Here on Long Island, the phrase “Asian fusion” has become a catch-all for any endeavor that seeks to incorporate Asian flavors of any kind.
You see mantou buns being used as sandwich or slider rolls under the umbrella term of bao. You’ve grown accustomed to seeing sushi pop up on menus with nary another Japanese dish among its offerings. It seems the addition of kimchi to any dish, dumplings to any appetizer selection, and teriyaki sauce to any protein suddenly justifies the claim.
Thanks to executive chef Tomoyuki Kobayashi, 1221 at MFP is the antithesis of the typical “Asian fusion” hodgepodge you’re using to seeing. Instead, precision is the glue that binds his eclectic menu together. Here, fine French and exacting Japanese technique and flavors are fused together in a truly global fashion, better defining Asian fusion cuisine than any rendition of “Thai calamari” ever could.
The first Japanese chef in the U.S. to have been awarded the Academic Culunaire de France Diplome and a veteran of notable restaurants near and far—Louie’s in Port Washington and Toku in Manhasset; and Alain Ducasse, Lespanisse, and Asiate, respectively—Chef Kobayashi has written his autobiography into the menu at 1221, the Gold Coast’s newest hotspot. All of his journeys, from Japan to France, New York City to Port Washington, are well-documented in the selection; and many of his dishes serve as an homage to the people he has met along the way.
It’s this freedom to express his personal story that he’s reveling in now, as he embraces the excitement of being back on the line every day. Never before has he been able to put so much of his life on a plate, he shares, as he draws upon what he’s learned from the kitchens he’s worked in. And the secret to inventive dishes such as a housemade burrata ball served with sweetly spicy persimmon salad and pistachios, lamb kibbeh meatballs, and chicken dumpling soup with Shanghai shoots and chili oil? Listening.
“In my experience, there has been a lot of respect between cultures in the kitchen and between owners,” he says, “and it’s especially true here with Mr. Sudhir and Mr. Sumeer Kakar,” the father and son team behind this new venture.
“I was taught by my mentor, ‘You may learn from me, but I also learn from you,’ and that has really stuck with me. I believe it’s important to always be open to learning, to have no ego. That is how you can learn to love new techniques, put your own touch on trends, and build on the classics. I get my ideas from having conversations, not only with other chefs and restaurateurs but with line cooks, dishwashers, front of house staff. Their stories and how they cook and eat inspire me.”
Kobayashi’s unfeigned, deep humility almost seems at odds with the exuberant creativity that has already made 1221 buzzworthy, but his penchant for experimentation belies the respectful dignitas of his demeanor. For example, in development is a new take on sushi, a response to the poke and sushirrito trends that have become Instagram fodder. Also in the works is mastery of the tandoori oven installed by the restaurant’s owners as a nod to their own Indian roots.
“I’ve never used one before!” says Kobayashi with excitement, as he runs down a list of ways he wants to incorporate this new piece of equipment. “Homemade bread that I can incorporate French and Japanese flavors into, my own version of tandoori chicken …”
The prospect of introducing more exotic ingredients to Long Islanders also sparks his passion. Already on his order list are items such as Japanese young peach, which looks like a green olive but tastes like anything but; Peruvian peppers, which Kobayashi uses with his charred octopus dish, serving it with tarragon aoli and a fermented black garlic puree—another ingredient not often found in a typical kitchen. The use of kewpie mayonnaise also adds a new element to his sauces, especially with the addition of French herbs. And the addition of soy sauce for an umami boost to his otherwise traditional braised lamb shank, served with cheesy polenta and a lovely cassoulet, is a more subtle example of how East meets West at 1221.
After all, this concept is far more French than Japanese. Also on the menu are items like chicken Ballotine with truffle fontina and braised salsify root, filet mignon Wellington, an Alsatian tarte flambee, grilled tiger shrimp baked in béarnaise. On the whole, Kobayashi’s culinary training in the exalted art of French cooking is the foundation on which he builds.
“I am fascinated by the marriage of flavors and techniques, especially since there is a lot of unexpected similarity between French and Japanese cooking,” Kobayashi says. “Techniques like braising, roasting … it’s interesting to see things become another product just by how you prepare it.”
“I am passionate about making sauce, and both cultures layer flavors and make marriages with sauce,” he says. “Liquid is magical—you throw in roasted bones with mirepoix, add seasoning thoughtfully, and … magic.”
Abracadabra et voila.