Sunday, June 28, 2009

Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24- Kaiseki

The origins of kaiseki lie in the formal Japanese tea ceremony; the traditional meal has evolved to something a little less formal and no less elegant and beautiful.

Kaygetsu in Menlo Park, California serves a kaiseki dinner "designed to delight the mind and the spirit as well as to satisfy the appetite."

For us, the dinner was all these things as well as an adventure. Ray and I have sushi more often than not when we dine out; fresh salmon sashimi is one of my most favorite things to eat. But beyond sushi, noodles, and teriyaki, our knowledge of Japanese cuisine is pretty limited. Our two-year wedding anniversary is around the corner, and what better way to celebrate than expanding our knowledge of something we both enjoy?


Kaygetsu means beautiful moon, in reference to the giant autumn harvest moon.
It's located in the corner of a suburban shopping center- the antithesis of flashy, you may never know it's there if you don't look. The decor is modern and very minimal, so as not to steal attention from the food, the menu for which changes monthly.

It was a blistering hot day, but the cool dining room invited us in for a little relief. Upon entering, we were greeted warmly and presented with our own personal menus. Additional menus for wine and sake pairings were also offered.

A kaiseki meal will usually include an appetizer and sashimi, something simmered, something grilled, and something steamed. In addition, the chef may add additional courses such as something broiled or a soup.

Kaygetsu offers two options on weekend nights- the seven course Kiku dinner or the eight course Kaygetsu. We were bold and ordered the eight course Kaygetsu menu, which consists of the following courses:

Sakizuke (starter)
Takiawase (slow cooked dish)
Hassun (assortment of flavors)
Agemono (deep fried dish)
Yakimono (grilled dish)
Gohan mono (rice dish)
Mizumono (dessert)


At Kaygetsu, seasonality, presentation, and harmony are equally important as flavor.

Much thought goes into the monthly menu, yet the staff and kitchen are extremely accommodating.
When making our reservation, the charming woman on the phone asked if there were any food allergies in our party. Modifications were already thought through when we arrived, and Ray received three modifications for his shellfish allergy throughout the meal.

red bell pepper "tofu"
(sea urchin, avocado, hive, dashi sauce, wasabi)

I wiggled with excitement when this pretty dish was put before me. Our server explained that the "tofu" is made of vegetable starches, no soy like a proper tofu. The flavor of sweet bell pepper was exquisite with the unexpected smooth and creamy texture. The dot of wasabi provided a good kick to the flavors, and the dashi sauce had a perfect balance.
I remember the play with texture most for this dish- smooth tofu, buttery avocado, and substantial uni.

wild salmon- Coho River, Alaska
stone sole

I love sashimi, the most familiar course going into dinner. We expected it to be really good at a restaurant of this caliber. We were not expecting the single best pieces of sashimi in our lives. I speak of the salmon.

Oh, the salmon.
You know the expression 'melt in your mouth?' Don't misunderstand me, we've had some excellent salmon sashimi in the past. But I was wrong. Quickly seared at the very edge, it positively melted in our mouths. Unctuous, that's a good word. Unctuous.

Caught enjoying the salmon :)
We both could have had another three plates of this, but variety is a key with a kaiseki meal. And you shouldn't have too much of a good thing, I'm told.

The other sashimi was delicious as well. Snapper was also lightly seared on one side, and some grated ginger adorned each piece of sole. Next to the salmon the stone sole was the best, possibly due to the ginger garnish.

Takiawase (slow-cooked dish)
shrimp, japanese eggplant, snow peas, sato imo potato
cooked in clear fish broth, with
bonito flakes, grated ginger and kinome

The third course was brought to us in a small lidded bowl.

The bonito flakes on top danced as we lifted the lid and admired the vivid color of the shrimp beside the vegetables.

I hoped for a little more ginger to spike the more bland flavors of the fish broth and eggplant, but this dish pleased me in another way. While it didn't seem very cohesive, each item tasted great on its own. At the end the fish broth was a nice palate cleanser.

During this course, I realized I have never sat and looked at my food so much before I touched it.
With each course we allowed it to sit for a moment and take it in at every angle, noting the play of colors and the way the chef had presented the food as sculpture on the plate.

Hassun (assortment of flavors)
soft-shell crab with spaghetti squash
anago roll with burdock
cucumber with kinzanji miso sauce
lotus root stuffed with mustard
Artic Char, miso marinated and grilled
seared kampachi (amberjack) sushi with ponzu

The next course arrived in little dishes on a large wooden tray. As our server explained each piece, my excitement girgled and nearly burst before I could start. For that reason and because it turned out as I'd hoped, the Hassun was my favorite course. My favorites on the tray? The grilled Artic Char, lotus root with mustard, and the seared kampachi. I enjoy soft shell crab, but the cold preparation here was not my preference.

Ray had two fat pieces of unagi in place of the soft shell crab. It's a favorite there was no complaining from him!

Agemono (deep fried dish)
bamboo shoot and kobe beef
yuba (tofu skin), hajikami ginger, shiso leaf

The Agemono is served with the eight course menu only. A sweet basket filled with fried goodies was put before us along with a tempura dipping sauce.

