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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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.”
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.
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.