Kaiseki Cuisine on a Miserable Night

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The rain hammered down and smudged the neon which fizzed from 20-foot boards on the buildings either side of the road. Black-suited salarymen scurried along with their umbrellas tilted like lances. Girls clattered down the pavement in inappropriate heels. Eerie green lights emerged from the gloom as taxis shushed down the street, contemptuously splashing the people who had chosen to walk.

My 7-11 umbrella had collapsed on one side and I needed to get out of the rain. I ducked through the door of the first restaurant I came to, which happened to be a kaiseki place. It could just as easily have been McDonalds.

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Kaiseki cuisine, at a glance, is the Japanese equivalent of a dégustation at a Western fine-dining restaurant: a set menu of small dishes to showcase the skill of the chef. But it is deeper than that. There is a philosophy underlying it, a spiritual dimension, more layers of symbolism than a gaijan* like me could hope to understand.

At its heart is the idea of creating a meal the customer can enjoy with all five senses. The emphasis is on balance: of tastes, of textures, of colours, of techniques. Uncooked dishes are juxtaposed with cooked; grilled with boiled, fried with steamed. The presentation is artful, yet simple, with none of the smears, foams, emulsions and jellies which are the stock-in-trade of Michelin-starred chefs in the West.

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My appetiser – more appetising than it might sound – was thinly sliced pickled sea cucumber, served in a scallop-shaped dish lined with a pair of shisho leaves. A lot of thought goes into the choice of tableware.

The main courses, then, began with sashimi: the simplest of dishes but arranged with understated perfection, three pink slices of tuna, a small square of brilliant white flounder, a silvery tranche of horse mackerel overlain with a jumbo shrimp, peeled but with the head and tail left on, all glistening under the lights and garnished with a small mound of wasabi and the green leaf and yellow flower of Kerria Japonica, mimicking the design of the plate.

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A sequence of cooked dishes followed that – the ying to the yang of the raw fish – in the established order: boiled, then grilled, then fried.

First, jumbo shrimp and white fish fillet gently braised with tofu, spinach, aubergine and enoki mushrooms and kept warm at the table on a fondue burner which looked like an artwork in itself.

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Then a section of pike with the skin nicely crisped on the grill, served on a pine leaf carefully aligned with the pattern on the plate.

After that, a tempura of courgette, squash, okra and another of the jumbo shrimp for which Kanazawa is famous – Kaiseki chefs obsess about using local, seasonal produce. A vibrant plate contrasted with the neutral colour of the tempura.

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Snow crab claws came with a fat slice of steamed courgette in a kidney-shaped bowl with a smaller round bowl of vinegar-based dressing.

Then there was a bamboo box with green tea soba noodles, coiled as neatly as the ropes on the royal yacht. (I messed up the presentation before I snapped the picture below.)

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Finally, then, to round out the meal, there was a light dessert of two strawberries with a dipping sauce.

It all seemed to work much better than tasting menus ever do at home. There, either each plate is gone in two mouthfuls, just as your palate has registered the flavour combination, or dinner becomes an endurance test after the third course and, at the end of it all, you struggle home feeling as if you might explode. Here, it all seemed to be weighted just right. I neither felt cheated nor stuffed.

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What is more, by the time I had finished and paid, it had stopped raining and I could abandon my crippled umbrella and walk back to the hotel without getting wet.

© Richard Senior 2016

*Literally “outside person” – someone who isn’t Japanese

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