I've now managed to eat kaiseki at Kitayama during all four seasons, such as they manifest themselves here in Southern Cal. My wife and I think that autumn is best- which I guess makes sense, considering how that's when the harvests are.
Since kaiseki is a seasonal cuisine, we tried to get there once a season, and actually managed it. In fact, we're now in year 2, and just hit Kitayama for the second time in autumn. The chef did his part each time we went by providing menus that differed quite a bit in the ingredients used, if not the general outline of the menu. Kaiseki is really the name of the game at Kitayama- not many places do this, and Kitayama does it well. They have private tatami rooms with lowered floors under the table, so you can sit western style as well- they overlook the Zen garden and waterfall, and are a really nice place to spend a leisurely evening.
The meal always starts out with a plate of appetizers- one each of a variety of small bite-sized dishes arranged as much for appearance as for taste, though they taste great. This year we finally received a menu in English, so I can say that our appetizers were:
- vegetable in cold soup
- sea urchin (uni) mousse - very tasty
- sea eel (anago) sushi - actually just okay
- baked oyester - I usually like 'em raw, but this was nicely done
- steamed duck
- shrimp ball (this was dressed up with short semi-hard noodles plunged into the ball to make it look almost like a tiny, live, albeit brown and green sea urchin)
- cooked Japanese yam cake
- cooked chicken - their teriyaki chicken dish is better than this was
- cooked sweet fish - the best of the bunch: I don't know what kind of fish it was, but it was grilled and then steamed in a soy based sauce, and had a large clutch of eggs in the portion of the fish I got. Mmmmm..
The soup was matsutake mushroom soup, served in a teapot. You pour the soup into a small bowl for drinking, and use chopsticks to eat the mushrooms inside. Matsutake mushrooms are just tasty, tasty.. a delicacy that is very expensive in Japan, but less so here, although our kimono-clad waitress says that it tastes quite different and is more fragrant there.
Next up was sashimi- three kinds: toro, live amaebi, and one other whose name I can't remember, that came with its own dark soy sauce. All of them were excellent- Kitayama is owned/affiliated with a fish market, and they save their best stuff for the kaiseki customers.
The "grilled dish" was a baked wild sea bass with chrysanthemum. My wife considered the weakest dish of the bunch- not particularly flavorful, especially after the sashimi. I'm inclined to agree, though I didn't really notice that it didn't fit in, at the time. It was grilled and then submerged in a sweet sauce and flecked with chrysanthemum petals- I guess it looked a bit better than it tasted.
The "boiled dish" was matsutake mushrooms and sea urchin (uni) in chawanmushi (egg custard). This is one of the dishes that Kitayama does particularly well- the chawanmushi is both firm to the touch, and soft when broken and mixed with the spoon. The uni and matsutake go well together, and this whole dish left my stomach feeling warm and happy.
The "fried dish" was crab and asparagus rolled with seaweed, or so it says on my menu. It actually seemed to be crab and asparagus rolled with shiso leaf inside a very thin almost won ton type wrapper and then fried. It came with a vinegary sauce, and was one of my favorite dishes of the night. I just like the way shiso smells when you're chewing it.
The "vinegar dish" was octopus with plum sauce. The plum in this case is a light dab of ume. The octopus was also topped with jellyfish, much like the kind you'd get at a Chinese wedding banquet. I'm not a huge fan of octopus, because it's pretty chewy, but it tasted fairly fresh to me.
The so called "main dish" was Fugu ochazuke (rice soup). I think the fugu is used to make the broth. Anyway, it was a nice way to end the meal- again, leaving stomach nice and warm.
The dessert was a sake pudding- this I think hasn't varied at all across the seasons. It's almost like a soft almond jello with a hint of sake to it. I hope it's not more than a hint, because my 3 year old daughter loves the stuff.
$65/per person plus tax, drinks, tip.
101 Bayview Pl, Newport Beach, 92660