Mid-Winter at Bessou
By Alexis Agliano Sanborn
It was the night of the Winter Solstice, the darkest, longest night of the year. Yet, at times like these we celebrate the light, bright, and beautiful.
There is one light that has shone this year for Gohan Society, and that is of Ms. Maiko Kyogoku, restaurateur. I first met her toward the end of 2015 at the I Love Japan event at The Sea Grill. There, she told me there that she was mulling over the idea of opening up a restaurant. As 2016 blossomed, the next thing I knew she was searching for a chef, deciding on a restaurant name, and hosting Test Kitchen Parties. The fire had been sparked.
Winter turned to spring, and turned to summer. It was exhilarating watching someone create a work of love from afar. I admit, I’ve never had a friend to open a restaurant before, and the metamorphosis is a journey for the onlookers too. It was world building. Creating something out of nothing. What would be decided on for the spelling of the name? The color scheme? The menu?
All these thoughts and wonderings at last culminated on December 21, 2016. Although the restaurant had opened during the summer, I was unable to visit sooner. Yet, it was worth the wait. All those times reading the menu online, liking the Instagram photos, and hungering for their specials, and I was finally able to experience the real thing.
It was an unexpectedly busy night. Still, so close to Christmas and on the Winter Solstice, there was a particular sense of merriment. Seated in a back table, Susan Hamaker, Executive Director of Gohan Society, and I drank cup after cup of mugicha before enjoying an effervescent bottle of nigori. While we awaited our order, I drank in the details. Everything artfully arranged in shades of blue, white, and muted earth tones. It was old yet new.
The food came quickly. The Charred Eggplant Caponata with lotus chips was full bodied and meaty, and perhaps my personal favorite of the meal. Next came Octopus a la Plancha, chewy and tender, complemented with sesame, seaweed, and cucumber. Savory, yet refreshing, the combination was wonderfully unexpected. The dishes at Bessou are certainly Japanese-inspired, but by no means your traditional fair.
Perhaps the dish that both Susan and I had been most excited about was the Inaniwa Udon. It being the Winter Solstice, opting for the “hot option” seemed suitable. Served in a slightly sweet dipping sauce, we enjoyed the seasonal tempura of mushrooms, beet and assorted root vegetable kakiage. Although we could have certainly eaten another course completely, we had to save room for dessert – especially when a “Tokyo Banana” Split was on the menu. Served with their signature ice-cream and a particularly delicious cherry on top, it was a satiating finish.
The meal was a particularly nostalgic one. The flavors reminiscent of Japan, but decidedly New York. Mulling over my sake and then my hojicha, I thought back over 2016. How much things can change in a year! Good and bad, sweet and bitter, we continue to grow and overcome. As we enter 2017, no matter the challenges, I hope we ultimately strive to make something unique, our own, and to bring joy to others. I think that Ms. Kyogoku has done that, for I certainly left Bessou smiling.
Alexis Agliano Sanborn is one of The Gohan Society’s super volunteers. She has lived in Nagoya, Tokyo, and rural Shimane Prefecture as a student, intern, and working professional. She received her Bachelor’s degree in East Asian Studies and Japanese from UC Santa Barbara and her Master’s degree from Harvard University in Regional Studies of East Asia.
She is working on a proposal for a school lunch-themed cookbook, a recipe blog (kabocha-kitchen.com), as well as illustration and stationery designs. Find out more at www.alexisaglianosanborn.com.