Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Springtime Kaiseki

There may be plenty of Japanese restaurants in town, a lot of them more than decent, but there aren't many that specialize in the formal kaiseki-ryori, let alone ones that did it right. I have heard Kashiwaya belong to this rare group of good kaiseki restaurants and recently I finally had a chance to visit this Michelin-starred establishment for the first time and check out some of their new seasonal dishes.

The light-colored, wooden décor of Kashiwaya resembled just about any high-end Japanese restaurants, with the long counter in front of the open kitchen and the row of tables at the back separated by screen offered a nice balance of privacy and a decent view of the chef action. It's less formal than I thought but spacious and comfortable. Three different menus were offered for their dinner service, varied by different price points, number of courses and ingredients used – and this evening we went for the Yamamono menu with nine different courses following the traditional order of kaiseki-ryori prepared by Chef Atsushi Takahashi.

We began with the sakizuke course. What caught my eyes first was this stunningly beautiful piece of antique tableware – a "knot-shaped" deep plate done in classic Imari-style, with the unmistakable characteristic blue underglaze on the white clay (the coloring technique known as Sometsuke 染付, by the way). The food served on it was equally impressive of course – the pale-colored occelated octopus (飯蛸) was slightly pickled with red mizuna lettuce giving it a lovely pinkish tint and tender texture, and it was matched with the grilled white asparagus with fukinoto miso done “en papillotte”. Fukinoto (butterbur bulb) was one of those typical (and probably the most well-known) spring sansai (mountain vegetables) with just a slight hint of its signature bitterness giving the rich miso a rustic taste.

What followed was an “intermezzo” course served on a pair of leaf-shaped pewter mamezara dish set on a long hinoki platter. On the left – the lighter course - was the sliced torigai (cockles) and sayori (needlefish) mixed with seasonal vegetables including bamboo shoots, hosta leaf (urui) and butterbur bulbs (fukinoto) and a mild dressing, and on the right – the richer course - was grilled sazae (turban whelk) served with its innards and the green broad beans. On the menu description Chef Takahashi-san mentioned early spring was the season of shellfish and mountain vegetables, and I guess this course was a good showcase of the versatility of all these ingredients by presenting them in different styles.

Soon, another beautifully-plated course arrived, this time served in a lidded lacquer bowl in red and gold flower pattern. Inside was a steamed asari (littleneck clams) cake served with napa cabbage, bamboo shoot wedge in a yuzu-infused dashi and on top, snow pea, carrot and yama udo cut in diamond-shape. The littleneck clams were intense in umami flavor, working well with the rich dashi with a hint of refreshing yuzu aroma. Three types of sashimi were served in the Tsukuri course in a small bowl – tai (sea bream), ika (squid) and chu-toro (fatty tuna) with vegetable garnishes. I especially enjoyed the plum sauce served on the side along with the traditional soy sauce, giving it a bit of refreshing tangy flavor to the sashimi pieces, especially the piece of the milder sea bream.

The Hassun course was served on the typical round ceramics plate with rustic red and green overglaze (another amazing antique Imari-style piece) On the plate was a number of different dishes served as platter – there’s shirasu (whitebait) and koshiabura (eleuthero) tempura served with a wedge of sudachi lime, shirako with vinegar mixed with grated daikon and scallions in a small bowl, nanohana (rapeseed blossom) and seaweed roll with vegetables, egg castella cake, stewed beet and grilled yama-imo served in small dices and a few slices of grilled duck. I think I got everything that's in this complex course. All of them were perfectly cooked – tempura crispy with the thin batter, shirako marinated with just the right acidity balance, and the duck was rich and tender.

Our main course was served in a lidded bowl (hence it’s called Hachimono course, which means bowl) Inside the earthenware bowl with "contemporary" red and blue Tokusa pattern (vertical stripes) was slices of ainame fish (fat greenling), light-fried and simmered with dashi, wakame (seaweed), baby taro and garnished with finely julienned ginger and myoga. The fish has a soft and silky texture and mild but fatty flavor, paired well with the two kind of gingers mixed in.

The final rice course was served in the form of chazuke, topped with tai (sea bream) fish floss, finely-diced oba leaf and rice crackers in a lacquer bowl, served with seasonal pickled vegetables on the side. That was consistent with the theme of mild spring flavor the whole evening. Our dessert was a small piece of wagashi, with handmade green mugwort mochi with azuki (red bean) paste, with freshly prepared usucha (light-bodied matcha) served in an Oribe chawan bowl. Lastly it was a simple fruit platter – simple yet all in its prime this time of year - with slices of hyuganatsu orange, kiwi and the rare “white strawberries” on a shiny, chrysanthemum-shaped pewter plate.

It was a fine meal with well-executed dishes and drinks, plus good company and interesting conversations made it all that better.

(Dinner was by invitation and more pictures can be found in my Flickr album:

When? March 12 2018
Where? Kashiwaya Hong Kong, 8/F, 18 On Lan Street, Central
Menu Highlights? Nimonowan Course – Clam Cake, Napa Cappage, Bamboo Shoot, Snow Pea, Carrot, Udo and Yuzu
Drink? Miyakanbai Junmai Ginjo 45 – Kanbai-Shuzo, Miyagi Prefecture
宮寒梅 純米吟醸45% 宮城県 寒梅酒造

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