Makoto is the kind of place that makes you better than you really are. Smaller. Neater. Quieter. More graceful. In short, a match for the lovely women who orchestrate your perfect evening.
I went on a sultry night, entering this calmer world through a lovely enclosed carved wooden entrance on MacArthur Blvd. Inside the door, doll-like steps lead steeply down to a tiny alcove with a cobbled floor. The hostess slid back the shoji and welcomed me, then pointed from my elegant size 5 strappy black sandals to a large pair of floppy slippers, the kind Beavers father might request, along with a pipe, after a long day at the office. I slid them on. She smiled, and led me into a tiny dining are that seemed shrink around me.
Halfway across the polished wooden floor, one of the floppy slippers shot ahead during a forward step. I giggled and cried, Oops, there goes my slipper!! The hostess lifted one magic eyebrow. Its puzzled upward arc transformed me into a hulking hayseed, complete with bouncing Adams apple and an oatstraw clutched between my horselike incisors.
At the sushi bar, I stored my purse in a little wooden box that doubled as my seat for the evening. Within 5 minutes I had my drink of choice, green tea in a beautifully rough earthen cup, had ordered the tasting menu, and unwrapped my chopsticks. I discarded the crumpled paper strip beside the black marble slab that was my place setting. A waitress, quiet as a shadow, picked up the chopsticks and carefully placed them on a porcelain holder, then quietly removed the crumpled paper.
My Adams apple bulged even larger as a tinkle of meditative New Age piano music filtered through the air. I noticed a miniscule speck of an earlier lunch on my pink silk blouse.
The first course arrived quite soon: two porcelain dishes in a lacquer box, one containing pickled winter vegetable, the other, steamed and chilled snow pea leaves. I dont know what winter vegetable actually is, but I have had it before in a Japanese pickle assortment. Its a gray-green stalk, delightfully crisp, with a light sweet/tangy flavor. The snow pea leaves were dressed with a slightly sweet/tart dressing that had a smoky undertone.
The second course was my favorite of the entire evening: a baby spinach salad with one poached shrimp and one poached scallop, a tangle of shredded carrot, and a slightly sweet citrusy dressing with an undefinable herbal note. This dressing was so light that it was almost tasteless on the tongue, but rose in a cloud of aromatics through the back of my mouth. It was one of the most mysterious and delicious fragrance/tastes Ive ever encountered. The waitress told me the dressing was of yuzu Japanese lime. Whatever it was, the high amount of aromatics in the juice made me think it had been freshly squeezed.
The third course arrived. It was a tiny selection of tuna and grouper sashimi with freshly grated wasabi the first I had ever had. Wow. The fresh wasabi has a complex sweet heat that the powdered stuff doesnt even hint of.
In the midst of my wasabi revelation I realized I had eaten from both ends of my chopsticks, which were identically tapered. I surreptitiously wiped off one end before the shadowy waitress who refilled my tea cup could arch her magic brow. Fearful of being cast as a rube who eats the table décor, I also neglected the bright-green serrated-edge leaf beneath the sahimi. Too late, I learned that it was a shiso leaf, with flavors of mint and basil.
The fourth course was another revelation. Ive never had anything like it - chicken wrapped in a tofu skin, poached in two swallows of smoky golden broth, which also contained a few nuggets of crisp-tender asparagus and a carrot piece steamed to sweet custardy goodness. The tofu skin wrapper was resilient and chewy without beng tough, the chicken firm and flavorful.
The fifth course was SOOOO delightful a softshell crab cut into two pieces, each coated with finely crushed rice cracker crumbs and salt, deep fried, and served with a big piece of lemon. Sweet, crunchy, salty, tart.
Next came a marble slab with three small tastes: a bowl of cold crab mixed with grated daikon and topped with salmon roe, a nugget of cold rare roasted beef and a slice of kelp coated with Japanese black pepper, and three bites of peeled chilled asparagus in miso sauce. Despite the understated beauty of its presentation, this was probably my least favorite course. I dont know if the beef was kobe, but to me it tasted just like roast beef. The kelp was very nice: chewy and salty, and the pepper was highly aromatic with just a touch of heat. The crab was quite good, fresh and sweet, but I disliked the wet graininess of the daikon, and the roe was a little strong for my taste.
The seventh course was a small sushi collection: yellowtail, grouper, and tuna, with fresh wasabi tucked between the fish and rice. The fish was wonderful, and the presentation striking: these were carefully placed on a narrow, dark green leaf laid diagonally across a black marble slab.
The eighth course was grilled salmon with a miso glaze. My favorite part there was the skin so crisp and black and caramelized with salty-sweetness.
The ninth course was a bowl of sobe noodles in clear, smoky broth, topped with mountain vegetable. The waitress said this was like a fern I didnt see any resemblance to fiddleheads. Instead, the bright green slivers looked to be some kind of a chopped grass. Some pieces had the appearance of flat blades, while others were round, jointed stalks. It had a very spring-green taste that was a distinct contrast to the deeper flavor of the broth.
The final course was the perfect ending a red grape sorbet. The ice was not granular but flaky, a really delightful texture. Barely sweet, nicely tart, gorgeously colored.
I paid my bill (just $59 with tax and tip) and thanked my waitress, noting that my voice was now low and melodic. I rose with grace. The slippers didnt flop as I glided toward the shoji. My posture was impeccable. Outside the entrance, the sky was booming with a storm. Fat drops were plopping on my head, and I couldnt catch a cab.
But I could write a bad haiku.
Alone in the rain
The untasted shiso leaf
Was my umbrella.