Kokoro, Greenwich

 

(★★)
If this slim, sleek, silvery slip of a restaurant is anything, it's hip. Calling its cuisine modern Asian, Kokoro mix-matches exotic flavors and Google-worthy ingredients with eye-catching panache. It works because two of the world’s great cuisines, Japanese and French, underlie much that goes on here. 

Miso soup with wakame seaweed shares pride of place with silky porcini mushroom chestnut soup topped with truffle foam. Chilean sea bass is adorned with lily buds, black bean salsify and lemon cauliflower purée. Long Island duckling comes with teriyaki polenta, dark cherry sauce and white truffle honey gelée.  

Just don't count on it. In the course of several visits we discovered that the printed menu, as well as the list of specials, is a mutable feast. Lily buds? Now you get them, now you don’t. Lamb chops? Sometimes thick, sometimes thin. But the skill, quality and creativity remain constant, and to my considerable delight I was able to indulge my passions for oysters and foie gras at once on two occasions. Kokoro serves oysters and foie gras huddled together in an oyster shell so you can savor both in one bite. Served on a bed of ice, the oysters are icy cold, the foie gras still warm from searing. Hot and cold, rich and astringent, sensuous beyond belief.
In contrast, a sashimi platter was a compilation of cool, clean freshness, 18 pieces, chef’s choice, including rich red tuna, lovely yellowtail and red snapper, mackerel too strident for my taste and pale mild fluke.

Toro tartare was especially disappointing because it did not live up to its description in a recent New York Times review. Purportedly it comes in the shape of a heart resting in a matching hollow carved in the top of a block of ice. Our toro arrived at almost room temperature, a loose pile in a sea of yuzu or onion dressing—the menu mentions both and it was hard to tell. More serious was the fact that after a mouthful or two I encountered a tough, stringy tendon—evidence of careless cutting that a good sushi chef would be embarrassed to own up to. Perhaps I should have sent it back. For $21 it should have been better. 

The array of special rolls on offer was so enticing we ordered more than we needed and were glad we did. Jaguar, which I may have chosen for the name, turned out to be my favorite, an opulent mélange of tuna, avocado and cream cheese topped with spicy soft shell crab drizzled with smoked-eel glaze. My friends chose a zippier roll, which lived up to its descriptive name Spicy! Crunchy! Zesty!, combining spicy crunchy tuna, yellowtail, cucumber and pickled radish topped with spicy kani (crab) salad and tempura flakes with eel emulsion. We all wanted to try the Flame Thrower, which the menu described as flambéed. Since we were expecting dramatic pyrotechnics tableside, it was a bit of a letdown to find the roll was heated while wrapped in foil. No smoke, no char, but still it was delicious—shrimp tempura, spicy tuna and asparagus. All of the above were hefty bites—easy to make a meal of two or three and fun to share.

But there are entrées if you are so inclined, and we were. On my first visit I fell in love with poached latte lobster with kaffir beurre blanc over open-face potato ravioli. On my most recent visit, however, latte lobster was gone and nobody but me seemed to remember it—and the plump Colorado lamb chops I’d enjoyed had been replaced with scrawny ones cut from an Australian rack in a sauce that went from French-accented red wine to browned butter and malt.

Still, I was happy to find that my favorite entrées were unchanged and wonderful. Black cod, snow white and silky under a crisp dark skin, perched on the left side of a dinner plate like the prow of a ship sailing into a white sea, wore the same festive garland of green pea mousseline, fresh peas, baby fennel, Spanish saffron and pineapple sauce and tasted as good as it looked. 
Duck breast was equally glorious, moist and juicy, served in generously large pieces, not sliced too thin to taste. Nestled beside teriyaki polenta, robed in dark cherry sauce and garnished with hazelnuts and white truffle honey gelée, this duck was a dish to remember, East-meets-West cooking in all its glory. Please, Kokoro, keep it on the menu.  

A word about service: Our every request was met with a smile and a nod—and too often promptly forgotten. It was almost eerie how willing every server seemed to be while our meal progressed in annoying fits and starts, hot appetizers arriving before we could get a drink and desserts so late we were tempted to do without.

But beauty makes up for a lot and there’s a lot of beauty at Kokoro. Seated at a table facing the bar, we watched a trio of chefs turning plates of food into exquisite Japanese flower arrangements. There was artistry everywhere—except, curiously, when it came to dessert. Black sesame crème brûlée, dark gray and sludgy, was downright ugly. Tempura-fried Oreos looked and tasted flabby. Sinful Chocolate Lava or mango sorbet might have been a better choice. Better yet might be to take a pass on dessert and saunter off feeling virtuous while at the same time savoring the pleasures of a dining experience like one you might encounter in Singapore.

Kokoro
363 Greenwich Ave., Greenwich
203/869-8886; kokorobistro.com

Lunch Monday through Friday 11 to 3, Saturday 12 to 3. Dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 10, Friday and Saturday till 11, Sunday 4 to 10. Major credit cards. Price range: sushi or sashimi à la carte $2 to $7, appetizers $14 to $19, rolls $12 to $22, entrées $19 to $32, desserts $8 to $10.

Kokoro, Greenwich

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