fish flavor is tempered by the ginger, soy sauce, sake, and dashi in which it’s cooked.
309 E. 83rd St. (between First & Second avenues)
Upper East Side
Since summer weather is often humid and sticky, the Japanese believe that consuming slippery foods during the season stimulates the appetite and is good for the body.
At David Bouley’s Brushstroke, executive chef Isao Yamada assembles a cooling remedy of grated yam tofu, sliced orange clam, lily buds, trout roe, okra, and a gelée made of dashi. Its soft, gentle texture makes it fun to sip on.
An edamame mousse and a chilled corn soup—the latter served in an aromatic wooden sake cup—embody the Japanese aesthetic of keeping flavors light and pure.
“The summer season is when most lives on this planet are the most energetic and active,” Yamada said in an email interview. “We want our guests to feel the season, and at the same time, we express our gratitude, awe, and respect to the season.”
Conch is cooked in soy sauce, mirin, and sake for a hint of sweetness to complement its clean taste. A delicate piece of unagi (freshwater eel), commonly eaten in the summer to relieve fatigue, is combined with rice for a perfect bite of sushi, topped with sansho peppers for a dash of zest.
Summer is the season of traditional festivals in Japan, often celebrated by lighting lanterns. That imagery is reflected in the hassun. Lit candles are wrapped in slices of daikon radish, while preserved figs are encased in the bright orange husks of Japanese ground cherries. The fruit is nestled in a wonderfully nutty, sesame-and-pine-nut paste.
30 Hudson St. (between Duane and Reade streets)
At Momokawa, the hassun is designed to restore one’s health. Chef-owner Mie Okuda’s interest in nutrition has influenced how she crafts the course, a big spread of small plates made with GMO-free, organically grown produce.
A warm cup of dashi, strongly smoky from the bonito and mixed with bits of yuzu citrus, consoles the stomach and prepares it for the meal ahead.
According to Okuda, Mozuku seaweed helps to cleanse one’s blood vessels. She uses it to prepare a seaweed dressing with a briny, oceanic flavor, which melds beautifully with mild-flavored fish. She also marinates yam—good for cleansing the intestines, she said—in wine and soy sauce, for a tart, pickled taste.
Okuda also includes other classic Japanese dishes in the hassun to give diners a sampling of traditional cuisine: a chawanmushi egg custard with crab meat; assorted sashimi (prepared by sushi chef Yutaka Murai); lightly seasoned duck breast; housemade sesame tofu; and chewy abalone.
157 E. 28th St. (between Lexington & Third avenues)
1466 First Ave. (between East 76th & East 77th streets)
Upper East Side