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Eating the seasons

The world's most forward-looking chefs have a new obsession: a 500-year-old Japanese cuisine called kaiseki.

May 16, 2007|Leslie Brenner and Michalene Busico | Times Staff Writers

Kyoto, Japan — 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."

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A sensory experience

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). By 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!"

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Message on a plate

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