February 2, 2012 | Short Order
Jordan Milman’s Romantic Epiphany in Kyoto Wins RedFarm Dinner
Photo by Steven Richter
A thrilling kaiseki dinner in Kyoto that inspired a romantic phone call wins the Insatiable Critic’s Valentine’s dinner for two at RedFarm. Jordan Milman and the ex-girlfriend he brought back into his life that night in Japan – they married last autumn – will be guests of owners Ed Schoenfeld and dim sum wizard Joe Ng at the charming, impossible-to-get-into hotspot on the most-in-demand night of the year.
“Joe and I created RedFarm’s look and menu to be fun and sensuous too,” Schoenfeld says. “I see romance brewing here almost every night.”
Photo by Steven Richter
In his winning email Milman describes wandering the dark streets of Kyoto’s quarter alone, feeling lost, till finally finding the “elegant stone door” he was seeking. The staff spoke little English. He had almost no Japanese. Dinner came course after course.
Photo by Steven Richter
“I barely knew what I was eating…but it mattered little.” Savoring the extraordinary experience afterward at a small bar “I suddenly realized how wasted the experience was without someone to share it.” Without a thought to the cost of long-distance, he took out his cell phone and called his ex-girl friend and spent the next hour wandering the streets, talking, laughing and even crying a little….”So the meal I had halfway across the world, completely alone, inadvertently became the most romantic of my life.”
Black truffle Shanghai dumplings will definitely be a highlight of the special Valentine’s menu the Milman's win. RedFarm has been selling so many black truffle dumplings, Schoenfeld now gets his fragrant fungus directly from Perigord. They go on a plane in France and are in the RedFarm kitchen the next day still wafting the scent of the earth. Each dumpling must be placed carefully on a porcelain spoon without breaking the delicate skin. The dim sum adept then takes a small bite and sucks up the earthy juices – letting the truffle fumes rise to the brain. It’s an act guaranteed to provoke moans of pleasure. 529 Hudson Street. 212 792 9700
Here’s the winning letter from Jordan Milman:
I was able to take a few decent photos of Mt. Fuji despite being slumped against the window of the bullet train to Kyoto after a few hedonistic nights in Tokyo with my friend. He had headed home to New York, but since I had another few days of vacation to kill I decided to spend a weekend alone in Kyoto hoping to cleanse mind and body amidst the solemn shrines and tranquil gardens but more importantly through the kaiseki cuisine for which I had truly come.
Heading out to dinner on my first night, I waved off the concierge’s friendly attempt to put me in a taxi and safely take me to a sanctioned restaurant, foolishly thinking I could navigate the ancient streets on my own to an off-the-beaten-path restaurant that had been recommended by a guidebook. Before long, I found myself wandering the dark streets of Gion, the thousands of red paper lanterns lining the streets evolving from charming to magical to menacing as the night wore on and I became ever more lost and hungry. Despite my increasing willingness to compromise my standards, most restaurants were no longer seating diners, and the slightly bemused feeling of being lost in a strange city had quickly morphed into a cold panic.
Finally, I found myself standing before an elegant stone door with an understated sign. I peered in the window and saw a black-clad hostess with a secret service-style earpiece and knew this was the place.The hostess showed me to an enormous granite bar behind which no less than 5 stylish, impossibly young and handsome chefs darted about tending to various burners on an enormous, ancient-looking granite stove. The bar area was mostly empty, with only a couple of drunk Japanese businessmen finishing their meals, though I could hear other diners enjoying their meals in remote areas of the warren-like space.
As with everywhere else in Kyoto, the staff spoke little English, so it was with relief that I learned that my only two decisions to make were what to drink (“beer”), and what main ingredient I wanted in the final rice course (“fish”) both decisions which the waiter accepted heartily.
What followed was the most mesmerizing culinary adventure of my entire life to date. Unfortunately, given the language barrier, for the most part I had no idea what I was actually eating, but it mattered little. Every single dish was balanced perfectly both in its own flavors, textures, and temperatures, as well as in the context of the entire meal as a whole and frankly, my life. What I was able to recognize and/or piece together over time: mushrooms and mountain caviar with squid, clear broth with scallop and sprouts, broiled daikon with duck, grilled fish with lotus root, fried shad with eggplant and pepper, and finally, finally, the rice. The heavenly rice. Steaming japonica rice mixed with pickled vegetables and small pieces of salmon. Describing it now, it seems so plebeian, so simple. But a better executed dish I have never had. When I looked up from my bowl after the last of the rice was gone, probably with a couple of grains still on my face, I made eye contact with the chef who had served it to me. We spoke the silent, universal language of food, understood as clearly by my Jewish mother as by this young culinary genious: “More please”.
After the meal, I found a small bar nearby to have one last beer and mentally digest the spectacle that I had just experienced. I was slightly buzzed, more from the joy of the experience than the few beers I had had throughout the course of the meal. But that feeling washed away quickly when I realized how disappointed I was, how utterly wasted the experience had been, without someone to share it with.
I had my cell phone on me for emergency purposes but decided to forget about the cost, forget about the time back in New York, forget about the fact that I hadn’t spoken to my ex-girlfriend in weeks. I needed to share this. So I called her, and she picked up on the first ring. I spent the next hour or so wandering the deserted streets of Kyoto, talking, laughing, and even crying a little. We got back together as soon as I got back and were married this past fall. So the meal I had halfway across the world, completely alone, inadvertently became the most romantic of my life.
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