The Lake Biwa pearls that Sachiko Yagi (Sachiko San) was wearing, caught my eye at first glance. But soon after, it was her spirit, the soul that drove her aura to be what it is, and the ability she has to be able to communicate just by smile, gesture and body language, is what had me smitten. Little did I know that this meeting would change me. Thanks Sachiko San. Thanks Saori San for making this happen.
Sachiko San and her daughter Noriko San, are women that would be commanding respect wherever they go, wherever they choose to house their minds, souls and bodies. They have this presence that is beyond race, geographic borders, religion and language. Humans could hardly create any boundary that these two women could not circumvent and navigate their way through. And so, it is perfectly normal for Charlie and I to have experienced a meal that will haunt our lives to our last day, in the presence of these fine ladies. This first course above, was one of 11, that ended up being shared in 9 servings, since we were short of time. Of course all 11 dishes/courses were served and presented as is necessary for a traditional Kaiseki. The Queens of Yuba and Chef Noboru Kitano would have not had it any other way. They are proper and correct when it comes to tradition and culture. And we were luckier for that. As if four hours are not enough for lunch?!? But a lunch like this, could take eternity to be understood in entirety, and several more hours, to be appreciated as it ought to be. So our four hours were memorable and amazing, but could have easily have been seven or eight, and never seemed too long. More details from this first course below.
Being celebrated in this first course of our Kaiseki meal that afternoon were Yuba (found in each course in ways one could never have imagined, or if you could imagine, in an interpretation that would become quickly the best of in your mind), Lake Biwa Shirano (a small fish like sardine), Fava bean, Chinese Broccoli (NOT really, it is a Mustard Blossom, but it could fool you), Sea Urchin and Mitzuba, a herb that tied the rice and yuba together, creating the shape of a warship, and was supposed to transport us to appreciating the Gunka style. Who needs words when food is so beautiful, tasty, inspiring and invigorating all at once?
This second course was a clear soup. Suimono (No Miso Soup). That beautifully, richly blush colored (salmon pink?) yuba is stamped with flowers. Cherry blossom to be precise. Yuba Sakura as it is called. It is served with tofu, shiso and mountain vegetables. Kirome (Japanese pepper leaves) take you to a place few herbs ever could. How I wish we could find these fresh in our markets. Just for this, I would enjoy clear soup at every meal. The red snapper could have been absent, and I would have been sated by the Kirome, but that it was there, and so fresh, only made it totally feel in place.
Otsu Kuri Sashimi was the third course. Here you see amazingly fresh, FRESH fish with silken yuba, and crunchy noodles that everything sat on. The confetti you see is giving crunch and style to squid, taking it to places I could not have fathomed even in my wildest dream. that the tuna, snapper and yuba sashimi is as fresh and sweet as they were, would hardly matter, if I could have only been served the beautiful and delicious squid. But that these all came together, made me feel spoiled beyond measure, feeling as if something I did, in this life, or a previous one, made me worthy of being at this lunch.
Steamed Egg Custard came as the fourth course. Steamed and tasty? Possible? Yes some believe steamed things to be DEEEELICIOUS, but I am usually suspect. But I am realizing, that if anyone knows how to make steamed anything tasty, it is the Japanese. Hiroko Shimbo served us steamed vegetables at our home on 31st of December, and they were beyond wonderful. Of course her miso sauce was amazing. And at this lunch, the serving bowl had us all seduced, even covered. How chic it looked in that room, in that light, it made me think I belong, because this bowl had the color of my people, my heritage, and our home - the color of turmeric, the color of the clothes worn by the holy people of India, and in some ways, the color of India itself. Of course eggs seduce me quickly and take me to places few people have taken me, and that helps, but it was a marriage of great steaming skills, with super soft, super silky Hiei Yuba and Japanese eggs with Namafu (gluten flowers in this case) that was wondrous. And if that were not enough, there was the citrus garnish. WOW WOW WOW!
When did you see Tempura look this great? Have you ever? Be honest. Come on. I have never been a fan of tempura. Have always found it that gratuitous "thing" that many Japanese restaurants bring out for vegetarians. Of course that changed last year, when Hiroko fried some garden fresh vegetables for us at the farm, and on the taping she did on Sally Longo's show in Glens Falls. After eating her beet, baby vegetables and blue potato tempura, I knew I was only now finding birth in this life, or at least as far as living with tempura goes. And then, at this lunch, this fifth course of tempura, transported me to places I never knew tempura would have the power to do. That beautiful colorful and crunchy edible goodie you see, is eel, and yes, it was fried to perfection, and tasted crunch, buttery, chewy and umami all in one bite. The beans? Could not have been any more sweeter, crisper and grease free. The shrimp - well I wish each of you that I love, and those I do not know, but love good food and great taste, could have been there with us at lunch. This is really not fair. How can Japanese shrimp taste so much better? WHY??
