Things are often best when small; many find kittens infinitely preferable to cats, and sports cars preferable to minivans. And to Julian Velasco, curator of Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s collection of 400-plus bonsai, his tiny spruces and minuscule maples are far superior to their sky-high siblings.
When it comes to gala dinners, less is rarely more, but as guests at Small Scale, the garden’s bonsai-themed Japanese dinner on Friday night discovered — the meal was also miniature.
Twelve tiny morsels, each of a different fantastical Japanese-inspired dish — like hand-carved Japanese pumpkin simmered in kombu kelp broth, shaved lotus root and oshi-tofu with organic micro wasabi sprouts — studded the plates under the arched beams and glass panes of the Palm House. The architectural nibbles wrought by Makoto Suzuki of Momo Sushi Shack in Bushwick were to be paired with four sakes, and eaten in a precise order. Few guests knew what they were eating, let alone how; Philip Gilmour, the restaurant’s co-owner, stood on a dais and instructed the crowd. Though a zucchini disc was borderline offensive to her Western palate, Rachel Beerman, a teacher, appreciated the meal’s conceit. “Putting a lot of time and effort into something you then share with people,” she said, “you’re pairing plants that do that with food that does that.”
Guests like Giacomo Mulé, the caretaker of Christie Brinkley’s bonsai ficus, began the evening with a tour of “Graceful Perseverance,” a collection of rugged bonsai like a 310-year-old white pine that thrives in inhospitable conditions. At 34 degrees, with a blustering wind courtesy of wall-mounted fans, the greenhouse presented just that to many a spaghetti-strapped guest.
In between the mysterious courses — what exactly is a ninjin salado and more importantly, how do you keep it between your chopsticks? — dancers from the Japanese Folk Dance Institute of New York performed interludes like an Iyomanzai or five-fan dance, holding paper fans in their hands and lips, and in the toes of their right feet, in addition to the ones strapped to their heads.
After dinner, the attendees were invited back to the bonsai exhibition for a second look (with coats). Mr. Velasco, the curator. spoke to the visitor with the Zen patois expected of someone who keeps constant company with some of the most peculiar citizens of the plant world. “A lot of people think bonsai are small because they are constricted — not true,” he said. “The tree believes it is much bigger.” Later, he added, “Bonsai don’t judge us.”