Prediction: kappo is coming.
Which means that if you are ready for the step beyond sushi, tempura and teriyaki, you are ready for kappo dining, the Japanese counterpart of France's nouvelle cuisine sampling menu idea (originating, however, in ancient Japan).
Before long you should be able to sit back and watch kappo bars take over Los Angeles as they have in Japan. There they are favored over sushi bars because they provide a greater variety of foods in small portions that go exceptionally well with warm sake, beer or whiskey, according to Susan Hirano of Apcon, a publisher of Japanese food magazines.
Kappo bars have been around for years in Los Angeles, but few (Restaurant Katsu is one) have attracted the notice of non-Japanese.
Small Appetizer Portions
Kaiseki, the formal, classical style of cooking from which kappo (the manner of serving small appetizer portions) derives, is a product of affluence and skill, hardly accessible to the pre- and post-World War II wave of poor Japanese masses who introduced the simple, everyday food of Japan to these shores.
For a bit of background, kaiseki originated with the tea ceremony popularized during the 14th Century, when a light meal of three or four dishes helped sooth the effects of the strong green tea, according to Hirano.
Kaiseki literally means "one stone to the stomach," referring to the heated stones tucked into the robes of priests during meditation to ward off hunger pangs. Kaiseki later became associated with the highest form of Japanese culinary taste and aesthetics. China and utensils were carefully selected for their beauty and design, and the food was prepared with infinite delicacy.
If you want an introduction to kappo bar or kaiseki dining, Kansai, a new restaurant in the Colorado Place complex in Santa Monica, is an excellent place to start. It's streamlined, exquisite in its high-tech detailing and is in keeping with the mood set by the innovative shopping mall environment. And it offers a sushi bar as well as other familiar Japanese foods.
You can sit at the kappo bar and order individual dishes from the kappo offerings, or sit at the tables for one of the pre-planned, multicourse kaiseki (or other) dinners, which include soups, rice, salads, tofu dishes, chicken, tempura and sushi.
If you've not dined kappo -style before, perhaps the multicourse pre-planned menu will prove educational. You can taste several dishes in a sequence according the dictates of kaiseki -style dining to get a feeling for what is and what is not done. For example, you may be surprised to learn that rice is served with pickles as a soothing finale to the meal before fruit and tea. And that soup might appear as a palate refresher at the end of the meal. The system calls for a variety of steamed, simmered, grilled, seared and deep-fried foods, one following the other like a perfectly structured quintet.
We tried the California kaiseki menu ($25), which started with zensai, an appetizer of steamed chicken with pickled plum sauce served in a beautiful small aritayaki bowl placed on a black hand-lacquered place mat. Chopsticks rested on a sprig of baby's breath. Zensai was followed by kosuimono, a clear broth soup with clams, then sashimi of very fresh tuna, and yakimono, sliced seared steak with ponzu sauce (vinegared) on a bed of radish bean threads. A single branch of leaves was laid over the dish.
Then there was agemono, a basket filled with minced shrimp cakes (agemono means "something deep-fried"). This exquisite presentation of the shrimp cakes over a bed of pearl-white puffed noodles should inspire any chef to try the idea, too. Mushimono ("something steamed") was a version of chawan - mushi, a savory egg custard. The palate-cleansing miso soup, rice, pickled vegetables, fruit and green tea ended the meal.
Kansai, 2425 Colorado Ave. Santa Monica. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.; until 11 p.m. weekends. Closed Sunday. Basement parking validated. Reservations accepted. Major credit cards accepted. Average kappo entree $4.50; kaiseki dinner $25 and up.