Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Kaygetsu: Kyoto Moon Rising Over Stanford

325 Sharon Park Drive
Menlo Park, CA 94025
Sushi Chef Toshi Sakuma
Kaiseki Chefs Katsuhiro Yamasaki* and Shinichi Aoki
Dinner only Tuesday through Sunday
(Kaiseki menu only Wednesday through Saturday)

*departed February 2008 to open new restaurant

Kaygetsu on Urbanspoon

Last tried: September 2009

Unfortunately, the departure of one of the chefs combined with the persistent economic conditions appear to have adversely impacted the quality of the kaiseki menu at Kaygetsu. While still satisfactory overall, the delicate and subtle touches that made this place stand out appear to have somewhat diminished. To be brutally honest, even the sushi quality was not quite as stellar as I remembered. I used to enjoy this restaurant so much that I am hoping that this last experience was an anomaly.

Previously tried: March 2006

I can no longer disparage the Peninsula for its level of dining after my recent experiences at Kaygetsu, located in a mini-mall between Stanford University and Highway 280 behind a Shell gas station. Kaygetsu is a quiet, artfully decorated oasis that makes you want to speak in hushed tones, even to exclaim over the exquisitely prepared dishes that float from the kitchen or sushi bar to the tables across the small dining room.

Both the kaiseki and a la carte menus at Kaygetsu are sheer gastronomic bliss. The kaiseki offerings are more traditionally Japanese with respect to both ingredients and flavors, while the a la carte menu, which still incorporates the kaiseki concept, has items more familiar to the American palate (as well as slightly larger individual portions) created under the same exacting standards and techniques.

Kaiseki ryori is a form of tasting menu that originated in Kyoto, focusing on seasonality and harmony of ingredients and presentation -- a concept going back four or five centuries. As an extension of Japanese tea ceremony, kaiseki cuisine is a prime example of Japanese obsession with perfection and symmetry. As such, Kaygetsu's seven-course kaiseki menu ($85/person but not required to be ordered by the entire table, with optional sake pairing for $33/person) changes every six weeks, and its a la carte menu also varies with seasonal ingredients.

The chowan mushi from the a la carte menu was among the best I have had recently. The pale yellow egg custard, immersed in luminous broth that floated about a quarter inch above the top of the custard, was housed in a blue and white ceramic teacup, about the size of a large espresso cup, sitting on top of a wooden saucer and served with a small matching wooden spoon. As I broke the surface of the custard to take a small scoop, the custard intermingled with the hot seafood broth to create a perfectly balanced taste that was delicate, creamy, and savory. Although the temperature of the chowan mushi remained hot from start to finish, the custard was as soft as silken tofu, and the tender unagi, flavorful shrimp dumpling, crunchy black mushrooms (kikurage), al dente lotus root, and chewy ginko nut embedded inside were all perfectly cooked. Given that these elements all have different cooking times and the unagi was clearly seasoned and broiled in advance, everything had to have been cooked separately then placed into the custard for steaming. Talk about obsession with detail, but the result was phenomenal.

Both the agedashi tofu and the mixed vegetable tempura demonstrated the kitchen's deep-frying expertise. A diaphanous layer of crispy, almost white tempura batter coated the outside of each ingredient. The tofu was hot and soft inside, and the agedashi sauce was so unbelievably good that I drank it like soup after I was done eating the tofu, not caring that it was hardly good manners to slurp my plate. The subtly seasoned vegetables consisted of lotus root, carrot, red bell pepper, mushroom, green beans, and even a shiso leaf, each of which were fried so skillfully that even my picky nephew who is firmly anti-vegetable would polish them off.

In addition to the toro sushi, which were exactly of the quality one would expect from a restaurant of this caliber, I tried the Sashimi Moriawase (meaning "variety"), which included tuna, halibut, yellowtail, and salmon. The jewel-toned fresh fish pieces, expertly cut, shimmered on top of a mound of angel hair strands of fresh daikon, accompanied by minty, dark green fresh shiso leaves, daikon sprouts, and a sprig of edible lavender shiso flowers. The wasabi was of course grated fresh and dissolved instantly upon touching the soy sauce.

The cooked fish dishes were equally as inviting as the dazzling raw offerings. The hamachi kama, grilled yellowtail fish cheeks, were gently salty with crispy, crackly skin. The fish meat, although it took a bit of work to separate from the bony cheek area, was melt-in-your mouth supple. If you are squeamish about fish parts, however, be warned that these pieces come with the gills still attached. The collar is grilled very crisp and great to chew on to get the tiny morsels of salty soft gelatinous meat around the bones-- a bit barbaric but so worth the effort. The deep-fried sole, although also expertly fried and still quite delicious, was probably my least favorite among these dishes, more because it really involved extensive chopstick proficiency to manuever around the fish bones to get at the meat. Like all of the sauces, the dipping sauce for the sole was subtle and savory, but it was a little strong for the very delicate flavor of the white fish.

The only offering I was not completely enthralled with was the dark red miso clam soup. I personally found the combination of the red miso paste and pungent sansho pepper leaf (looks like a miniature Christmas holly) to be too floral and dissonant to be enjoyable. However, like the other dishes, it was faultlessly executed, with the clams still briny and vibrant, and the miso smoothly blended with the fish stock. I suspect that native Japanese, as well as those who seek out completely authentic, un-Americanized Japanese fare, would love this traditional soup.