The sixth course came hidden in a jewel box. Of course as it opened, we were all in awe of the rose that sat atop the tamago (Japanese Omelet). These rolled omelets have become a favorite of mine. How could they not be loved by anyone who has tried them. That simply could never happen. But here, the chef took Yuba and made a rose out of it, and then deep fried it. Naturally red, with vegetable dye. This rose was breathtaking and gave the soft and supple creamy tamago amazing textural contrast. Of course the tomago also had some yuba sprinkles in it, to give further color and texture. The Japanese know just how to take things beyond perfection. On the other side, was a perfect piece of Kobe beef served atop Edi Imo potato that had been carved and grilled. With Yuba cream that had some cream in it too. The wasabi is nothing like the American siblings we have all gotten accustomed to. And that picked ginger is beyond description. How I wish more chefs would understand that garnishes ought not to be just pretty, but also meaningful. In Japan, they know just how much to garnish and with what.
This course was made to highlight the brilliance of serving dishes and cutlery. Here it was chopsticks, the human mouth and hands, and our greed for anything savory that was being put to the test. Even before I could finish taking the photograph of the covered bowl, with whom I had fallen in deep love at first sight, our amazingly kind and talented guide to Japan, Shinji, had begun eating and finishing his serving. For this sevent course of this spectacular meal, we were served Baby Ayu (small fish from Lake Biwa, on whose shore Hotel Prince sits in Otsu), Yuba roll, Chinese cabbage, a carved carrot and ponzu, made Gyoza-sauce-style. The sauce was delicious. And I know my dear Hiroko will be in shock that someone Japanese would do this worst-crime-of-all and fuse another cultures influence into Japanese cookery, but our chef seemed to think it was ok, and we were all in heaven. Japanese and the foreigners. The sauce made us hungry to eat more. There is something that happens in all cultures, when you mix hot, sour, salty, sweet and bitter all together, you get this wonderful sensation that makes you greedier, happier and sated. That is what happened. The spring onions in the ponzu and the heat from some hot pepper, akatogarashi I am sure, made everything magical, even if only for one course, and for one or two bites. The Yuba brought us back to earth and the sophistry of flavors that the Japanese pride themselves in. The carrot ensured everything was chic and splendid.
Once I saw everyone eating their amazing sushi, I made the faux pas of not photographing the entire service, full of food, and so, here, in our eight course of amazement, you see me photograph the lacquer platter as it is getting ready to be removed from the plate. All food polished, giving the highly polished lacquer a sense of having amazed and sated. The Shiromiso soup had yuba and mushrooms. A match made for me. Since I am a fan of both these ingredients. The red sushi had cucumber. The gold sushi had tuna in it and the green sushi had tamago (rolled omelet). The sushi will make anyone who sits on a fence around the appreciation of Japanese food, only because they are allergic to seafood, cannot appreciate the smell of nori or kelp, a fan of Japanese food in an instant. Wrapped in silken and tender yuba, this sushi was heavenly and magical. Of course the colors of vegetable-dyed Yuba would make sushi a hit with kids as well. Shinji, a Japanese expert of cuisine and culture and history, a guide of great repute, and a man who the whose-who of the world come to for discovering Japan as no foreigner could, sat here, enjoying this Sushi, and saying that this simple colorful preparation, made with Yuba, could be the thing that would change minds, bring new fans and inspire even the Japanese-Food Groupies. The Queens of Yuba (Sachiko and Noriko Yagi) created an afternoon for us, that we could have never expected, dreamed of or even thought possible. And for that alone, I shall always be in their debt. But then there is that stylish side of Sachiko, that is so infectious and elegant, that you want to be in her company. Add to that her very kind personality and her beyond generous kind soul, and you are instantly in awe. And of course her pearls, still have me dreaming of Lake Biwa, of her, and of this amazing lunch she created for us. Immortal it shall remain even in my mortal memory.
All things sweet and wondrous, enjoyed no matter in what lifetime I am told, must come to an end, and so did this great luncheon. The 9th course, which would have been the 11th course, was the sweet end to a meal I shall never forget. We enjoyed sweeter than sweet melon with richly fragrant strawberries, sweet papaya and sweet-tart citrus, in a setting that is fit only for the Gods. And is the home of Japanese Buddhism. Sweet fragrant and flavorful fruits made even sweeter because of the company we shared them with, transported us to places we could have imagined in another lifetime, or in dreams that materialize in moments when we are beyond our limited scope, enchanted in a way impossible for us to fathom in reality. There were layered, gossamer, nuanced and subtle-beyond-measure intricacies involved in this lunch, that poetry could be written by one who is talented. Japanese food is poetry. And Hiei Yuba, married to the talents of chef Noboru Kitano at the Prince Hotel restaurant Shimizu (pure water) - created edible poetry that is ethereal.
Below I share photos of chef Noboru Kitano, the chopsticks (the weakest link. They could have been more special. But then again, the Japanese are smart. They do not like using another persons chopsticks and these are simple and easy to discard) and of the views we enjoyed. And one of chef Lee Anne Wong, who it seems was saying - "are you kiddin me?!?" And one with her with Shinji. A photograph of our server, who was graceful beyond description. And of the Sake bottle the chef sent out as a gift for us. Thank you chef! And of course the menu for those of you that can read Japanese.
And none of this would have been possible had it not been for Mt. Hiei which inspired the family of the Queens of Yuba to start Hiei Yuba, and share the magical food of the imperial family and the Buddhist monks. Below is a photograph of the mountain that is believed to have been the birthplace of Japanese Buddhism I am told. We sat enjoying our lunch, humbled by its proportions, enriched by its presence and inspired by its silent majesty.