The fine art of 'Kaiseki'

and Michalene Busico

Tiny, jewel-like courses served on plates that could be in a design museum. A detailed menu that sources ingredients down to the pond &

say, seaweed harvested from under a whirlpool in the Naruto Channel, "where the dynamic action of the swirling ocean gives it a unique texture that is soft but crisp." Service that is hushed and reverential. The reservation? Almost impossible to get.

No, we're not at some gastronomic lab in Barcelona, Spain, or the latest chic table in New York. This is Kikunoi, a 95-year-old restaurant in Kyoto, and right now, it looks as if it's on the cutting edge of world cuisine.

The chef, Yoshihiro Murata, is cooking the same dishes his father and grandfather did, a traditional Japanese menu called "kaiseki." It is Japanese cuisine as high art &

an exquisite, elaborately choreographed tasting menu, where as much attention is paid to the beauty of each plate as it is to the texture of the silky slice of fish, the aroma of the tiny blossom that adorns it, the flavor of the mountain herb that's just come into season.

"Kaiseki" is what's on the minds of some of the world's most forward-looking chefs. Ferran Adria in Spain, Thierry Marx in France and David Bouley, Lee Hefter and David Myers in the U.S. are among those studying this cuisine, borrowing its unique ingredients, riffing on its dishes or planning restaurants built on the "kaiseki" concept.

It seems likely others will follow. Chef Murata's new book, "Kaiseki," has created a buzz in the food world and was nominated for a James Beard Foundation cookbook award. This fall, the International Culinary Center (formerly the French Culinary Institute) will bring "kaiseki" chefs from Kyoto to New York and hold a three-day forum for American chefs and journalists. Bouley plans to open his own "kaiseki" restaurant in New York before the end of the year.

After flings with Spanish foam, molecular gastronomy and Italian rustic, "kaiseki" is becoming the cuisine that awes the chefs.

"To this day, there's nothing like it for me," says Myers, the chef at Sona in Los Angeles. "Europe is great, but this is another level. The aesthetic drive, the attention to every detail, blows me away."

"Kaiseki" was born in Kyoto more than 500 years ago. It was originally a light meal, named for the warm stones that young monks carried in their robes to soothe their hunger (kai means bosom, and seki, stone). the 16th century, the meal became part of the tea ceremony served to travelers stopping over at a "ryokan," one of Kyoto's traditional inns. Then, the "kaiseki" meal was a bowl of miso soup and three side dishes.

Now, "kaiseki" is a poetic experience that embraces the senses and reaches deeply into Japanese culture. The menu is intensely seasonal &

every "kaiseki" chef cooks the fish and the vegetables that are in season that week. Individual ingredients have different names depending on how mature they are. Sea bream, for example, can be "sakura dai" in April, "satsuki dai" in May, "mugiwara dai" in June.

The dining experience is intimate, more like going to someone's home than to a restaurant. Most traditionally, the meal is served in your own room at a "ryokan" &

as most in Kyoto still do &

while you are wearing a kimono and reclining on a tatami mat. It feels much that way in a "kaiseki" restaurant like Kikunoi, where you dine in a private room, often with a view of a serene garden, sculptured to be viewed from tatami level.

The courses are brought in one at a time, in exquisite porcelain bowls and lacquer dishes that often have been handed down from generation to generation, just as the menu has been. Courses always include an elaborately composed appetizer, a sashimi course, a simmered dish, a grilled dish, a steamed course and a course that comes in a beautiful lidded bowl.

In Kyoto at the end of March, chefs were all obsessed with the same ingredients. Young bamboo, the pale tips that are layered like an artichoke and have a subtle, minerally flavor. Fiddlehead ferns, mountain vegetables and young rapini. Cherry salmon were running, along with tai snapper and needlefish. And of course, the cherry trees were bursting into bloom.

It was also spawning season, and that meant a few ingredients that were a little scarier than cherry blossoms: snapper sperm sacs (which Murata steams over sake and serves with fresh sea cucumber roe), and sea bream ovaries (cooked in a sweet stock, in "one of those classics that never seems to change").

