Steamed Yuba with Soba Porridge and Ankake Soy Sauce at Kajitsu
A tiny lidded porcelain pot comes on a polished wooden saucer. Removing the lid reveals cloudy wisps of yuba (tofu skin) just breaking the surface of a sweet soy-based sauce. A dollop of freshly grated wasabi sits on top to be stirred into the pot. Digging deeper reveals a layer of earthy buckwheat porridge. It's Nishihara's interpretation of classic cold soba, a dish he specialized during a two year stint at Tohma, a soba-based kaiseki restaurant in Nagano. (Full review here).
Impossibly thin and delicate sake glasses with intricate cherry blossoms or geometric figures etched into them are imported from Kyoto-based masters, while much of the dishware used throughout the meal are carefully preserved pieces crafted by Japanese potters over two centuries ago. While most restaurants would buy new plates when the old ones chip, pottery at Kajitsu is carefully repaired, repainted, and used again. When was the last time you ate off of a 200-year-old plate?
Fried Leeks, Kabocha, and Maitake Mushrooms with Seven Greens and Warm Dashi
A tempura course of three seasonal vegetables—leeks, pumpkin, and hen of the woods mushrooms—crisply fried and served in a light mushroom dashi topped with a bewildering array of greens. I discovered goosefoot, mizuna, pea shoots, arugula, and mitsuba before I lost track and decided just to eat it. It's counterintuitive to some Western palates—why fry something crisp only to soften it up in broth?—but the pleasure of agedashi is in the contrasting textures and flavors between the crisp, dry batter on top and the broth-soaked moist batter underneath.
Perhaps the least overtly "Japanese" dish we had—powdery chunks of potato served on a creamy pool of heart of palm puree with crunchy disks of grilled parsnip, a pile of soy-simmered black trumpet mushrooms (more of those, please!), a pinch of crunchy puffed rice, and a generous shaving of black winter truffle. All familiar flavors, but stuck together in a completely novel, thoughtful way.
House-made salty pickles convert turnips, seaweed, cabbage, and turnip greens into salty flavor-bombs for your rice.
Lily Bulb and Naga-imo Kinton
If there's one flaw in the meal, it's in the desserts. This makes sense, as dessert is not typically a part of traditional Japanese cuisine. Our first one came as a pile of fluffy naga-imo—a Japanese yam with a distinctly slick texture—served with white bean paste and sliced lily bulbs on top of a ripe (but out of season) strawberry. It wasn't bad tasting per se, just a bit mystifying in its unfamiliar flavors and textures in the context of a dessert.
Luckily, the meal closes on a brighter note with a bowl of intense matcha and a tray of sugar candies from Kyoto. The matcha comes bright green and aromatic, whisked to a frothy, creamy frenzy, rich in flavor and slightly bitter.
A tray of sugar candies from Kyoto.