I recently attended my first Tasting Collective supper club event, which was a unique experience and well worth writing about. The event was held at Oka, on 30th Street and Third Ave in NYC. The restaurant, which is Chef John McCarthy’s pride and joy, showcases Japanese izakaya in the eyes of a typical New Yorker (so he says in his bio). So…what the heck is izakaya you may ask (I sure did)? Well, it’s Japan’s take on tapas. Chef McCarthy spent several years cooking at WD50 under Wylie Dufresne, quickly becoming the leading R&D chef. As a result, he tends to favor more inventive dishes than traditional ones. (Quick side note here, WD50 was a molecular gastronomy restaurant located in the East Village. At one point it was known as one of the most influential restaurants in the world. Wylie Dufresne was highly respected in the restaurant industry and well known for his experimental and cutting edge dishes. The restaurant closed in 2014 after 11 years because the building was sold to a developer. It was quite devastating to the entire restaurant industry). Sadly, I never had the opportunity to go…bummer! Moving on…
Many people at the supper club event noted that it was unusual to see a non-Japanese (or Asian for that matter) chef open a Japanese izakaya restaurant. The chef acknowledged that point at the end of our meal by stating that he had spent a considerable amount of time in Asia. He mentioned living in South Korea for three years back in high school, and he said that he typically travels to Japan at least once a year for food and drink R&D. In addition to his kitchen skills, he’s also a certified sake sommelier. (That’s mighty impressive…every time I have had sake it’s in shot form and after two of them, I could not tell you one sake from the next!)
The restaurant itself was on the smaller side, seating 50-60 people max. As a result, the restaurant was closed to outside patrons while we were there. On this brisk Tuesday evening, they offered two seating’s, 6:30-8:30 and 8:30-10:30pm. I chose the latter. Upon arrival, I checked in, was told where to sit and who I could order from if I wanted an ‘adult’ beverage. I sat down in my designated seat and noticed that a menu was placed to the left of each diner. It listed every course, asking for a rating of 1-5 and included a line for comments. Wooden sharing spoons, forks and knives were placed in the middle of the table. As promised, seating was done in a communal setting, and people were quick to introduce themselves to one another. Delicious toasted bread with a side of shio Kombu butter and smoked salt was already on the table as a friendly welcoming dish and whew, was it amazing! The butter had a creamy and salty flavor combination which paired well with the crispy, slightly burned, baked bread.
The menu for the event was the following:
- Edamame Salad with shrimp cracker and wasabi. Unique way to serve edamame beans. The cracker was salty, crunchy and delicious, but there was a bit too much mayo on the edamame salad. A little less mayo and this dish would have been amazing.
- Salmon Roe with yeasted sunchoke puree and sunchoke chips. Interesting flavor combination of salty, briny, and earthy mixed with a unique consistency of crunchy, and mushy, that mixed well with the salmon roe bead.
- Tuna, soft egg, anchovy cream, masago, Kalamata olives, Nori. The dish consisted of large chunks of seared tuna mixed with anchovy cream and olives. It had a very strong salty flavor mixed with a slightly fishy taste. This was probably my least favorite dish of the night. The tuna was lacking something and the anchovy cream was too salty.
- Romaine with smoked Caesar dressing and bonito. A unique take on a Caesar salad. The salad had a very distinct smoky flavor and was topped with shredded smoked pieces of Bonito fish on top.
- Hamachi Kama: grilled yellowtail collar with soy and yuza. According to the chef, Hamachi Kama is the fattiest and juiciest part of the fish, and the meat by the bone is juicy and succulent. That part of the fish was the best part. Other parts of the fish felt a bit overdone and chewy, but the meat by the bone was excellent.
- Fried Maitake Mushroom: Za’atar, Smoked Dijon Mustard (a substitute for) Tonkatsu: fried pork cutlet with napa cabbage and scallion. I will admit, I don’t eat pork, so I was given their vegetarian mushroom dish instead, which was delicious. This type of mushroom has a flower like shape, and slightly earthy taste to it. The mushrooms have been used to treat cancel and relieve the chemical effects of cancer for years. They’re very meaty mushrooms and pack a very unique flavor profile!
- Fried rice: with yacai, scallion, egg and mustard. This dish was hands down one of the best dishes of the evening. The rice itself was warm and sticky and had a nice grainy texture to it. The large bowl of rice came with Dijon mustard on the side and a poached egg on top along with sprinkled scallions. It was extremely filling! I wish the egg was a little runnier, so I could have soaked up the yoke with a boat load of carbs, but the overall concept was there.
- Passion fruit anglaise: graham cracker and meringue. This gastronomic dessert was quite a delight. The meringue paired very well with the crushed graham cracker crumbs and a piece of dehydrated coconut.
The 8-course meal was $50 + tax and tip and the sake pairing was an additional $35. The sake pairing came with 3 rather large glasses of sake along with a description of each. I did not take part in the sake tasting, as I’m quite positive three cups of sake would have me on the floor in no time, but I did try some of my neighbors. The first two were excellent, the second one tasted like most Sake shots I can recall having in my life. (I don’t remember all of them…)
Anyway, overall synopsis of the event…holy crap, each dish came out in so fast I could barely keep up! At one point I believe I had three dishes in front of me and a few remaining pieces of toasted crusts I was guarding for dear life. (Please note, don’t ever take carbs away from me, I’ll considering biting your hand off…it’s not a pleasant scene). Anyway, the event lasted about 1 hour and 40 minutes and I had to be rolled out of the restaurant when it was over. During the event I had a few brief moments to chat a bit with the woman sitting across from me and the people that ran the event as I was waiting for my Uber, but that was it. I wish there was a 30-minute happy hour before the dinner started, I really enjoy chatting and networking with other people before I stuffed my face like a ravenous chipmunk. I suggest you not eat all day or all week before attending this event as they give you so much food, you could feed all of California for a month.
One of my favorite parts of the evening was right before we finished eating, the host asked us to write down questions for the chef which she collected and handed off to him. It was cool to see him come out and answer our questions. However, it only lasted ten minutes or so. I really wish I could have shaken his hand and had a quick 2-3 minute one on one session with him! The staff was very attentive and brought all the food out in a timely manner, and answered everyone’s questions on what we were eating.
I’m looking forward to the next event!