"You go there and what you have to eat &

it's some amazing ingredients," Myers says. "A lot of things, that even as a chef you go, 'Whoa, oh my God, I've never seen this before.'" Mashed raw eel innards, for instance. "Bring on the sake!"

On a sunny afternoon in Kyoto, chef Murata is pouring tea, not sake. He's stepped away from his busy kitchen to explain that in "kaiseki," capturing the moment is more important than anything else.

"I try to send a message," he says through a translator. "It's not just a dish but an atmosphere, a mood. Look for the message. The taste is important, but it's not the most important thing.

"If an old person came to dinner and they had 'fuki' no to (a mountain vegetable), it's sending the message that it's the beginning of the spring. He'll be happy to think that spring is almost there. It puts them in a certain state. The flavor is not as important."

This isn't the first time a wave of Western chefs has been so taken with "kaiseki." In fact, it was the inspiration for the French "menu degustation," the tasting menu that's now a standard restaurant routine.

"In the '70s, all the big French chefs &

Michel Guerard, Paul Bocuse, (Alain) Senderens and (Jean and Pierre) Troisgros &

were all going to Japan and they brought back the idea of multicourse menus," says Daniel Boulud, the New York chef. "So now, you have the 'menu degustation,' which is in a way, a 'kaiseki' menu."

Today's chefs are enthralled with "kaiseki" as a sort of extreme "California cuisine" with its emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients that are completely of the place.

"It's profound, the list of ingredients," says Bouley, who in planning for his New York "kaiseki" restaurant is developing sources for artisanal soy sauce, mirin, "yuba" (the skin of fresh tofu), the different kinds of pickles and much more. "The ingredients have to come first and the chefs will follow. When you're eating a "kaiseki" menu in Kyoto, you can have an experience that you can't have without those ingredients."

Bouley plans to open his restaurant by the end of the year. It will be an eight-seat room, and the chefs will be professors from the Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka. In L.A., Myers has been toying with a "kaiseki" concept for years.

"I would do it as a total experience," Myers says. "It's not just the food, but the service, the drinks, the ice, the gestures, the moment. I don't even know if I could pull it off. That's why I haven't made any commitment to do that."

For now, Myers weaves in a few dishes on his menu at Sona. One is a slice of wagyu beef from Kagoshima, served with just "yuzu kosho," a paste of "yuzu" fruit and pepper.

Myers says he was able to procure the beef only after sushi chef Kazunori Nozawa introduced him to the purveyor and they met in person and prepared and discussed the meat.

"It's 'kaiseki' in spirit &

not a literal 'kaiseki' dish," Myers says. "Taking what's right from a special place, a special relationship, and doing the least to it."

But apart from a dish here and there, there is almost no one in Los Angeles attempting to cook this style. Many chefs agree that the closest thing to a true "kaiseki" experience in Los Angeles is Urasawa, the dizzyingly expensive Beverly Hills restaurant.

Part of the reason is the chefs: "Kaiseki" takes eight to 10 years of training, and those who have it tend to stay in Japan, says Tiger Nakawake, one of the owners of Hokusai, a new Japanese restaurant in Beverly Hills that offers "kaiseki" by request.

"So many chefs don't know how to make it," he says.

Another problem: "Kaiseki" is expensive, both the labor-intensive preparations and the ingredients. The young bamboo alone &

on everyone's menu in Kyoto a few weeks ago &

would cost $150 to $200 a piece if Nakawake were to import it directly. At Hokusai, he charges $100 to $220 per person for a seven- to 11-course "kaiseki" menu.

And then there are the plates. Serving these dishes on antiques or one-of-a-kind pieces is an essential part of the experience, and that's something few restaurants can afford.

Still, these chefs are driven to translate the "kaiseki" experience.

"There's an element of 'kaiseki' in the cooking at El Bulli," says Adria, referring to his groundbreaking restaurant in Spain. Adria, and chef Nobu Matsuhisa, wrote forewords to Murata's "Kaiseki" book. "It's very similar," Adria says. "Being able to eat kaiseki is an experience. And that's true at El Bulli too. I want it to be an experience.

"The culinary world cooks with the head, the heart and the senses. But Mr. Murata cooks with the soul. We don't know how to do that."

Share This Story