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Kaiseki: Your Dinner Is in Their Hands

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In the 70s Seijiro Matsumoto hewed closely to the rules of kaiseki when he headed up the kitchen at the Hakata Tokyu Hotel in Fukuoka on Japan's southern island of Kyushu. But at his new namesake restaurant he's willing to be a bit more playful. Kaiseki, Japan's version of haute cuisine, originated as a light meal served as part of a traditional tea ceremony. It follows a formal structure with distinct themes for each of the many small courses, and the aesthetics and order of the courses, which incorporate fresh, seasonal ingredients and are meant to reflect the elements of the natural world, are as important as the preparation.

Matsumoto's long-standing affiliation with Matsumoto owner Isao Tozuka began inauspiciously. In the early 80s Tozuka ran a ramen and tempura shop at Broadway and Diversey called Isao's Place. "I noticed a man coming in for lunch . . . and then again for dinner--every day!" he says. It was Matsumoto. He'd just turned in his whites at Ohba, a simple Japanese restaurant downtown. "I didn't have a liquor license," Tozuka continues, "but there was a liquor store next to me. Matsumoto would buy a little something next door and bring it to dinner." The two became fast friends and golfing buddies.

Matsumoto went on to run the kitchen at Daruma in Schaumburg; Tozuka closed Isao's Place and got a job at Itto Sushi on Halsted. There he ran into another Isao's Place regular, Chiyo Kim, a Korean-Japanese student working nights slinging sushi. They soon married and in 1990, at Chiyo's urging, opened Chicago Kalbi at 3752 W. Lawrence. "My mother ran a yakiniku [grilled meat] restaurant in Osaka," says Chiyo. "I wanted to open a yakiniku restaurant in Chicago that did things in a Japanese way--better meat, more attention to presentation and service--something that would stand above the average Korean BBQ place here."

Five years ago Chiyo began nagging her husband about opening a kaiseki restaurant. Customers at Chicago Kalbi had repeatedly complained that they couldn't get kaiseki in Chicago. Isao balked. But in January 2005 the storefront at 3800 W. Lawrence became vacant, and when the landlord walked down the block and asked Chiyo and Isao if they wanted the vacant space, he capitulated. The only question was, with Isao cooking at Chicago Kalbi, who would head the kitchen? Isao's immediate answer: "Matsumoto!"

Matsumoto opened August 8 to little fanfare, but word has spread quickly through the Japanese community and on Internet food boards. It's a modest double storefront with an odd color scheme of purple, dark red, and pale yellow. The restaurant and its hostess, the preternaturally sunny Chiyo, are extremely relaxed, but reservations must be made at least a day in advance, at which point diners are asked about any dietary restrictions and whether they'd like seven, nine, ten, or eleven courses--which can run from $80 to $150. The rest is left to Matsumoto, or omakase (literally, entrusting).

Most kaiseki courses have a formal Japanese title that indicates the theme. Sunomono, or things prepared with vinegar, is an amuse bouche of vegetables or shellfish that gets the taste buds going. This is followed by otsukuri, or sashimi. Soup comes next. Then nimono--boiled vegetables or fish flavored with the holy Japanese trinity of soy, sake, and mirin. Grilled dishes, or yakimono, follow the boiled, and are followed in turn by agemono, or fried dishes. Depending on the season, there might also be steamed dishes, pickles, hot pots, noodles, and rice. Green tea and a light dessert--usually fruit--cap the meal. Until a liquor license comes through, Matsumoto is BYO sake.

When I ate there recently, the sunomono course was a generous portion of crabmeat, finely shredded egg, cucumber, takuan (pickled daikon), and seaweed cradled in an attractive long-stemmed glass. Everything but the seaweed had been marinated in rice vinegar--and the juice was subtly infused with the briny taste of crab. The sashimi course followed on a glistening black-lacquered tray: three pristine and buttery cubes of toro, or fatty tuna, flecked with real gold and garnished with shaved daikon, cucumber, carrot, and tiny sticks of wakegi, a type of scallion. Four raw oysters crowned with a dab of momiji oroshi (grated daikon flavored with togarashi, a spice blend of chile, orange peel, seaweed, ginger, poppy seeds, and sesame seeds) came in a shot glass of red miso and vinegar.

In a later course Matsumoto mixed themes by presenting an amalgam of grilled, fried, boiled, and vinegar-flavored items on a single serving platter. Grilled salmon--overcooked to my taste but "just right" to my Japanese friend--was the centerpiece. A roll of deep-fried yuba (tofu skin) stuffed with whipped tofu and minuscule pieces of cucumber and carrot got my vote as the humble star of the evening. Tsubugai (a snail-like shellfish) marinated in soy, sake, and mirin was an impish take on the concept of "boiled." Vinegar-flavored renkon (lotus root) was refreshingly crunchy and a great visual. Finally, cubes of crab-speckled tamagoyaki (an egg custard grilled in a square pan) echoed the original grilled piece of salmon.

Baked oysters in white miso were the only misstep. Though the impressive clay dish--my friend called it a doggie bowl--and the contrasting arrangement of green and white strips of shironegi (another type of scallion) atop the oysters were reminders of the attention Matsumoto pays to presentation, more oysters were simply too much to stomach.

But Matsumoto's attention to detail rarely flags; he even blends his own soy sauce, infusing it with bonito flakes and sake and then aging it in the fridge. And it extends to the sound system: Japanese pop songs provide a soothing backdrop to dinner. "The Man Who Was Born in Osaka" moved my dining partner to swoon in Japanese, "natsukashii," a nuanced word that roughly translates to "how nostalgic."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.

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