Kaygetsu: Simply the Best Japanese

Kaygetsu on Urbanspoon

(This review appeared in South Bay Accent in November, 2006. The restaurant closed a year or so ago, being replaced by Mitsunobu, run by some former staff members at Kaygetsu.)

In Japan, they study the art of simple perfection, as seen in their translucent porcelains, exacting calligraphy and even in the three compelling lines of a haiku poem. This same rigorous esthetic is applied to dining. However, visiting a formulaic sushi bar and sipping cheap hot sake – the typical American’s exposure to this cuisine — is not the best example of the multi-dimensional sensory experience in which the Japanese excel. Rather, to find transcendent, authentic Japanese cuisine, look behind the Shell station in an out-of-the-way shopping center in Menlo Park. There you’ll find tiny Kaygetsu, which serves what many consider the best Japanese food in the Bay Area, if not beyond.

Visitors toss words around like “extraordinary” and “exquisite” to describe dining at serene, 36-seat Kaygetsu. Even some local Western chefs are in awe of the food prepared there. Foodies buzz about the nine-course kaiseki dinner, a two-plus-hour affair in which pristinely fresh ingredients in magical combinations are presented like artwork on plates chosen for each dish. The meal progresses through tiny, faultlessly executed courses including a starter, cold soup, sashimi and dishes that are slow cooked, deep fried and grilled. A rice dish and a dessert wrap up this never-leaves-you-stuffed feast.

Owners Toshio and Keiko Sakuma run this extraordinary restaurant.

At $90 a head, this kaiseki experience is still considered well worth it. Maybe because a similar meal in Kyoto – where kaiseki originated – could set you back $150 per person. At Kaygetsu, the menu changes every six weeks, which means it will be different by the time you read this. However, the à la carte menu reflects the same perfection esthetic, authenticity and plain deliciousness. You’ll find no rubbery chicken yakitori here.

Kaygetsu comes by its excellence honestly. It was launched in 2004 by chef Toshio Sakuma and wife Keiko, who runs the front of the house. Toshio’s previous local sushi bars earned him a legion of fans. He elevated his culinary ambitions when opening Kaygetsu, aided by a pair of chefs who were trained in kaiseki in Kyoto. However, this sushi whiz kid still presides at a teensy sushi counter in his new spot, continuing to make the best sushi around.

Kaygetsu’s tuna and yellowtail sashimi plate shows why. The fish is so fresh it’s almost still wiggling and accompanied by freshly grated wasabi (horseradish), not the pre-mixed kind that’s so ubiquitous elsewhere. The raw fish offerings here are sometimes garnished with flecks of edible gold or a little stalk of purple shiso buds, the cumin-scented leaf of which is often served with sushi. Such attention to detail comes standard at Kaygetsu.

Hamachi kama, grilled yellowtail cheeks, demonstrate the Zen of higher-order Japanese cooking. The contrasting textures – from succulent morsels of rich meat to crispy skin – have a range of flavors, depending on how close the area was to the fire and the degree of salting. There are many more not-to-miss seafood items. Killer deep-fried soft-shell crab salad in a subtle marinade with watercress. Seared albacore tuna with a divine ponzu sauce. Grilled salmon that was marinated in sake lees (what’s left after fermentation) and accompanied by asparagus. Rich-sweet barbecued eel served over fluffy rice. And the list goes on.

Although small and simple, Kaygetsu still delivers the best Japanese food around.

A remarkable beef dish shows off the Japanese cooking style of contrasting but ultimately complimentary tastes. The Kobe-style meat is served rare on top of a “salad” that combines bitter, tart, crunchy and slightly spicy ingredients that seem to change with every bite. Even humble tempura rises to new heights here, with the prawns incredibly juicy, the vegetables tender and the airy coating with a perfect degree of fragile crunch.

Come to Kaygetsu prepared for a new dining experience. Besides dishes that will seem atypical compared to what’s common in most local Japanese restaurants, the kitchen also includes some Japanese ingredients unfamiliar to Westerners such as yuba (fresh tofu skin), pickled plum, wheat gluten and delicious imported fish like hamo and hirame. Ordering some tasty sake – which is served cold in a tall glass inside the traditional wooden tray — is a must, particularly with the outstanding selection available here. You’ll never want to drink that cheap hot stuff in the little cups again.

Service here is as adept and comforting as is the cooking, with questions answered politely and intelligently. Those many guests who are unfamiliar with classic Japanese cuisine can also count on good recommendations on dishes and sakes to order.

Their website states that “at Kaygetsu, you’ll find a whole new dimension of Japanese cuisine.” Believe it.

Kaygetsu, 325 Sharon Park Dr., Menlo Park, (650) 234-1084. www.kaygetsu.com

HOURS: Lunch, Tuesday-Friday, 11:30-2; dinner, Tuesday-Sunday, 5:30-9:30. Closed Monday. Reservations strong recommended.

PRICES: 9-course kaiseki dinner, $90 plus optional $33 sake pairing. A la carte menu: Appetizers & salads, $6.50-15; sashimi, $16-24; vegetable dishes, $8-13; seafood & meat dishes, $12-22; rice dishes, $6-8; desserts, $4-7.


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