Tiny, jewel-like courses served on plates that could be in a design museum. A detailed menu that sources ingredients down to the pond -- say, seaweed harvested from under a whirlpool in the Naruto Channel, “where the dynamic action of the swirling ocean gives it a unique texture that is soft but crisp.” Service that is hushed and reverential. The reservation? Almost impossible to get.
No, we’re not at some gastronomic lab in Barcelona, Spain, or the latest chic table in New York. This is Kikunoi, a 95-year-old restaurant in Kyoto, and right now, it looks as if it’s on the cutting edge of world cuisine.
The chef, Yoshihiro Murata, is cooking the same dishes his father and grandfather did, a traditional Japanese menu called kaiseki. It is Japanese cuisine as high art -- an exquisite, elaborately choreographed tasting menu, where as much attention is paid to the beauty of each plate as it is to the texture of the silky slice of fish, the aroma of the tiny blossom that adorns it, the flavor of the mountain herb that’s just come into season.
Kaiseki is what’s on the minds of some of the world’s most forward-looking chefs. Ferran Adria in Spain, Thierry Marx in France and David Bouley, Lee Hefter and David Myers in the U.S. are among those studying this cuisine, borrowing its unique ingredients, riffing on its dishes or planning restaurants built on the kaiseki concept.
It seems likely others will follow. Chef Murata’s new book, “Kaiseki,” has created a buzz in the food world and was nominated for a James Beard Foundation cookbook award. This fall, the International Culinary Center (formerly the French Culinary Institute) will bring kaiseki chefs from Kyoto to New York and hold a three-day forum for American chefs and journalists. Bouley plans to open his own kaiseki restaurant in New York before the end of the year.
After flings with Spanish foam, molecular gastronomy and Italian rustic, kaiseki is becoming the cuisine that awes the chefs.
“To this day, there’s nothing like it for me,” says Myers, the chef at Sona in Los Angeles. “Europe is great, but this is another level. The aesthetic drive, the attention to every detail, blows me away.”
A sensory experience
KAISEKI was born in Kyoto more than 500 years ago. It was originally a light meal, named for the warm stones that young monks carried in their robes to soothe their hunger (kai means bosom, and seki, stone). By the 16th century, the meal became part of the tea ceremony served to travelers stopping over at a ryokan, one of Kyoto’s traditional inns. Then, the kaiseki meal was a bowl of miso soup and three side dishes.
Now, kaiseki is a poetic experience that embraces the senses and reaches deeply into Japanese culture. The menu is intensely seasonal -- every kaiseki chef cooks the fish and the vegetables that are in season that week. Individual ingredients have different names depending on how mature they are. Sea bream, for example, can be sakura dai in April, satsuki dai in May, mugiwara dai in June.
The dining experience is intimate, more like going to someone’s home than to a restaurant. Most traditionally, the meal is served in your own room at a ryokan -- as most in Kyoto still do -- while you are wearing a kimono and reclining on a tatami mat. It feels much that way in a kaiseki restaurant like Kikunoi, where you dine in a private room, often with a view of a serene garden, sculptured to be viewed from tatami level.
The courses are brought in one at a time, in exquisite porcelain bowls and lacquer dishes that often have been handed down from generation to generation, just as the menu has been. Courses always include an elaborately composed appetizer, a sashimi course, a simmered dish, a grilled dish, a steamed course and a course that comes in a beautiful lidded bowl.
In Kyoto at the end of March, chefs were all obsessed with the same ingredients. Young bamboo, the pale tips that are layered like an artichoke and have a subtle, minerally flavor. Fiddlehead ferns, mountain vegetables and young rapini. Cherry salmon were running, along with tai snapper and needlefish. And of course, the cherry trees were bursting into bloom.
It was also spawning season, and that meant a few ingredients that were a little scarier than cherry blossoms: snapper sperm sacs (which Murata steams over sake and serves with fresh sea cucumber roe), and sea bream ovaries (cooked in a sweet stock, in “one of those classics that never seems to change”).
“You go there and what you have to eat -- it’s some amazing ingredients,” Myers says. “A lot of things, that even as a chef you go, ‘Whoa, oh my God, I’ve never seen this before.’ ” Mashed raw eel innards, for instance. “Bring on the sake!”
Message on a plate
ON a sunny afternoon in Kyoto, chef Murata is pouring tea, not sake. He’s stepped away from his busy kitchen to explain that in kaiseki, capturing the moment is more important than anything else.
“I try to send a message,” he says through a translator. “It’s not just a dish but an atmosphere, a mood. Look for the message. The taste is important, but it’s not the most important thing.
“If an old person came to dinner and they had fuki no to (a mountain vegetable), it’s sending the message that it’s the beginning of the spring. He’ll be happy to think that spring is almost there. It puts them in a certain state. The flavor is not as important.”
This isn’t the first time a wave of Western chefs has been so taken with kaiseki. In fact, it was the inspiration for the French menu degustation, the tasting menu that’s now a standard restaurant routine.
“In the ‘70s, all the big French chefs -- Michel Guerard, Paul Bocuse, (Alain) Senderens and (Jean and Pierre) Troisgros -- were all going to Japan and they brought back the idea of multicourse menus,” says Daniel Boulud, the New York chef. “So now, you have the menu degustation, which is in a way, a kaiseki menu.”
Today’s chefs are enthralled with kaiseki as a sort of extreme “California cuisine” with its emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients that are completely of the place.
