Thursday, August 03, 2006

Artful, seasonal food @ Kaygetsu

Kaygetsu Restaurant
Menlo Park, Calif.

The Japanese meal known as kaiseki began as a set of small courses served during the tea ceremony. The Chinese characters for cha-kaiseki (tea kaiseki) mean “warm stone.” This refers to a practice of Zen Buddhist priests, who would tuck heated stones beneath their robes to ward off cold and hunger pains.

Japanese restaurants began to serve a more casual form of kaiseki in the 19th century, and this meal is described with the Chinese characters meaning “to meet” or “to gather.”

In kaiseki, the ingredients and even the tableware are carefully chosen to reflect the season. Chefs Shinichi Aoki and Katsuhiro Yamasaki change their menu at Kaygetsu every six weeks.

It’s hard to reconcile the idea of this ritualized meal with the strip-mall setting of Kaygetsu. The restaurant makes up one corner of a suburban shopping area, next to a Safeway and a Longs Drugstore. Sushi chef Toshi Sakuma and his wife Keiko have been greeting guests here since they opened Kaygetsu in April 2004.

The restaurant’s interior is spare, with warm pale walls and dark wood trim, enlivened by a few small woodblock prints and formal flower arrangements. There are perhaps 15 tables, set fairly close together. (I heard more than I wanted to know about my neighbor’s quirky relatives and recent pregnancy.) But I only noticed these things during brief pauses in the well-paced, nine-course meal. The food successfully held my attention.

Our sakizuke (starter) was flash-fried cheeks of sea bass, the choicest part of the fish, topped with yama ima potato, okra radish sprouts, and ginger threads. Alongside the fish was a gelatin flavored with ponzu, a citrus fruit resembling a lemon. The gelatin tasted salty and smoky, like bacon, with just a touch of citrus, somewhere between lemon and grapefruit. This course was served on a rough earthenware platter, rectangular in shape wth turned-up corners.

We tried the sake pairing of four different types. The first, dewazakura daiginjo, was the most floral, almost like a white wine. It was the only one of the four served in a distinctive glass chalice, with a frosted base and the character for “sake” engraved on the bowl. The other three sakes arrived in tall shot glasses with flared rims, each set into a clear plastic box that served as a coaster.

The second sake, masumi yamahai jinjo, which was described in the menu as “rich, aromatic and robust,” didn’t make much of an impression on me. Third was a “lightly cloudy sake,” otokoyama sasaori nama zake, which was refreshing. I preferred it to the fourth, kokuryu tokusen ginjo, which was said to have “fragrant aroma with strength and depth.”

The next course was hiyashi suimono, cold soup. The cheery yellow corn soup, which arrived in a small stemmed glass, was a pleasing contrast to the blue-and-white-patterned serving plate. The soup was chilled but not cold, thin and sweet but not cloying. At the bottom of the glass were gossamer sheets of fresh yuba, or tofu skin, which gave the soup some substance, rather like Chinese egg-drop soup.

A sashimi course followed. The raw fish nearly melted in my mouth, it was so fresh and delicate. The plate included o-toro, or fatty tuna, plus striped bass and snapper. The fish slices were carefully arranged in a garden of microgreens and snapdragon heads, on a green-glazed pottery dish with linear patterns of red and green. Among the greens was a showy bright-red leaf that I didn’t recognize; the server told me it was Japanese water pepper.

Course number four, takiawase (slow-cooked dish), was not the stew I expected but pristine vegetables in fish broth clear as water. A few string beans, red bell pepper slices, a chunk of dried tofu (now spongy, after cooking in the broth), shiitake mushroom slices, green winter melon and orange kabocha squash made for a colorful arrangement. Kabocha, which the server described as Japanese pumpkin, was closer to a sweet potato in texture and taste.

Next was a different kind of sushi course, called shinogi, or intermezzo. The first thing I noticed on the plate was what appeared to be a slice of beef. Indeed it was “Kobe beef nigiri,” extremely tender, roasted rare and sliced thickly. Instead of the traditional wasabi, this sushi was topped with more ponzu and a dab of what seemed to be horseradish. The other item on the long, tapered white plate was marinated salmon and sushi rice, shaped into a pyramid and completely wrapped in a bamboo leaf. (Is bamboo edible? I don’t think so, unless you’re a panda.)

The agemono, or deep fried dish, was flounder with plum sauce. The crispy fish was wrapped in shiso, an aromatic green that's also referred to as Japanese basil. Next to it was a ball of shrimp with snow peas, fried until crunchy, rather like tempura, and served with an intriguing condiment, a mixture of powdered green tea and salt.

Our last “main course” was yakimono, or “grilled dish,” in this case a slightly sweet grilled chicken with miso sauce, and a few spoonfuls of barley cooked in the same miso. Next to the chicken was a tiny white hexagon-shaped cup of what looked like dessert, maybe a demitasse-sized sundae with a cherry on top. Actually it was thin slices of kiwi fruit, and the “whipped cream” was made from tofu, with a bit of marinated cherry tomato. Perhaps it was meant to be a refresher, but it seemed an odd thing to be paired with the chicken. This course was served on the most interesting plate, shaped like a long thin green leaf with pointed ends -- maybe a bamboo leaf? – and a scored pattern on the surface.

Our server told us that the broiled unagi in the next course -- gohanmono, or rice dish -- was a type of Japanese freshwater eel that’s not as rich as the eel usually served as nigiri sushi. This eel was quite mild, served over steamed rice with wasabi that we were instructed to stir into more of the perfectly clear fish broth. The inevitable pickled vegetables (they seem to come with any Japanese meal) came on the side. I liked the way the pale eel meat and white rice contrasted with the brown-striped serving bowl.

I was looking forward to the final course, a “house-made original dessert” described as peach crème brulee. The surprise under the properly crackling broiled-sugar crust was small chunks of fresh white peach buried in the cool custard. The dessert had a great fresh-peach flavor. But in the end, I decided that the fruit detracted too much from the prime characteristic of good crème brulee: the contrast between velvety custard and brittle topping. This theoretical objection did not stop me from eating every last bit!

The service was attentive but not overwhelming. Several times the servers and the sushi chef asked us how we were enjoying our meal, and they seemed quietly pleased and proud when we responded enthusiastically.

A recent review of Kaygetsu in San Francisco Magazine raves that “you could make a meal of Toshi’s amberjack, maguro, and tiny firefly squid.” I would like to return and place myself in the hands of Mr. Sakuma, who has been creating sushi for more than 30 years. The party next to us, who seemed to be regular customers, ordered a huge platter of sushi after conferring with the chef at length. It looked fabulous, and they left nothing behind.

You would think that you should be very hungry to do justice to a nine-course meal. But the food at Kaygetsu is best savored, slowly, and each serving is just enough to get the full flavors and texture of the dish. So you might want to have a snack before you go. But make it a light one.

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