From the Wikipedia entry on Kaiseki:
In kaiseki, only fresh seasonal ingredients are used, prepared in ways that aim to enhance their flavour. Exquisite care is taken in selecting ingredients and types of food, and finished dishes are carefully presented on serving ware that is chosen to enhance the appearance and seasonal theme of the meal… The serving ware and garnishes are as much a part of the kaiseki experience as the food; some might argue that the aesthetic experience of seeing the food is more important than the physical experience of eating it, though of course both aspects are important.
Hmm… Does any of that sound familiar? Not too different from la haute gastronomie parisienne, is it? Indeed, it was a remarkably similar experience, in form if not in flavor. Perhaps this was in part because we were having what is termed a European style kaiseki, rather than a traditional one, which is completely vegetarian and usually accompanies an elaborate tea ceremony.
Our meal, on the other hand, consisted of a series of elegantly crafted dishes (the food, of course, but also the dishes themselves), each amounting to little more than one delectable morsel.
The menu called this, “Sesame flavored soymilk tofu and water shield with sweet corn flavored soy sauce,” but I believe they neglected to mention the sweet beans on top, and also the strange bluish jellied things. “Bluish jellied things” is maybe not the most attractive description I could have conjured, but they were actually pretty tasty and surprisingly spicy, besides being monstrously difficult to pick up with chopsticks.
More of the meal (along with the menu) is visible here.
Okay, I promise I’m not going to drag you through an entire week’s worth of meals, but since we’re on the subject of French/Japanese food crossover, I thought you might be interested in this:
Camembert Cheese Curry — here’s one cultural bastard that should probably never have seen the light of day. I like curry, and God knows I love a good camembert, but is it remotely possible that this concoction is anything but an abomination? I can’t tell you — I nearly bought it in dutyfree with my last 600 Yen, but at the last minute went for the much tamer green tea kitkats instead. Still, I do hope some braver culinary soul googles this entry at some point, and tells me if I’m missing anything. Maybe I’ll catch it on my next trip.
So… is anyone but me surprised that, among all the photos from my week in Japan, only a small handful are of anything but food? Honestly, I did try to capture a more complete picture of my time there, but of course you can’t take photos inside the shrines and temples, or in the museums, or during any of the six hours(!) of Kabuki theater I attended, as gorgeous as it all was. And I figure you guys have probably all seen photos of Harajuku girls and neon-plastered buildings, so really… what was left?
Even back in the States, I had heard stories about Kobe beef — how the cows are fed beer, massaged with sake, and the meat itself is so marbled it offers no resistance to knife or teeth. So of course I was dying to try it, but even in Japan, this is easier said than done. There are steak joints all over the place, but which ones would give me the truest version of the experience I craved? And in a country with unreadable street signs and an absence of numbered addresses, even recommendations aren’t too useful.
Nevertheless, after an hour or so of wandering around Kyoto’s nightlife district, my mother finally answered the question that plagued so many American television viewers in 1984. “Aha,” she proclaimed, “so there’s the beef.”
That’s the plate of beef they brought us at Misono, a restaurant famed for inventing the teppanyaki style of steak preparation. It’s certainly a more dramatic technique than you’ll find in any French bistro, as it involves a personal chef coming to your table, then chopping and cooking the beef right in front of you on a vast table-top grill.
Once it’s done, they sort of push it toward you (no plates) and you eat it directly off the grill with your chopsticks. And to keep you from feeling like some crazed carnivorous beast, they also supply you with an assortment of grilled vegetables, a heap of bean sprouts, and a plate of cinnamon bread.
Yeah, I have no idea. Apparently this coffee cake resembling item is considered an appropriate garniture for teppanyaki.
But enough about the bread. Was the steak any good? Readers, it was. Perhaps not the most intensely flavored cut of meat you’ve ever had, but luscious, sweet, and delectable… kind of like steak-flavored pudding. Just the thing to bring tears to your eyes next time you find yourself sawing through a gristle-y bavette at your neighborhood cafe.
Wow, I totally didn’t mean to devote this entire post to one meal. I guess the Kaiseki and okonomiyaki will have to wait for another day.
I promise, I have a big post (or maybe two) about Japan coming as soon as I have the energy… (the photos are already up here). But in the meanwhile, is anyone out there interested in joining me to see Une Vielle Maitresse? I saw a preview for it a while back, and it looked… well, see for yourself:
Oh, the melodrama! So cheesily delectable. Come on, you know you want to. Let me know via comments or email.
I’m way behind on blogging, and I’m leaving for Japan in about twenty-four hours, so please forgive me for this summary post — it’s the only way I’ll ever get around to recording this stuff.
1. Last Thursday I headed out to Chaumont-sur-Loire to see the annual Festival des Jardins. We’re not talking flower beds, here — twenty-seven landscape architects were given similar plots of land on which to build highly-conceptual gardens around the theme of “mobility”.
These blue dudes were particularly impressive, but you can see much more here.
