A Tale of Two Kaiseki Chefs
Two kaiseki chefs, each with a different approach, offer a delicious glimpse of Japan on seasonal plates that are intriguing, beguiling and unforgettable. Story and photos by CHRISTOPHER KUCWAY.
Published on Jun 7, 2016
"CHOCOLATE?" Once an animated Kenichi Hashimoto hears that, he darts off to the kitchen faster than the Japanese puns that roll off his tongue for a rendezvous with a French confectioner. Our table of five is left to enjoy his latest course, dubbed "one-bite dish," knowing full well there's very little that is conventional about his take on kaiseki, and the same holds true of the cherubic, fun-loving chef. "I just want to break Japanese etiquette," Hashimoto tells us before we dive into his 11-course meal at The Ritz-Carlton's Food & Wine Festival in Tokyo, "so I start with these appetizers that you can eat in any order." Wait a minute, isn't kaiseki known for its formalized meals, for following tradition? Those ideals, it turns out will be explained on a course-by-course basis.
I'm at the festival largely because two of Japan's best kaiseki chefs—Hashimoto and Ryusuke Nakatani, both Michelin-starred—are on the menu, and in this day and age of kitchen stars, this is a great opportunity to learn something about this local ritual—through translators—or, on a more modest level, to enjoy some of the best Japanese haute cuisine around. Nakatani runs Ajikitcho Horie (1-22-6 Kitahorie, Nishi-ku, Osaka; +81 6 6543 1741; ajikitcho.jp) in Osaka, while Hashimoto is the face behind Ryozanpaku (5 Izumidono-cho, Yoshida, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto; +81 75 771 4447; ryozanpaku.net) in Kyoto.
While the two are not opposites, they do approach kaiseki from entirely different angles. Wise-cracking Hashimoto likes to make serious points about his dishes through humor. That morning, I had run into him at breakfast where he asked in broken English if I was going to his dinner. Yes, I told him. "Me too!" he laughed as he padded off to the buffet. On the other hand, the already soft-spoken Nakatani reverentially lowers his voice further when speaking of his craft. Like most kaiseki chefs, he first spent a decade simply studying Japanese haute cuisine and has been preparing it now for 20 years. Hashimoto, you might have guessed, is self-taught, which is almost unheard-of in the kaiseki world. Though the journeys to the plate differ, their menus fall into the same parameters—a set of elaborate appetizers, sashimi, a grilled dish followed by a steamed course and even one hidden in a bowl.
Chef and comedian Hashimoto.
Kaiseki is derived from 16th-century Japanese tea ceremonies. It's a formalized affair in an intimate but comfortable setting that celebrates the seasons through natural and local ingredients. So this isn't simply cuisine but an integral piece of Japanese culture.
I start with a midday meal prepared by Nakatani. Our sake-paired lunch has a moon festival theme: its ingredients are at their freshest in autumn. The menu is so reflective of what's in season that it can change between what is printed one day and the meal itself the next. In the soup course that follows appetizers, finely sliced matsutake are paired with a nutty and soft, skinless lotus root dumpling. With no discernable grain, the mushrooms are as delicate as they are delicious, a reminder of how fresh vegetables should taste. There's also a zest of a lemon peel. Paired with sake from the Hakkaisan Brewery in Niigata Prefecture, the acidic—whether citrus or vinegar—comes into play against the liquor, in this case junmai-ginjo, pure rice sake with no distilled alcohol added.
Nakatani's matsutake and lotus-root dumpling soup.
Kaiseki courses are served one by one, each meant to complement the next; each of the dishes is individual, the meal a whole. Nakatani's sashimi course of sea bream, snow-white squid and crimson-colored tuna is so fresh it has me counting the city blocks to Tsukiji. And that tower of black jelly? It turns out to be a delicious wedge of seaweed.
Kaiseki is driven by aesthetics as much as taste, and Nakatani's hassun course, lives up to that ideal. It arrives in a bamboo cage topped with red autumnal leaves. The attention to detail here in the mix of tofu, steamed abalone, roast duck, marinated persimmon and mackerel-rolled turnip makes this course almost too beautiful to eat. Once we do, our taste buds switch into overdrive. And I'm glad for one little-known aspect of kaiseki: diners need not recognize all the flavors or even ingredients in each course. Simply enjoying the dish is what matters most. Surprising, salty, rich, smoky: our table runs out of modifiers for this artistic course we were afraid to devour.
Laid-back, Nakatani is a picture of concentration when at work.
Next up is a flaky grilled barracuda flavored with sudachi, a Japanese citrus fruit commonly used instead of vinegar. The dish is electrified by neon-orange sea urchin that sends shockwaves through my taste buds as if they had been dormant until this point in my life. Unlike sushi or tempura, kaiseki is not seen as exportable, though Nakatani doesn't necessarily agree. "As long as I can get the ingredients, I can make the food anywhere in the world." Still, I can't imagine finding uni like this outside of Japan. The lingering acidity of the sudachi is an ideal segue to the steamed tofu, taro, spinach and ginger, the aroma arriving well before any taste.
Nakatani has one last surprise. A deep ceramic cup contains a dollop of what he calls field caviar—in essence, roe blended with a green Japanese vegetable, whose name no one present knows how to translate.
Grilled barracuda, vibrant sea urchin, local mushrooms and sudachi.
TWO NIGHTS LATER AT HASHIMOTO'S dinner, translations might be the least of our problems. The chef has prepared two menus, one of food, the other an accompanying list of Suntory whisky. At first that sounds like a recipe for disaster, but instead of neat the seven whisky courses are cleverly blended.
The first is so generously chilled that, vigorously mixed with soda, it resembles a glass of fine beer. While he has worked with both sake and wine, whisky is Hashimoto's preferred accompaniment today because it can be manipulated in the kitchen, with natural flavors or simply by adding ice.
This is just the start of a long lineup of mysterious flavor medleys. As crazy as it sounds, a pike conger, prawn and matsutake soup served in a teapot contains what to me is an unforgettable mushroom. The moment of the meal. Until I drink the broth itself. Hovering, Hashimoto stops me, insisting that the broth and the whisky be taken as a one-two punch. He's right. Together, they perform a duet that is difficult to imagine let alone describe. "I want the menu and the whisky to represent the season," the chef tells us. "I never make the same menu. It changes depending upon the season and the location."
A seafood and matsutake soup in a teapot.
Intrigue then washes over our table of five with the next course, that "one-bite dish." Turns out, it's a bouillabaisse with the head of a spiny lobster, a delicious twist that has all the other chefs at the festival talking. Trying my best to identify the tastes, Hashimoto insists he won't surrender all of the ingredients to my notebook. He's the keeper of kitchen secrets. "I want people to be interested in my cuisine," he says, and that not knowing keeps the suspense and the flavors in the room.
Opting for a vinegar instead of citrus, Hashimoto's signature dish—aren't they all?—is a jellied elbow crab, modest in every way except for that rush when the distinct taste of the shellfish hits.
If any of us claims to not have room for dessert, we push that aside at the mere whisper of the whisky and chestnut brûlée, shiso sherbet and whisky ice cream. Oh, and there's a sniff of Hakushu 18-year-old for an exclamation point, if any was needed, on the dinner.
Hashimoto's sashimi course of tilefish, flounder and squid.
If it's at all possible that a lunch and a dinner offer an insight into Japan, then I'm convinced these two are it. Nakatani, whose sentences are punctuated with long, drawn-out pauses, compares kaiseki to the life of a leaf. At every stage of its growth and demise, nature-loving Japanese will note a leaf's beauty. "I want to bring this appreciation to each of my plates," he says.