Monday, September 14, 2009

Idol Worship: Megu

I often say that dining is an experience, not just a meal. Whether it’s five different-sized forks splashed across a white tablecloth, a bubbling tableside shabu-shabu, or a four-story wine tower, a restaurant’s aura can make or break a dinner. From the moment you enter the long winding ramps of Megu, you can feel the energy and excitement build as you descend into the dramatic subterranean eatery. Megu is a modern Japanese restaurant with an emphasis on the modern. The dining room is a theatrical scene anchored by an ice Buddha in the center of the room. We were seated at the feet of said Buddha, much to the chagrin of many other diners. This constantly dripping idol is glistening under a spotlight; sitting in a pool of water adorned with floating candles and rose petals. If Moses dined at Megu, he may have thought twice about idol worship.

As we looked over the menus (beer menu, sake menu, wine menu, cocktail menu, and, oh… food menu), we began with crispy fried asparagus in an okaki batter (a spicy Japanese rice cracker) and tuna carpaccio in a spicy miso sauce with a glass of rosé champagne. The asparagus was possibly the best food I have ever had on a stick. It was tender and sweet on the inside with a spicy and salty crust that was crispy and crackled as you chewed. The subtle carpaccio was light and fresh with a tangy sauce and paper-thin hot pepper slices to bring the fish to life. The rosé washed it all down with ease, preparing us for the dramatic parade undoubtedly to follow.

As we continued to peruse, more confused now than before this first course, we were told most dishes were meant to be shared and in traditional Japanese dining sushi comes at the end of the meal. Always being one to do what I’m told, we ordered an array of different dishes and sushi. Then we sat back and watched as our selections arrived one by one.

First was garlic and soy marinated tuna with avocado and a wasabi sauce. The dish came as a stack of cubes of beet-red tuna sandwiched between two slices of avocado. The waiter mashed it all together at the table creating something that looked and tasted like a sophisticated Japanese guacamole. It was savory, tangy, and bursting with Japan’s elusive “fifth taste,” umami. The next dish to arrive was kobe beef croquettes – a cube of fois gras wrapped in ground kobe beef, breaded and fried. These little beefy globes were not only the best dish of the night, but also of my time here in New York. These croquettes were juicy, bursting with flavor and perfectly textured. I would rank these with Momofuku’s pork buns and one of my top five “must eat” dishes in New York City.

Still in the afterglow of the kobe croquettes, our main course arrived. We had slow cooked kobe beef with miso and mushrooms and a side of parmesan French fries with white truffle oil. I’m fairly certain the fries are not indigenous to Japan, but we just couldn’t resist something with truffle oil and parmesan. This was a surprisingly American moment in our evening. The beef tasted like a succulent and rich beef stew and the fries were light and decadent all at the same time. The beef arrived on top of a giant leaf perched on a hibachi and was expertly whisked onto a plate tableside. At this point we were so full, we were cringing as we remembered we still had sushi on the way.

Luckily, we did have the foresight to order one roll for the two of us, which was still two pieces too many. We ordered a spicy scallop roll. I’m used to spicy sushi rolls, but was intrigued by this variation with delicate scallops. It was superb. The scallops were sweet and incredibly fresh and somehow managed to shine through the very spicy mayonnaise. My only regret was that I didn’t forsake Japanese tradition and begin with this roll and devour the whole thing.

To see what makes Megu so special, one only need to look to its competitors. Megu is what places like Tao try to be. It doesn’t try to be hip, it is. It doesn’t try to reinvent traditional Japanese food, it does. And, it doesn’t try to grow with New York’s evolving culinary scene, it will.

Megu – 4 Sparkles ****
62 Thomas Street
New York, NY 10013

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