One of my rules to live by is: "Never pass up a chance to learn more about sake." Following this rule ensures that I will occasionally have the chance to do some enjoyable comparative sake tasting and experiment with sake and food pairings. It also gives me a chance to meet other Japanese food and sake aficionados. So I felt especially fortunate in being able to attend the Chowhound Crackling-fresh Sake Event at Midori Mushi. Here I met Bryan Harrell and Squid-kun: two students of Japanese eating and drinking (and not necessarily in that order) who are far more advanced in their studies of this mysterious Eastern Art than I.
Another one of my rules to live by is: "Always go mountain or rock climbing with someone who is better than you are." This can be simplified and generalized as "When you are about to strike off into the unknown, take along a qualified guide." So, by following my rules for a serene and prosperous life, I found myself confidently climbing the stairs above the Japantown Denny's looking forward to meeting Bryan and Squid-kun for an evening of drinking and eating at Kappa.
Kappa is a very small and intimate koryori-stye restaurant. It features a curved bar with ten seats and a small anteroom where a single table has four more seats. The space is spare, elegant and meticulously maintained. On one end of the bar is a small entry hallway; the other end of the bar is anchored by a large and beautiful ikebana flower arrangement. Our gracious hostess, Toshiaki Kimura was wearing a formal kimono, while her husband, Rumiko, dressed in Japanese Chef garb, attended to the cooking. Bryan said Kappa would seem right at home as an upper scale place in the expensive Ginza district of Tokyo. Since Kappa is hard to find and uncompromisingly Japanese, it can seem exclusive to Westerners. Kappa has been in this location for fifteen years, and yet it is almost unknown outside the Japanese community.
A koryori-ya restaurant (like Kappa) is a small Japanese Tapas bar that specializes in fresh and seasonal foods. The meal is served as a procession of dishes, each intended to showcase the flavor of the ingredients and to stand on its own. This is different than an izakaya-style restaurant, which also serves small plates, but is generally a rowdier, larger, and far less elegant sort of place where the emphasis is really more on the drinking.
Although Kappa offers an omakase fixed-price menu ($75), we elected to order from the handwritten menu on the wall. Since this menu is in Japanese Kanji, it is helpful to have someone who knows the language along with you. However, if you don't have that advantage, Mrs. Kimura's English is quite good and she is patient and helpful in explaining each dish. I believe that given the desire to learn about new food, anyone could order a meal at Kappa.
Our meal was as follows
We started out with an appetizer of steamed fresh edamame beans, still in the pods. The pods were all selected to be of uniform length, a detail which indicated that the chef was going to practice perfection and apply art to all aspects of the meal.
Grilled chicken wings (Te-ba-saki). These were salty and grilled to perfection with the meat being tender, moist and almost falling off of the bone.
Julliened "yama-imo" (a white tuber) topped with pickled Japanese apricot sauce (Yama-imo no sengiri, bainiku ae). The yama-imo is white and reminiscent of jicama, but it is not quite as crisp and is slightly slimy (like okra). The dish presented a contrast between the austere and bland yama-imo and the tart pickled apricot sauce.
Steamed Chicken with Asparagus in a sesame sauce (Mushi-dori to asupara no goma ae). The sesame sauce was made from a paste of sesame seeds moisted with kirin (sweet Japanese rice wine) and seasoned with a trace of shoyu soy sauce.
Fresh raw tuna cubes with fermented soybeans, topped with shredded toasted nori seaweed (Maguro natto). Natto , or fermeted soy beans, is reputed to have remarkable health benefits.
Savory miso wrapped in a beefsteak leaf and grilled (Shiso miso maki). This was extremely savory and salty, and could only be eaten one small bite at a time. It was perfect with sake.
Julienned ginger buds with bonito flakes (Myoga to katsuo-bushi). Myoga is an interesting condiment or ingredient for Japanese salads which is crispy and slightly bitter. Only the tiniest amount of shoyu was added for seasoning.
"Amadai" tilefish (from Japan a sort of sea bream) marinated in sake lees and grilled (Amadai no kasu-zuke). The flesh of this fish is normally somewhat watery, but by soaking in kasuzuke the water is drawn out, and the flesh firms up. This was a delicious piece of fish, cooked perfectly.
Ume no ocha-zuke (Green tea over rice with "ume" [a pickled Japanese apricot]). A traditional end to a night of drinking, it was filling and provided hydration to combat the many glasses of sake which had been consumed by this point. I am told that Ocha-zuke is a dish for diners of a certain age. Younger drinkers would finish up with a steaming bowl of ramen noodles.
We also had five rounds of sake (from 180ml serving containers) which I will let others comment on if they wish to do so. The tab for all of this was about $150 for the three of us, plus the tip. It was a delightful, educational, and very pleasant meal, and I plan to return soon to show it to my friends who are fond of Japanese food and culture.
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