Japanese Kaiseki in Honolulu

Kaiseki: Now and Zen: The evolution of an austere diet of Zen monks into contemporary dining experiences at Nanzan Giro Giro, Hakkei and Wada.


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Chef Koji Kuwa presents the oden at Hakkei.

American food is born of a land of plenty. Big steaks. Half-pound hamburgers on the grill. A wedge of apple pie with ice cream, a root beer float. With a constitutional freedom to pursue salt, sugar and fat to our hearts’ (dis)content, it’s food we’re biologically programmed to like. Even American food that borrows from immigrant cultures is co-opted into the realm of fatty, salty, sweet. Pizza from Naples can seem anemic compared to its American counterpart—doughy, laden with cheese and sauce and everything we can possibly get our hands on (Ham! Pineapple! Sausage! Pepperoni!).

And then there’s Japanese food.

Lately, I’ve been curious about kaiseki, a style of cuisine that evolved out of Zen monastery cooking. You can imagine what kind of food that might be: austere, contemplative. Or, to put it bluntly, bland, as a local chef once described it to me.

The very ideogram for kaiseki translates roughly into “stone in the stomach,” referring to monks putting a warm stone against their bellies to ward off hunger. When Yoshibumi Ogawa from the Urasenke Foundation of Hawaii (a tea ceremony school) describes tea ceremony kaiseki, he says things like “a finger-length of rice” and “salty water with rice scraped from the bottom of the pot.” From the lacquer tea bowl to the course progression, “kaiseki always follows the details,” Ogawa says.

In our half-hour discussion on the “one soup, three dishes” format, he never once mentions taste.

It doesn’t sound like fun. So why am I interested?

Because, last year, Japan toppled France as the country with the most three-starred Michelin restaurants, and a number of them were kaiseki restaurants. Kaiseki is becoming more common in New York and San Francisco and many a gourmand worships these intricate, set-course menus, likening them to tasting menus at The French Laundry, Le Bernardin and other temples of haute cuisine.

By all accounts, this isn’t rice-scraped-from-the-bottom-of-a-pot stuff. This branch of kaiseki, which exists outside of tea ceremonies, is written with a different ideogram that means “gathering.” The rules are looser than tea ceremony kaiseki, but they share similar traits: seasonality, course progression and presentation.

It seems that kaiseki could be a direct line to a different culture, without having to hop a plane.
 

Nanzan Giro Giro

560 Pensacola St., 524-0141.
Kaiseki: $50 for seven courses, dessert an additional $8.


Chef Yoshihiro Matsumoto plating his contemporary kaiseki.

When I ask kaiseki chefs what kaiseki is, I get vague answers. Maybe the English language doesn’t have all the words necessary to convey it. Or maybe it’s just the chefs who don’t have the English words to describe it.

“Kaiseki is a customer and restaurant’s relationship,” says chef Yoshihiro Matsumoto of Nanzan Giro Giro, a kaiseki-only restaurant. “[The customers] don’t know what is this month’s menu. But they trust the restaurant.”

Trust is built on transparency, and almost all the seating at Nanzan is at the counter surrounding the open kitchen in the center. From here, I can see everything the chefs do—frying, grilling, washing and drying dishes by hand. I can even see the chefs’ feet, some of them padding around in geta.

There’s no menu: I simply arrive and sit and absorb all the details as the seven-course dinner unfolds. There are many details, not just of the food. The long, slender chopsticks that come to a precise, tweezerlike point. The vessels the food arrive in, such as an intricately carved, lidded, yellow ceramic bowl, a little turtle dish that opens like a jewelry box, a charcoal-black ceramic plate grained like wood. (All the ceramics are made by the artist Nanzan, the restaurant’s namesake.)
 

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