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.)
 

 

Ahi, braised yuba, ikura and sweet pea sauce.

These are details that I normally care little about—I tend to see a plate as a vehicle to get food from the kitchen to the mouth—but they’re all so unusual as to be quite delightful. Just like a recent starter: gobo chawanmushi, butter burr, cabbage puree, ikura and sansho leaf. Butter burr: in the daisy family, tasting of slightly bitter celery. Sansho leaf: from the Sichuan pepper plant, faintly citrusy. Taken all together, it’s mostly smooth, punctuated with small butter burr chunks and pops of roe. In another month, an appetizer included brittle fish bones and corn jello, crunch playing against suppleness.

There are so many surprises: that fish bones can be addictive; that raw ahi with sugar snap peas, uni, miso, pine nuts and shiso actually work together.

In between the surprises, Matsumoto comforts diners with more familiar flavors. One month, it’s mahi mahi with mizuna and a deeply smoky eggplant in dashi; another, it’s sesame tofu and lotus root in broth. Still, sometimes things can sneak up on you, like the clam dashi ochazuke and tempura smelt wrapped asparagus. In this lacquer bowl, there’s also something creamy and white, coiled like intestines, that the server has neglected to mention. It’s shirako: The word is translated literally as white children, and the substance is actually fish semen. It gives us pause. But it’s actually pretty good.

Despite the surprises, there isn’t a crescendo of flavors, a single showstopper of a dish, a singular brightness or intensity of flavor that has me wanting to break free of the kaiseki format and ask for another plate of that, please.

This is a dinner that requires concentration to appreciate the subtlety in flavor and aesthetics. Nanzan Giro Giro bills itself as a gallery and restaurant, and at first, I thought the gallery referred to the ceramics exhibit by the entrance. But I’ve come to think of the entire dining experience as that of a gallery, with the bright, white lighting and the ample time between courses to contemplate the food.

If you have questions for the artist, he’s right in front of you. Cooking and cleaning, always cleaning, even in the middle of service. “Cleaning is the most important thing,” Matsumoto says. “If you can’t clean up, you can’t do anything.” Matsumoto has worked in Kyoto restaurants for 15 years. Six of those years he says he spent training, and most of that time was spent cleaning. Only in the latter nine years did he cook and become a chef.

“If you can survive Kyoto [kitchens] for five years, you can get skills to survive for your life,” Matsumoto says. “I’m proud of Japanese cuisine. I want to spread my Kyoto-style restaurant skills, atmosphere and meals for local customers. I want to make it different from other restaurants, not only Hawaii [but also] Kyoto, Japan.”
 

Hakkei

1436 Young St., Suite 103, 944-6688, hakkei-honolulu.com.
Kaiseki: $100 for Seiya Masahara’s kaiseki.
When Masahara’s not in town, his mentee, Koji Kuwa, offers a set dinner for $45, which I found just as enjoyable.


Courses in Hakkei’s monthly changing kaiseki: seafood sukiyaki.

Once or twice a year, Hakkei’s founding chef, Seiya Masahara, known for beating Iron Chef Morimoto in the TV arena, comes to Honolulu to prepare a $100-a-head kaiseki. It seems incongruous to find such talent in Hakkei’s little space, tucked away on King Street in a nondescript office building.

As Morimoto Waikiki is flamboyant, Hakkei is humble. The original Hakkei, a hot spring inn, is in Okayama, Japan, and the Honolulu location invokes a rustic inn feel. This warmly lit enclave is the sort of place you hunker down over a steaming nabe while it storms outside, as I saw a woman, dining solo, doing on one visit.

I attend Masahara’s monkfish kaiseki, while grilling my friends on Masahara’s last kaiseki, which featured horsemeat. (Tender, not too gamey, they said.)

I’m immediately presented with eight zensai, or small appetizers, all on one plate, which have the effect of warming up my tastebuds, like stretching before a swim. There’s tender abalone topped with wakame miso, pickled myoga (a bud of the ginger family), creamy corn sesame tofu—not tofu derived from soybeans, but made with a slurry of ground sesame and kuru, a thickener like arrowroot or cornstarch, in a technique similar to haupia.
 

 

The sashimi from Hakkai.

The typical kaiseki progression—sashimi, a grilled dish (chicken, scallop and watercress), stewed dish (lotus dumplings)—closes out with a large nabe bowl, appearing giant after the Lilliputian servings before it. In went ankou, or monkfish, one of the ugliest fish out there, flat and wide, with two bulging eyes on its topside, wide fish lips framing so many menacing teeth it makes a piranha look docile. For this meal, it was chopped into harmless, white chunks, giving no hint of the Facebook photo Masahara had posted earlier, of the ankou splayed out like a victim in Silence of the Lambs. The Japanese, I think, are best at rendering horrific ingredients into civilized bites.