“It’s profound, the list of ingredients,” says Bouley, who in planning for his New York kaiseki restaurant is developing sources for artisanal soy sauce, mirin, yuba (the skin of fresh tofu), the different kinds of pickles and much more. “The ingredients have to come first and the chefs will follow. When you’re eating a kaiseki menu in Kyoto, you can have an experience that you can’t have without those ingredients.”
Bouley plans to open his restaurant by the end of the year. It will be an eight-seat room, and the chefs will be professors from the Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka. In L.A., Myers has been toying with a kaiseki concept for years.
“I would do it as a total experience,” Myers says. “It’s not just the food, but the service, the drinks, the ice, the gestures, the moment. I don’t even know if I could pull it off. That’s why I haven’t made any commitment to do that.”
For now, Myers weaves in a few dishes on his menu at Sona. One is a slice of wagyu beef from Kagoshima, served with just yuzu kosho, a paste of yuzu fruit and pepper.
Myers says he was able to procure the beef only after sushi chef Kazunori Nozawa introduced him to the purveyor and they met in person and prepared and discussed the meat.
“It’s kaiseki in spirit -- not a literal kaiseki dish,” Myers says. “Taking what’s right from a special place, a special relationship, and doing the least to it.”
BUT apart from a dish here and there, there is almost no one in Los Angeles attempting to cook this style. Many chefs agree that the closest thing to a true kaiseki experience in Los Angeles is Urasawa, the dizzyingly expensive Beverly Hills restaurant.
Part of the reason is the chefs: Kaiseki takes eight to 10 years of training, and those who have it tend to stay in Japan, says Tiger Nakawake, one of the owners of Hokusai, a new Japanese restaurant in Beverly Hills that offers kaiseki by request.
“So many chefs don’t know how to make it,” he says.
Another problem: Kaiseki is expensive, both the labor-intensive preparations and the ingredients. The young bamboo alone -- on everyone’s menu in Kyoto a few weeks ago -- would cost $150 to $200 a piece if Nakawake were to import it directly. At Hokusai, he charges $100 to $220 per person for a seven- to 11-course kaiseki menu.
And then there are the plates. Serving these dishes on antiques or one-of-a-kind pieces is an essential part of the experience, and that’s something few restaurants can afford.
Still, these chefs are driven to translate the kaiseki experience.
“There’s an element of kaiseki in the cooking at El Bulli,” says Adria, referring to his groundbreaking restaurant in Spain. Adria, and chef Nobu Matsuhisa, wrote forewords to Murata’s “Kaiseki” book. “It’s very similar,” Adria says. “Being able to eat kaiseki is an experience. And that’s true at El Bulli too. I want it to be an experience.
“The culinary world cooks with the head, the heart and the senses. But Mr. Murata cooks with the soul. We don’t know how to do that.”
The choreography of kaiseki
A kaiseki menu is a highly formal affair: a series of small courses, each clearly defined by its cooking technique, its ingredients or even its serving dish. How precise are these definitions? The “seasons” change every two weeks, and so does the porcelain and lacquerware. Here are the traditional kaiseki courses and a menu Yoshihiro Murata served in late March at Kikunoi in Kyoto:
Sakizuke: An introduction to the meal, much like an amuse bouche, meant to delight and make a strong impression.
Sake-steamed sea bream milt with fresh sea cucumber roe, a spring orchid flower and ponzu.
Hassun: Murata likens the second course to the overture in a symphony -- it sets the seasonal theme with one piece of sushi and five or six complex embellishments, arranged like a still-life.
Sea bream sushi with kinome herb, petal-shaped slices of udo stalk; miniature dumplings made with shrimp, avocado and abalone; steamed lily bulb petals topped with salmon roe; roe-filled baby octopus; glistening boiled broad beans; broiled squid dusted with nori powder; Chinese yam in a butterfly shape.
Mukozuke: Seasonal sashimi.
Toro with mustard and shiso leaf; triangles of Akashi snapper and Kuruma shrimp.
Takiawase: A medley of vegetables and fish, meat or tofu, simmered separately.
Vinegared firefly squid and wild mountain vegetables with jelly made from uni and kinome herb.
Futamono: A warming dish, served in a lidded bowl. The wafting aroma, Murata writes in his book, “Kaiseki,” is “critical to the success of the dish.”
Thin slices of Wakasa tilefish wrapped in glutinous rice flavored with preserved cherry blossoms and a cherry tree leaf.
Yakimono: A broiled or grilled course, usually fish but sometimes tofu, bamboo shoots or eggplant.
Cherry salmon marinated in miso, lightly broiled and then smoked over cherry wood, with kinome.
Su-zakana: A palate refresher, usually crisp vegetables and wild plants in a vinegar dressing.
Vinegared Chinese yams, shredded wakame seaweed, raw baby eels, mountain yam cut like angel hair pasta.
Shiizakana: A simmered dish.
Bamboo shoots simmered with wakame seaweed in dashi, with sea bream ovaries.
Gohan: Cooked rice with seasonal ingredients.
Ko no mono: Seasonal home pickled vegetables.
Tome-wan: Soup served with the gohan and ko no mono.
Green pea soup with a deep fried shrimp ball.
Mizumono: A seasonal dessert that might be an old-fashioned Japanese confection, ice cream or cake.
Mango soup with pistachio ice cream; warami mochi with soy powder.