I am not a fan of tempura, so this was my least favorite dish. I sampled each piece, and found the hajimaki ginger to be the most interesting. The pleasant ginger flavor was not overpowering as if you'd bitten off a piece of the ginger I buy in the store. I gave Ray two of my three pieces of kobe beef and bamboo shoot.

Yakimono (grilled dish)
organic petaluma chicken roll with minced fish, corn, and carrot
endive and orange salad, truffle oil dressing

The grilled dish had me guessing as we looked at the menu. Would it be like a sushi roll that I'm familiar with?

It was, a cooked sushi roll encased in tender chicken instead of rice and nori.
The filling was hearty but light, the corn being the most dominant ingredient to me.
The endive salad was crunchy and refreshing, and a faint hint of truffle oil enhanced the show but didn't steal it.

Gohan mono (rice dish)
rice cooked with vegetables
(green peas, corn, burdock, lotus root, bamboo shoot)
dark red miso soup
pickled vegetables

The final dinner course arrived in three parts.

The bowl on the left held a small portion of rice. I liked this presentation very much- imagine a fried rice that's not fried, just clean and fresh. The smaller bowl of red miso soup was an excellent complement, and I do believe the best miso I have ever had in a restaurant or made at home.
I have purchased red miso before but it wasn't like this. Perhaps I should look for dark miso? Perhaps it's the quality?
I tried not to slurp it down too quickly, along with the square of soft tofu floating in it. With the bowls came a tiny dish of pickled cucumber, carrot, and eggplant. Once again this course was a wonderful play of textures- chewy rice, soft tofu, crunchy vegetables.

With our kaiseki meal, we ordered the sake pairing to complete our experience. We had the option to share one flight which was a good choice- a full serving would have been far too much! I don't know much about sake and while I enjoyed it, I certainly prefer a flight of wines. Five sakes were paired with the starter, sashimi, hassun, agemono, and yakimono courses. My favorite sake was the first a sparkling sake served with the red bell pepper tofu. It was mild and lightly sweet with a lower alcohol content.

After the rice dish was cleared, we were served some green tea to accompany the final dessert course. The tea was well brewed, and I love the wooden cup and saucer it came in.
I'd love to find some of these for home.

House-made desserts
black sesame kudzu mochi
green tea/banana roll cake
adzuki bean paste

This was a sweet ending.
Two tiny desserts, and being that we are 'opposites attract' incarnate, Ray and I preferred different components.
He favored the roll cake, a pretty green sponge with whipped cream and bananas in the center, and topped with sweet strawberries.
It was the square of dark tofu mochi swimming in a pool of a dark molasses syrup that won me over. Self-control kept me from requesting Ray's leftover portion. The ball of adzuki bean paste satisfied my craving for Japanese confection.

Throughout the nearly 3 hour meal, the staff was attentive and concerned for our enjoyment. When the owner brought the bill she presented us with a small anniversary gift. An uncommon and thoughtful gesture. It certainly wasn't necessary since our experience was complete, but it showed generosity of spirit and genuine care and appreciation for their guests.

We went home with full tummys and excercised palates, happy with each other and with our chosen venue for an anniversary dinner.

I confess I did hope the box was filled with chocolate, but when we opened the box at home it was even better: two beautiful sets of chopsticks, flower chopstick rests, and a lovely note.

We went home with full tummys and excercised palates, happy with each other and with our chosen venue for an anniversary dinner. Kaygetsu opened the doors and we scratched the surface. I don't doubt we'll return to dig a little deeper very soon.

325 Sharon Park Drive
Menlo Park, California 94025
(650) 234-1084


Ray said...

The Wild Salmon Sashimi from Alaska was the best piece of raw fish I have ever eaten. I hope we one day come across something that rivals this. The bar is high though, very high.

Jonathan McBailey said...

That all looks amazing.

JC said...

Definitely a hidden treasure. Tucked away in a Menlo strip mall, where one would expect to find a fast food joint, not a supreme dining experience. In my opinion, and that of many, this is One of the BEST Japanese restaurants in the Bay Area- so Glad you guys enjoyed it... xo ;)

Peter M said...

What an elegant, delicate and exquisite dinner. We have a kaiseki resto here in TO and I want to go now more than ever!

The Duo Dishes said...

Thanks for sharing this. We had no idea what a kaiseki was, so you've taught us all a little something. Menlo Park's not too far from us here in the valley!

MrsLavendula said...

wow that looked like a wonderful meal!
i love japanese food especially salmon sashimi! the wild salmon sashimi from alaska you described sounds absolutely delicious! yum!
it was nice of the restaurant to give you a nice souvenir!

Donna said...

I almost feel like I was there with you-- Thank you for your fabulous photos and detailed descriptions of your dining experience---I am very interested in trying it! said...

Everything look so Delicious! Wow what great event.

Join our growing food site and post , comments share your photos recipe!
and if you can visit me I can visit you:)

Have a great Day!

Camemberu said...

Hey you had kaiseki too, for your 24,24,24! What a lovely, elaborate meal! I enjoyed your descriptions. My kaiseki experience is from halfway around the world but you can see the same Japanese dedication towards their food.

Rachael Hutchings said...

Oh this post makes me miss Japan so much! Glad you had a great experience!!

Marc @ NoRecipes said...

One of the many things I miss about the bay area. I found this place only a few months before I moved away. Looks like you had a great meal!