Thursday, October 9, 2008

Japan - Kaiseki

Recently, I spent 15 days in Japan. Hence my absence from this blog. The experience really rearranged my palate. Or at least that's how I can best articulate what happened after my steady diet of fish, rice, noodles, and various things I cannot name (because, to this day, I have no idea what they were). I currently find myself disdainful of the heavily portioned, rich, somewhat boring, American diet. I am hopeful for my overall health that this outlook will last for at least a couple of weeks, but it remains to be seen. In any case, I offer the following description of the best meal I had in Japan in lieu of a Philadelphia-based review to make up for lost time.

The meal was consumed at the "the good Kaiseki place," as my friends currently living there call it, in Misawa, located in the northern part of Honshu (about three and half hours north of Tokyo). Most restaurants in Japan, except for McDonald's and KFC, post their names in Japanese - in Japanese characters. As a result, we went to places like "the best ramen place" and "expensive sushi restaurant." We don't know their actual names.
This meal, as I came to think about many of my meals in Japan, was amazing. Not only for taste, but also for diversity, precision and size. This first dish - sesame tofu with wasabi, was delicious. A perfectly silken but firm piece of tofu, topped with just enough wasabi to offset the sweet soy sauce. I don't even like wasabi, and I loved this.
The next course consisted of (clockwise from left), egg with shrimp and sea urchin, "seafood" (a bit like escargot, maybe) served in a seashell, salmon roe with daikon, chicken with black sesame, and "fish." All of it was unlike anything I've ever tasted. Even though I had salmon roe before, this batch seemed especially flavorful, as though little bubbles were bursting in my mouth. It was also amazing to have a series of such diverse tastes that clearly reflect considerable effort, all in small portions on my plate. Apparently Thomas Keller was not the first to think of the multi-course amazing tasting menu.
Next was - you guessed this one - sashimi. But also perhaps the best sashimi I have ever had. It consisted of scallop (causing me to question why I have never ordered scallop sashimi here), tuna, and flounder. The scallop possessed all of the excellent qualities of cooked scallop in terms of texture, but in an intensified way.
The grilled fish entree course, common in kaiseki meals, was mackeral with spring onion and miso. We were instructed to dip the onion in the miso bean mixture. As expected, the contrast was delicious and the fish done to delicate perfection. Because scale is not always clear, I will tell you that the fish was about three bites big, the perfect size for an eight course meal.
The next course, although not entire clear from the picture here, consisted of an amazing soup that featured crab, fish, squid and mussels topped with this odd rice-like grain (and another great addition of a little wasabi). The taste of seafood soups was always extraordinary in Japan, infused with a rich flavor. This was no exception.
The sixth course remains perhaps my favorite of anything in Japan (although I do tend toward both exaggerated and superlative descriptions, I did love this course). It consisted of crabmeat and cucumber wrapped in soy paper served on top of sliced persimmon, with rice wine vinegar and topped with chrysanthemum. A tremendous effort and a great result - all for two perfect bites.
The seventh course was a combination -- one of rich rice, infused with a mushroom that we were told was "very expensive" and prized by the Japanese, and clam soup. I wasn't sure what the fuss was about the rice, although it was rich and flavorful in an almost meaty way. But the soup was flavored simply with the clams and shiso leaf, a particularly interesting combination that was quirky and satisfying.

The last course was a perfect finish - apples poached in red wine and sugar. Refreshing but sweet, the perfect end to the meal. All in all, the meal, much like my trip, was unsual and inspiring.

Japan is a group of islands in the Pacific, east of China, Korea and Russia.


Anonymous said...

How much/expensive was the meal?

Kate said...

About 3500 Yen, or, right now, $35. Pretty amazing.