The art of kaiseki: Kaygetsu restaurant offers the American palate an unfamiliar Japanese cuisine experience — and the critics are raving
What do you think of when you hear the words "Japanese food"?
If you're like most Americans, you probably think sushi and teriyaki and tempura.
Toshio and Keiko Sakuma decided several years ago to do their part to broaden that definition, at least in the minds of Peninsula diners. After owning and operating a successful sushi bar in Menlo Park for nine years, they changed course in 2004.
"We knew we were going against the flow, but we wanted to let people know there's more to Japanese food than sushi," Keiko Sakuma says.
As their Kaygetsu restaurant celebrates the third anniversary, this month, of its opening in the Sharon Heights Shopping Center in Menlo Park, the Sakumas are basking in a glow of success they couldn't have imagined possible when they made the decision to buck the trend and introduce local diners to elegant, traditional kaiseki cuisine.
Just in the last four months, Kaygetsu:
• Won a rating of 28 out of 30 from the influential Zagat Survey. (To give an idea of Zagat's standards: Alice Waters' Chez Panisse is rated 28; Thomas Keller's French Laundry is rated 29.)
• Was named by Michael Bauer, food editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, one of the top 10 restaurants reviewed by the Chronicle in 2006.
• Was included in the Chronicle's listing of the top 100 restaurants in the Bay Area in last Sunday's magazine.
With those accolades and the great reviews given the restaurant by Bay Area food critics, the Sakumas find they are broadening the definition of Japanese food not only for Peninsula diners but for adventurous food lovers all over the Bay Area and beyond.
Traditional and seasonal
Keiko Sakuma knows of only four other restaurants in the Bay Area featuring kaiseki, a cuisine whose origins are in the rigidly formal Japanese tea ceremony.
Kaiseki is a multi-course meal — usually seven to nine courses — that features premium seasonal ingredients. The carefully ordered presentation of the food on serving ware of ceramic, bamboo, lacquer and other material is an essential feature of the cuisine: The food must delight the eyes as well as the palate.
Samples of some courses on Kaygetsu's menu, which changes every six weeks, are: scallop and shrimp, wrapped with cherry leaf and deep-fried, served with green tea salt; grilled ocean trout, topped with sake lees, with Brussels sprouts and orange salad; and sliced duck, cooked with egg, served over rice, with clear soup with fish somen noodles.
The seven-course kaiseki meal served at Kaygetsu is not as formal as the original tea ceremony-based kaiseki, says Toshio Sakuma. There aren't the strict rules to follow, and rather than tea, diners often drink sake. "Here, you enjoy time, enjoy drinking sake, enjoy food," he says.
Artists in the kitchen
The thrill of exploring an unfamiliar cuisine and tradition is surely a factor in fans' enthusiasm for Kaygetsu. But it doesn't explain the raves the restaurant is receiving among food critics and demanding diners. Beautifully sculpted food aesthetically arranged on a plate would be merely a target of ridicule if it tasted bad.
Not much chance of that at Kaygetsu. Chefs Katsuhiro Yamasaki and Shinichi Aoki call upon the skills learned while studying the art of kaiseki in Kyoto, its birthplace. Mr. Yamasaki worked for Kitcho in Kyoto, a restaurant famous for its kaiseki; Mr. Aoki also began his chef's career in Kyoto, then worked for a Japanese restaurant in New York for five years before coming to the West Coast.
Both men worked for the Sakumas when they owned Toshi's on El Camino Real in Menlo Park, putting their kaiseki skills on hold while working in the kitchen with Mr. Sakuma, a Tokyo-trained sushi chef.
When the Sakumas decided they wanted to try something different after nine years of operating Toshi's, the choice of kaiseki was made even easier by the fact that two kaiseki chefs were already in their midst.
A risky enterprise
Because kaiseki was almost unheard of in this country, the Sakumas realized they were taking a risk with their new endeavor.
"But there were too many restaurants going fusion, and there were a lot of sushi restaurants, so we wanted to have a restaurant with more authentic food, food in the traditional form," Ms. Sakuma says. "We thought people would be interested in real Japanese food."
One reason the Sakumas were ready for a change was that the work at the small, popular Toshi's was physically demanding, Ms. Sakuma explains. They thought operating a kaiseki restaurant would mean that the pace would be slower, and the stress, lower, she says.
But developing a base of patrons was a slow process. "It was kind of scary at first," Ms. Sakuma says.
Now, although the physical demands are fewer, operating Kaygetsu has been "mentally demanding," she says. The high praise and Zagat rating have upped the pressure for the couple. "We have to meet people's expectations, and pay attention to little details all the time."
A leisurely experience
Reservations are needed for a kaiseki meal at Kaygetsu. Dinner there is a two-hour experience — there's no rushed service, no push to clear tables.
The spring menu costs $95 per person, with a 16 percent service charge added. Sake pairing with the meal is $34 per person.
For diners who want sushi or other more familiar dishes, there's a separate menu. Toshio Sakuma, who supervises the kitchen in general, prepares the meals for those ordering from that menu.
The restaurant also serves lunch, with a menu offering sushi, sashimi, various tempura dishes and other items.
Kaygetsu is at 325 Sharon Park Drive, on the south end of the Sharon Heights Shopping Center. For reservations, call 234-1084, or reserve online: kaygetsu.com