As my husband and I entered Osaka's Kitcho restaurant, we knew we were in for a one-of-a-kind meal: a master class in kaiseki, or formal banquet cuisine, and also in luxury, Japanese-style. Kaiseki is nothing like most Japanese food abroad. Sukiyaki, tempura, teppanyaki and even sushi are modern and often fusion inventions, many of them created to suit foreign tastes. A kaiseki banquet consists of multiple elaborate minicourses of rare seasonal ingredients, most unknown outside Japan. More than a meal, it's a multidisciplinary feast for the senses. Since it has roots in the Zen tea ceremony, kaiseki encompasses literature, ceramics, ikebana, painting and the art of dinner conversation. It requires some cultural literacy, not to mention deep pockets. It also requires sitting on the floor for hours and decent chopstick skills.
Kitcho is more like a private club than a restaurant. For three generations, the Yuki family has been serving exquisite food to the social and literary élite. It doesn't open its doors to just anyone with a fistful of yen and a taste for adventure. Naturally, our request for a table at the main restaurant was declined. A Kitcho meal is a limited edition not to be squandered on walk-ins. We were politely directed instead to one of Kitcho's licensed branches. These Kitcho-brand outposts, located in posh hotels in major cities, are practical for novices, down to the English menus and the tables and chairs. However, they are the culinary equivalent of ready-to-wear when we had set our hearts on haute couture. I've heard that people in Kyoto will ruin themselves for clothes, while in Osaka it's food. Since the original Kitcho is the bastion of traditional Osakan gastronomy, we were hell-bent on ruining ourselves there.
I reassured Kitcho that we weren't strangers to kaiseki. We've eaten at many exclusive kaiseki restaurants, including the renowned Hyotei and Kikunoi. I speak passable Japanese, and my epicurean husband happily devours everything from poison-blowfish sperm to stewed snapping turtle. Kitcho doesn't take credit cards, so we were prepared to pay $400 to $600 per person in cash. But in Japan and certainly at Kitcho protocol and relationships are sacred. You are nobody until someone introduces you properly. For us the magic word came from a friend, the Catalan chef Santi Santamaria, who had been introduced by the director of a well-known Japanese culinary school.
Once Kitcho's discreet doors finally slid open, it was a lesson in omotenashi, or no-holds-barred hospitality. No detail would be overlooked to make us feel welcome and the experience exceptional. Likewise, we had to fulfill our part of the deal by being appreciative clients. Like a tango, kaiseki is a collaboration between host and guest.
The first move was an invitation to steep ourselves in Kitcho's tradition. We were ushered into a European parlor and sat stiffly on the ornately carved green-leather chairs sipping ice-cold umeshu, a sweet plum cordial. A maid came to conduct us to our table, which was set in a private tatami room and big enough to seat 20. The vast, minimalist space was fit for a state dinner (in fact, the former Prime Minister had once stopped by for lunch). But if there were any other guests, we saw no sign of them. Our privacy was almost daunting.
As we admired our surroundings, the proprietress, or okami-san, came in to keep us company during the meal. For all her aristocratic bearing, Mrs. Hiroko Yuki turned out to be the soul of Kitcho's omotenashi hospitality. Her warmth instantly turned the cavernous banquet hall into an intimate and lively dinner party. We forgot to be self-conscious about having a stranger watch us eat, and soon we were chatting about everything from climbing Mount Fuji to collecting ceramics. We were eating from heirloom Baccarat crystal dishes in traditional Japanese shapes.
In addition to presenting the museum-quality pieces on the table, Mrs. Yuki directed the feast as three waitresses served course after course with chilled sake specially brewed for the house. Like a symphony, kaiseki tempo alternates between big movements and adagio interludes. The meal follows a single seasonal theme, but each course features a different cooking method. The overture was mushiawabi steamed abalone a luxurious opening. A subdued salad of zuiki, or taro stems, seemed to say that opulence must avoid ostentation. The clear soup arrived, an important kaiseki moment. When we lifted the lacquer lids, an aromatic tsunami swept us away. Matsutake mushrooms! Pairing the first fall mushrooms with the last summer hamo, or conger eel, pinpointed the season exactly. The sashimi course was a spectacular return to Indian summer. It was served not on priceless china but on a dewy lotus leaf, which unfurled to reveal two slices of raw sea bass, another couplet of fatty tuna and a torigai clam on crushed ice. More fresh leaves covered the hassun, a tray containing a medley of elaborate bites peeking out from under the greenery. It was fun discovering each tidbit, ranging from a deep-fried freshwater shrimp to salmon roe in a carved citrus cup.
By the time we came to the roasted oysters dengaku, Mrs. Yuki was discussing my husband's luxury business. In kaiseki, the first half-dozen courses are just nibbles to go with sake; the real meal is rice. In fact, the Japanese words for "meal" and "rice" are the same, gohan. That night's main event was another matsutake masterpiece, which the okami-san herself dished from the old-fashioned pot. The final bowl of shaved ice and matcha-tea syrup combined a clever reference to the tea ceremony with a last, nostalgic taste of summer.
As we reluctantly said goodbye, I remembered the Zen mantra ichigo ichie, meaning "one chance, one meeting." In kaiseki, it is the mandate to treat each moment as precious, never to be repeated. At the door, Mrs. Yuki said she hoped to see us again. No matter how often we do, I know each encounter will be the meal of a lifetime.
Decoding the menu. A matter of courses
Course No. 1: Sakizuke, the first appetizer
Course No. 2: Salad
Course No. 3: Wan (lidded bowl) usually a clear soup
Course No. 4: Tsukuri (sashimi)
Course No. 5: Naka-choko or shinogi an interim dish, usually small canapés
Course No. 6: Hassun, an elaborate tray of small bites
Course No. 7: Yakimono the grilled course, which often consists of fish
Course No. 8: Takiawase (a medley of separately simmered vegetables)
Course No. 9: Gohan (rice course) considered to be the heart of the meal and usually includes vegetables
Course No. 10: Mizumono (seasonal dessert) usually fruit
Course No. 11: Kashi (sweet) shaved ice, ice cream or a cooked dessert
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