13 April 2008

Kaiseki in Japan

Since my first visit in 2006, I always loved coming back to Japan, a place where people are like little flecks of nori in the miso of life. Or a speck of aduki bean paste in the daifuku of existence. Or something along those lines. I'm no poet, ok?

Anyway, in April 2008, I was once again in Japan, and since I really like and admire most Japanese cuisine, I had thought that it's about time to sample some local haute cuisine. To be honest, I never found Japan to be an expensive place for dining, and that's not because I am rich or anything. I just never did outrageous things like order bottles of
Petrus or single-malt scotches or eat sushi off a naked woman. Or even try fugu (poisonous blowfish). That is just not my thing as I'm a shy, retiring sort of person in real life. Ask anyone. But I like food and often, the best food I have encountered in Japan are from little family restaurants where they make only one main kind of dish, like soba or udon or kushiage but they've been doing the same dishes for several generations so usually they have gotten it right by now. My best suggestion is to just pop into a place with only Japanese signs and just gesture that you want to eat. The Japanese are so polite that often the host will show you what they can offer (usually via a picture menu), and then you just order whatever you fancy. In this way, I have encountered some splendid food, from spicy pork broths made from bones that have been simmered (not boiled) for days, to stunning zarusoba, a cold plate of soba noodles dipped in dashi sauce, to various kinds of rice dishes served with meat mixed with raw egg which somehow still tastes so right. I would never eat raw eggs in Europe but in Japan, the standard of hygiene is really much better than in Europe and the quality and freshness of the food is so good that I really do trust the restaurants, and trust is really the secret to eating well in Japan. And a sense of adventure! :o)

But there is a higher order of food in Japan, called kaiseki, the haute cuisine of Japanese food. Apparently, the phrase kaiseki means "stones in the bosom", and is related to some old Zen monks' habit of putting warm stones around their bellies to ward off hunger pangs. To be honest, how this relates to haute cuisine, I have no idea as every kaiseki I have been to don't serve stones, cold or hot. What they do serve are very unusual dishes, made lovingly from the freshest ingredients, presented beautifully as virtual works of art and they are designed to excite the senses of sight, smell and taste.

As the area around Kyoto is known for the best kaiseki in Japan, I started with Uma no Me,
housed in an old farmhouse in Nara, just inside the main park. I opted for the private dining room, which costed an extra 1.000 yen and it was well worth it. After all, 1.000 yen is only roughly 6 Euro and that doesn't even count as a tip in most restaurants in London. The meal starts with a sakizuke, a morsel of exquisite bean curd and gingery radish meant for cleaning your palate. Then came the hassun and mukozuke, a combined course of strikingly-presented sashimi with a curious bowl of mixed wild ferns harvested from somewhere in the mountains. Then came the futamono, a lovely piece of fried bean curd that has been simmered in stock and served with an unusual dashi sauce. This was followed by yakimono, kono no mono and tome-wan, respectively some grilled river bream, a beautiful selection of unfamiliar but delicious pickled vegetables and an elegant miso soup. All too soon, came the mizumono, a suprisingly unflattering and unexpected strawberry mousse. Overall, it was a wonderful introduction to the world of kaiseki and the lunch was well worth the 4.500 yen. More pictures can be seen here.

The next kaiseki was Grotto in Kita-Shiragawa in Kyoto,
a place easily reachable by bus, which is just as well as few taxis seem to prowl around here. This kaiseki is run by an affable and friendly cook, Takada Shinichiro, who has worked in New York and Australia, and he did all the cooking in front of the diners, which were seated at a square bar around his rather efficient little kitchen area. Mr Shinichiro's cuisine is rather upgraded for the 21st century and he has a less formal approach to the tradition of kaiseki. He is also rather fond of scallops or hotate, which is just fine with me! The sakizuke is a little sashimi of salmon and firm white fish, beautiful in its sparseness and really makes one itch for more food. A lovely soup was served next, a delicious broth with scallop dumplings. Then the hassun appeared, an enticing hotate and flounder sashimi, followed by the futamono, a thickish soup with a slice of monkfish wrapped in a sakura leaf. The main shiizakana then appeared, consisting of tempura and various kinds of grilled fish and vegetables. This was exquisite in its simplicity and taste. A naka-choko followed next, a rather overly thick version of chawan-mushi. Then came some salad speckled with sesame dressing and served with a small piece of grilled fish. The tome wan was a rather curious rice ball floating around in a cornflour-thickened clear miso broth. Finally, the mizumono arrived and it was unexpectedly simple and bland - chiffon cake, some sweet bean paste and peach sorbet. Again, it was a lovely and interesting experience of a new style of cuisine and was well worth the 4.500 yen for the dinner. Pictures can be viewed here.

Emboldened by my previous kaiseki experiences, I headed out finally for Doi, widely considered to be one of the best kaiseki in Japan. It is located in a hidden spot, uphill in the Kodai-ji Temple complex reachable from the Gion temple in Kyoto. This place does kaiseki for no less than 25.000 yen per person, but fortunately, there is a cheaper option where one can have the same food for half the price, as long as one does not mind sitting on chairs at a dinner table (instead of tatami mats) and being served by apprentice geishas. The restaurant itself is rather surprising, in that one has to take an electric lift to the 3rd floor dining room. It seems that tradition here stops on the ground floor but I didn't mind as the view was superb and somehow captures the essence of modern Kyoto.

The kaiseki here would never be accused of being ungenerous for I ate here as much as in both previous kaiseki combined. Fortunately, I had a loose pair of trousers and a lot of willpower. The meal kicked off immediately with the hassun, various pickles and bracken fern on a gluey paste of wild yam, accompanied by jellied abalone. A very interesting combination indeed, especially the yam paste which pretty much had the structure and texture of mucus. Next was the futamono, a broth of mushroom, abalone and fish, which tasted luscious. This was followed by a mukozuke, a huge platter of sashimi, wonderfully fresh and bountiful enough to warrant loosening my belt a notch. The strangest course appeared next, an overcooked, rather rough-tasting lobster served with some seaweed. I cannot really say that I enjoyed this dish as the lobster was at least 10 minutes or more overdone, and hence it had lost its texture and much of its natural sweetness. Still, the kaiseki pressed on with the shiizakana, a triple whammy of grilled duck, broiled fish and a chowder of baby clams cooked in what appears to be brown miso. This came with the gohan, a rather simple rice bowl mixed with fresh peas and a tray of pickled vegetables. All was rather palatable, especially the duck and even the green-tea coated fish was better than I had feared. As usual, the meal ended with a rather insipid mizumono, basically just some sliced chilled tropical fruit. Was it worth 12.500 yen for this lunch? Well, I have to say that I am no kaiseki expert but somehow, I found Doi rather formulaic. The food was never less than well-done and well-presented, even delicious in most part, but it seemed to have been prepared without a lot of passion or delight - my lunch felt a little like a task that had to be done by someone following a formula. This is a top-class restaurant, of that there is no doubt, but I would suggest to please don't make Doi your first kaiseki experience. There are other kaiseki with more tradition, flourish and atmosphere to sample beforehand. Some pictures of Doi are on here.

But would I like to have another kaiseki again? Sure, of course, if someone wants to buy me dinner - anytime! :o)