Toward the end of the meal, the duck pithiviers—medium-rare duck breast with a slight gamey funk mellowed by the silky foie gras joining it inside a buttery, almost croissant-like crust—arrives at the table, and it becomes clear why Sota Atsumi is one of Paris’s most heralded chefs. But this isn’t Paris. It’s downtown Manhattan.
In the fall, Parisian gourmands and visiting food lovers will flock to Atsumi’s much-anticipated solo project, Maison, but for now the chef is in the midst of a three-month “sublet” at New York’s Chefs Club running from April 26 to July 21, 2018.
Atsumi first made a name for himself at the Paris gastronomic bistro and natural wine destination Clown Bar. Dishes like striking sardine beignets coloured black with squid ink, veal brains served in chilled dashi, and that duck pithiviers, served with a quenelle of lemony date puree that helps cut through the abundant richness of the other ingredients, were the talk of the food world.
In New York, Atsumi’s menu—offering both à la carte options and a five-course tasting option—will almost always feature his signature duck pastry, but the other plates will be original. “It’s about having the freedom to create new dishes for my solo project,” Atsumi says. “I want to develop things that people have never seen from me before.”
As such, the menu will change daily over the course of his stay at Chefs Club (a sort of permanent pop-up restaurant where top chefs from around the world take over the Nolita neighbourhood kitchen for months at a time), featuring seasonal ingredients prepared with modern French and Japanese techniques. A recent meal, for example, included first of the season fava beans and tender green spring asparagus. The asparagus, alternating side-by-side on the plate with similarly-shaped razor clams, was set in a sauce made with savagnin wine enriched with butter and shallots—smooth, lightly nutty, and redolent of the clam’s juices, it’s a sauce designed for dipping bread, or inhaling with a spoon.
Like the asparagus, the favas were also featured alongside seafood—this time squid, a particular favourite of Atsumi. Cooked a la plancha, the squid arrived in a sauce of its own ink that had a depth of flavour befitting its jet-black colour, and was crowned with a bright yellow egg yolk that provided both a striking presentation and welcome richness.
A visit just a few days later might find an entirely different preparation, but there will almost always be squid and squid ink on the New York menu in some form. “I use a lot of squid and it is very important for me to minimize waste in the kitchen, to respect the products by using as much of them as I can,” Atsumi says. “And squid ink is one of the many ingredients that really speak to me. I love its deep flavour.”
While the razor clam dish exhibits classic French sauce-making at its best, other dishes display Atsumi’s Japanese roots. Foie gras kakigōri, for example, sees foie gras cut to resemble Japanese shaved ice, covering up morsels of chilled crab, artichoke hearts, and surprisingly al dente pear, atop a base of more foie gras mousse. A main of flounder goes beyond presentation and brings Japanese flavours to the fore, with a miso glaze that puts the standard Nobu-style black miso cod to shame.
In anticipation of chef Atsumi’s residency at Chefs Club, the space was closed for a period and redesigned; the team wanted to ensure that it felt like a true home away from home for Atsumi and his crew. To that end, there is new large-scale art adorning the brick walls—bright, energetic, and avant-garde like Atsumi’s dishes—and a neon light depiction of a house that overlooks the kitchen and clearly brands the space as an experimental version of Maison, distinct from whatever came before.
Helping create a true sense of home, Atsumi is joined in New York by service manager and wine director Aurélien Robert and pastry chef Rikako Kobayashi, both of whom will be part of the opening team at Maison in Paris. Like with any new restaurant, service is not perfect in the starting days, but with Robert’s help, Atsumi is dedicated to ironing out any kinks as quickly as possible and creating an experience in New York that will match what guests ultimately find in Paris. He even hopes to learn a few tricks from New York along the way. “I really love New York. I love its culture and its energy,” the chef explains. “The service and hospitality here are at such a high level, and I want to train our staff at Maison to exude that same type of warmth to our guests back in Paris.”
Following up Atsumi’s signature duck with Kobayashi’s chocolate chiffon cake with marjoram ice cream, guests might not feel like they’re in Paris necessarily, but they could perhaps feel at home. There are surprising and exciting flavours here, but the food still has familiar touchstones; it’s comforting and novel at once. For that reason, Maison will undoubtedly be a hit when Atsumi returns home in the fall. But for the next few months, a trip to New York offers a chance to experience Paris’s hottest new restaurant before it even opens.
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