While Morimoto tries to ingratiate Japanese flavors to the American palate (Tuna pizza! Foie gras!), Hakkei does not make concessions. It is, like Nanzan, subdued. Also, like Nanzan, there’s a care in sourcing seasonally. Kaiseki chefs know that there isn’t much seasonality to Hawaii ingredients, so they import seasonal ingredient cues. In dining at Hakkei the same month as Nanzan, I found shirako (the last of the winter season) and butter burr (signifying early spring) in both dinners, much the way wild leeks flood menus in New York come springtime.
 

Wada

611 Kapahulu Ave., 737-0125, restaurantwada.com.
Kaiseki: six courses for $60.
Ála carte price range: $6 (vegetables in a black sesame dressing) to $62 (Washugyu tongue and harami for two.)


One of the dishes on Wada’s set-course menu is Washugyu tongue, hand-sliced and prepared on a hot stone grill.

Wada isn’t initially part of my kaiseki research. It’s only when I order the set menu here that I recognize a kaiseki-like course progression: six courses that start with zensai and show off a range of temperatures and techniques, from simmered to fried to ishiyaki, all exquisitely prepared and arranged. When I ask the chef, Takanori Wada, if he considers what he does kaiseki, he doesn’t really say no. He throws a couple of phrases around to describe his food, like “new Japanese,” “a combination of yakiniku and kaiseki,” and “family-style kaiseki.” Perhaps you know something has entered the mainstream when it’s been bastardized, like “tapas,” now the catch-all term for small portions on small plates, not just for Spanish bar snacks.

He is adamant that Wada is not an izakaya, however. It’s a bit more serious, more formal than that. To show me how serious this place is, he tells me to look around. Wada is where the old Tokkuri Tei used to be. I hardly recognize it. The whole place has been elegantly finished in cherry wood, from the cabinets in the kitchen to the whole slabs serving as tabletops. What used to be full windows facing the parking lot has now been walled off, with just a long sliver of glass through which you can glimpse the outside world, if only to reassure you that it’s much more pleasant to be inside. “This is Japanese,” Wada emphasizes. “Clean. Everything is clean, the bathroom, plate, servers.”

It’s beautiful, and the food even more so. The seven-course menu, which changes about every two months, recently included a fried, mashed lotus root dumpling, sticky like mochi, in a yin and yang of sauces, sweet kabocha squash, and thickened ginger shoyu.

The ishiyaki course—a hot stone grill and thin slices of tongue presented on black slate—is simple enough, but it illustrates Wada’s dedication. An entire page of the menu is devoted to describing this course: the provenance of the beef (washugyu, a Black Angus and wagyu cross raised in Oregon); the dipping sauce, a mix of shoyu from Japan and fresh squeezed lemon juice; and the tongue, hand-sliced.

The server instructs us to sear each slice for seven seconds on one side, three seconds on the other, which we do religiously for fear of ruining these perfect slices. (I do find it ironic, though, given the precision of everything else, that we are left to shoulder the burden of cooking the main course, in the process of which we may make or break this dish. Fortunately, however, we successfully cook the meat and savor the heat of tongue right off the grill, its slight caramelization, its tender snap.)
 

 

Beef tartare at Wada.

There are nuggets of skirt steak cooked with plenty of onion, garlic and shimeji mushrooms tableside, and a choice of spicy sesame ramen or minced tongue and rice in a hot stone bowl. Go with the ramen, in a silky oxtail broth (but no actual oxtails).

From the ála carte menu, some dishes are very Japanese, such as the shuto ae, a mix of fresh seafood in shuto, basically, fermented fish guts. It seems like a travesty to introduce pristine seafood to something so fishy, but I like the salty funk playing against the purity of squid, octopus and ahi (your actual seafood medley may differ as Wada uses whatever is fresh that day). There’s also sea cucumber, with a vinegary tang and chewy texture that changes my mind completely about sea cucumber as the bland and jelly-like dish I avoid at Chinese banquets. Other dishes are cross-cultural delights, such as buffalo mozzarella agedashi, in which fried mozzarella is simultaneously creamy, chewy and crisp, perked up with shiso and tomato and sauced with dashi.

This dinner ends up being the meal I enjoy the most, one that somehow channels the Japanese cuisine ideal of balance, while still satisfying my American palate, raised on brawn and explosions.

 

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