2. Went to see Anselm Kiefer at the Grand Palais, the first of their so-called “Monumenta” exhibits. It was a bit strange — the first thing you are told when you walk in is that art is in the eye of the beholder, and that Kiefer has no desire to tell you how to interpret or respond to his pieces. Then the exhibit proceeds to do exactly that! Between the mandatory headphones, the banal explanatory texts, and the over-eager “guides” who will pull you aside to make sure you’re fully “getting” the art, the experience was so micro-managed that I found it unbearable.
The art itself was variable, with some very strong pieces, and others that felt pointless or half-hearted.
See more here.
3. Yesterday I headed out at long last to MAC/Val, the newish contemporary art museum just outside of Paris (don’t worry, you can get there on a Zone 1-2 metro ticket!). Aside from a Daniel Buren and a few Dubuffets, there are no really big name artists out there, but they still managed to put together some compelling pieces.
I liked this one, of chocolate cake putting the moves on a slice of pie. Check out some more here.
4. And speaking of food, some of you may have heard that MAC/Val is as well known for its restaurant, Transversal, as for its art. And not without reason! We had a really terrific lunch there — at least once we figured out the very idiosyncratic menu.
Luscious cherry tomatoes with something identified as seaweed tartare. It might not sound promising, but it was truly delicious — a bit like pesto, but with a wonderful briny accent. And as always, more pics here.
Okay, that’s all! Watch this space in a couple weeks to see if I survived Tokyo!
Sitting on my pillow, of all the unlikely places.
But despite the anxiety of misplaced keys, I had a wonderful time yesterday and I hope we can all do it again some time (perhaps minus getting locked in the park).
JChevais asked, and I shall oblige: my five favorite restaurants in Paris.
This was actually a pretty tough list to put together, since I have as many different favorites as I have moods, and of course I’m sure to forget some. Worse yet, many of my old haunts aren’t worth mentioning since they reside only in my memory these days — they’ve long since disappeared or developed new chefs. So don’t think this list is set in stone — I’m just going to do my best to name five Paris restaurants that I have enjoyed recently, because who knows? I may well have a new favorite by tomorrow.
1. Le Vieux Moulin
I’m mentioning this first because it’s fresh in my mind — I tried it for the first time a couple of nights ago. And what endeared it to me? An unbeatable combo: good food, cheap prices, a fabulously kitschy decor, plus it’s right around the corner from my house.
I was a particular fan of the fried quail eggs and their army of tiny yolks. But we also had some very accomplished magret d’oie, venison, and rabbit — pretty elaborate dishes for such tiny prices. And although the meal sounds fairly traditional French, everything was dressed up with very subtle asian touches — a creme d’asperges made with sesame and water chestnuts, for example. See more of the meal (and the whimsical decor) here.
2. Le Pré Catelan
Number two has no pictures, I’m sorry to say, as my last meal there predates my digcam by about a year. Nevertheless, it was a terrific and deeply memorable experience that I’d recommend to anyone who has the means and opportunity.
A highlight from my notes: Pigeoneau in a sort of faux-couscous. It was amazing, because they had elegantly dashed just the tiniest bit of harissa along the side of the plate, and it was like nothing I’ve ever tasted before. I mean, I love harissa, and I have it all the time, but it is very spicy with a powerful earthy flavor. This harissa really wasn’t spicy at all, yet even a tiny amount flavoured the rest of the bite with an intense and yet familiar earthy aroma, which nevertheless did not overpower the other flavors at all. I can only describe it as like a dream of harissa – like somehow they managed to distill the essence of harissa and then inject it directly into your soul.
Unfortunately, now that the Pré Catelan has earned its third Michelin star, all hopes of obtaining a reservation sometime this decade have been dashed. Feel free to live vicariously through this blog, though.
4. Now I’m going to have to give a shout-out to another local favorite, which I don’t think I’ve mentioned here before: Bistrot le Vauquelin, on the corner of Vauquelin and Claude Bernard. I consider this place a real treasure, because I don’t know of many places like it left in Paris. It’s only open for lunch, and only weekdays, but it serves an ever-changing menu of French standards for extremely reasonable prices. Eleven Euro get you an appetizer or dessert, plus a hearty main course… and a quarter liter of wine! That’s hard to beat, even if it means you’ll wind up dozing away the afternoon.
Plus, they get extra credit for combining two of my favorite foods: chocolate and banana.
5. Okay, don’t hate me — but the fifth slot is going to have to go to a big guilty pleasure of mine. No real Parisian would ever admit that he eats here, but the place is always full so… Yes, I’m talking about Hippopotamus Grill. It’s the place I go when I’m too cranky or distressed to be bothered picking one sauce to top my steak — at Hippo Grill, you can demand them all, like the little piggy (hippo?) you know you are!
It’s not the best deal in town, but it’s nice to know that for a reasonable price, you can get a juicy steak, a heaping pile of fries (they’ll bring more if you run out), and five decadent sauces to smear all over everything. It may not be glamorous, but it’s a little piece of heaven.