If I had to pick a favorite among the a la carte dishes, I would have to go with the Kaygetsu roast beef. It is not quite carpaccio but thin slices of very tender, very rare beef, served on a salad of bitter greens, mildly pickled cucumber slices, and crunchy radish disks, and garnished with julienned scallions. The server instructed us to put a bit of both the dark yellow spicy Chinese mustard and the wasabi on the beef then roll it up with some of the scallions and greens and dip into the sauce made of tamari-soy-seafood broth. This is not the type of hearty beef that calls out for red wine, but rather resembles an elegant sashimi dish-- except that it is beef, not fish, and also not raw. Paired with a cold sake from Kaygetsu's excellent and extensive sake list, I could not envision anything that would taste better. (My favorite among the sakes was "Manju," one of the four junmai daiginjo varieties on Kaygetsu's list of sakes, which has a faint tropical flavor. Kaygetsu also offers unpasteurized sake, designated "nama," meaning raw, which is sweeter and more flavorful than the standard pasteurized variety but very difficult to find.)

On my second visit to the restaurant, I tried Kaygetsu's kaiseki ryori. The late winter kaiseki menu started with a collection of miniature appetizers called Saki zuke: boiled quail egg with eel in aspic, shrimp and Asian pear in a yuzu gelee, herring roe with kelp, and deep-fried sesame wrapped umeboshi (pickled plum). The quail egg with eel was rich and savory, the shrimp and pear combination was salty-sweet, the herring roe with kelp was salty and crunchy, the rice with bean curd was bland and neutral, and the deep-fried umeboshi was tart-sweet. As I worked my way around the beautfully presented platter, the precisely controlled different flavors and textures danced in my mouth.

The next course was a bowl of slow-cooked vegetables bathed in a clear seafood broth. The square of wheat gluten had the sticky texture and flavor of unsweetened mochi (Japanese sticky rice cake). While not my favorite flavor, I appreciated that it was well done. Likewise, the yama kurage (a green, Japanese vegetable) wrapped in inari (flavored bean curd) was well prepared but too authentically Japanese for my taste. The other ingredients-- kabura turnip, green beans, kabocha pumpkin, carrots, and shiitake mushrooms-- were all meltingly soft yet still retained the distinct flavors of each vegetable.

The kaiseki menu continued with assorted sashimi, followed by a collection of deep-fried items consisting of kinki fish (which had the texture and taste of snapper), eggplant, and enoki mushrooms, accompanied by a light-brown soy based broth. This was followed by a grilled dish of minced kurobuta pork and kobe beef, mixed with natto to create a meatloafy consistency. Only the Japanese could make a mixture of kobe beef and kurobuta pork airy and delicate. The ponzu sauce on the side matched perfectly with the grilled meat.

The last savory dish was a bowl of Japanese mixed ingredient rice (bamboo shoots, chicken, and lotus root), reminiscent of Chinese fried rice but not as hearty and more subtle in flavor, accompanied by a bowl of red miso soup and a small plate of pickled vegetables. This dish served as a transition from the hearty grilled meat to the refined dessert that followed-- a peach sake flan. Even though I generally dislike flan, as I find most of them to be too jello-like in texture and overly sweet, I adored this particular incarnation. The velvety sweet custard and surrounding caramel syrup had exactly the right consistency and mild sweetness. Its only flaw was the fact that it was served with out of season strawberries.

Of the many stellar restaurants I have been fortunate enough to try in 2006, Kaygetsu is among the top of the list. I cannot wait to find an excuse to go back-- maybe sneak in for lunch mid-week for a mental escape from the joys of litigation while pretending to pick up dry-cleaning or groceries in the mini-mall...


Anonymous said...

You further confirm some other reviews I've seen on Chowhounds and elsewhere. Two questions: (1) how crowded was it? and (2) would a non-fish-eater be able to be happily fed there alongside fish-eaters without unduly putting out the restaurant?

FYI, the Zagat survey for SFO/bay area restaurants is open right now...

Anonymous said...

Thanks, I generally do not follow Zagat but appreciate the information.

With respect to your questions, Kaygetsu is not "crowded" but usually full so I would recommend making a reservation. As for "non-fish," there are some beautiful vegetable and tofu dishes, but the dinner menu has only one duck and one beef selection. Since the cuisine is focused primarily on seafood, your non-fish-eating dining companions may feel limited in their menu choices and may be happier going elsewhere.

paul said...

Another excellent review. Your description of the atmosphere and the dishes captures the essence of Kaygetsu. For the nama sakes, True Sake in Hayes Valley carries them and will be getting at least 3 more varieties over the next few weeks. Also, as you obviously love sushi, I wanted to let you know about 2 other excellent places. Sakae in Burlingame might have better fish than Kaygetsu. And, sushitomi in Mountain View is a little more economical and tasty if you sit at the sushi bar. I noticed that neither was on your bay area list.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great tips! I saw your post on the Lobster Shack in Redwood City and plan to check that out too. To return the favor, since you liked Tres Agaves, you will probably also like El Tonayense Taco Truck. Also, for great fish and chips, check out Piccadilly Fish & Chips on Polk Street in San Francisco.

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