Kodama- Tokyo, Japan

Once in a while a miracle happens when you least expect it, and a full spectrum of magic and wonder graces an enchanting evening.  Such is the case on a cold winter Saturday evening when I walk into Kodama to find 3 place settings on the counter and the chef, Tsutomu Kodama, alone in his empty restaurant.  We are the only reservations for that evening- a rare occurrence at this highly acclaimed 2 Michelin star restaurant in Nishi Azabu- and the chef had sent all of his staff home.  It is just the 3 of us and Chef Kodama with nothing to disturb our private tête-à-tête, an intimate experience that melds earnest conversation, cooking demonstration and delicious meal into one unforgettable night.

There is a quiet confidence about Chef Kodama, one charged by passion and blanketed in humility, inspired by curiosity and illuminated with creativity.  Having never apprenticed in a restaurant before, this young self-taught talent carries himself with the maturity and discipline of one who had been put through his fair share of rigorous kitchen trials under Japan’s notoriously daunting hierarchy. Perhaps it is this independence that makes him stand out from any other chef I have encountered- an honest, pure and relaxed approach to cooking- an untainted innocence almost. Or is this the beautiful consequence of our very private affair that we are blessed with this evening?

‘Good food should not weigh you down’ he says, as he prepares the first zensai course- a sincere intention that he puts into planning his meals, wanting to nourish his customer’s palates with well balanced seasonal ingredients, vibrant flavors and easily digestible garnishes without fatiguing the body.  I appreciate his healthy purist approach to dining after experiencing one too many physically and mentally exhausting meals of gorging on thick sauces and extravagant fatty cuts of protein.  This meal is emphatically different.

A refreshing tossed salad of wild torafugu at its winter peak blossoms with bright stimulating flavors, its lacy black skin skillfully sliced into gelatinous slivers and its pearly white flesh prepared into tender paper-thin cuts.  A strong yuzu aroma wafts through each successive bite that introduces delightful layers of titillating textures- the wonderful crunch of fugu skin and little pops of masago juxtaposed against a moist cushion of grated daikon.

A vivid green fuki no tou (butterbur sprouts) gratin, still bubbling under the darkening crispy char on its surface, in a cast iron bowl- a calling of spring as forests and mountains awaken to the birth of a new season.  A bright delicate bitterness fills my palate, just bordering on the verge of sweetness, as I savor every tender cut of warm butterbur coated in a luscious sauce made with little more than puréed butterbur.  It is fantastic in its simplicity, a celebration of savory bitterness and a tribute to nature.

It is with finesse and tenderness that Kodama handles his food, and the respect that he holds for his seasonal ingredients comes through in his creations.  He does little to the flavors- such beautiful flavors are not to be tampered with- and instead plays with textures and form. Sashimi, in what would traditionally be served as the tsukuri course, is surprisingly difficult to digest, Kodama educates us. So he layers fresh slices of succulent sea bream on zakkoku rice mixed with black beans, sesame, barley and azuki. The grains, along with tobiko roe and a deep green seaweed sauce of a slimy consistency (in the most pleasurable manner) add a carnival of textures and flavors.  Even the karasumi, Japanese bottarga, made in-house, is palatably low in sodium and full of roe flavor.  I feel the nutrients permeate into my bloodstream and I sigh, ever so contently. This, I could eat every day.

Rich creamy sacs of fugu shirako float in a lacquered bowl, suspended in a thick hearty broth of grated Shogoin kabura (large Kyoto turnips) seasoned with a touch of yuzu and ginger.  The shirako bursts with its sweet milky sap, a tincture of heaven that elevates this comforting bowl of soup into a decadent and spectacular elixir.

I realize with the next course that it has taken Chef Kodama years to prepare this meal.  Days, of course, to prep each ravishing component of our meal- from the karasumi that at the very least requires 10 days, to the pickled vegetables that we will encounter in the finale- but decades to master precise skills for fugu butchering and soba making. It is the abalone soba that first piqued my interest in Kodama and prompted me to make a reservation.  It does not, unsurprisingly, disappoint.

Elegant soba noodles, a brilliant matcha green hue, are mixed with seaweed and kneaded, rolled and cut by hand.  Kodama’s soba, tossed with thin slices of tender abalone, glides effortlessly across my tongue, full of deep ocean aromas and a pleasant koshi texture.  The phenomenal sauce made with abalone flesh and green innards that coats the noodles remains in the shell, and as if reading my mind, he hands me a plate of freshly baked rice flour bread, soft, plush and steaming with rich warmth, for me to lap up the sauce with.

Marbled slices of tender wagyu rib eye cook slowly over a bubbling broth of earthy mushrooms and grated renkon loosely packed into airy fluffy manju.  The bitter tang of powdered sansho keeps the heartiness of this divine dish in check where Kodama presents the beef not as the main course but as an exquisite garnish to highlight the beautifully prepared lotus root.

Every course is an extension of Chef Kodama’s thought and intention, poignant haikus that paint the colors, flavors and aromas of the seasons- but it is the comfort and simplicity of the last savory course where his soul shines through.  Homemade shibazuke, pickled cucumbers and eggplants, are especially crisp in texture, exploding with the brightness of ume and shiso flavors without the unpleasant saltiness that often weighs down commercial brands.  It harmonizes with the tai-meshi, a warm serving of moist sea bream and crusts of burnt rice that have caramelized along the edges of the stone pot- the left overs of which he lovingly prepares into perfect little triangular onigiri for us to take home.

Dessert is a revelation- I cannot remember, in all honesty, the last time I was ambushed by such originality and creativity in a sweets dish.  Ice cream made with Junmai Daiginjo sake lees is creamy and rich with a waft of fruity aromatics unique to fermentation.  It is layered with an amazake gelée that lends a hint more of sweetness and on the very top, hoshigaki (dried persimmon) wrapped strawberry cream cheese that bursts with an intense honey sweetness, bringing it all to a climax.

Kodama successfully and seemingly effortlessly integrates elegance, beauty and flavor into one unforgettable meal, from each ingredient that is carefully prepared with the diner’s health and well being in mind, to the lacquerware and ceramics that are designed by the chef himself in collaboration with local artisans.  Thoughtfulness and attention to detail create a perfect balance- and on that night, I am given exclusive access to quietly coexist in that state of perfection.  It is a sincere washoku experience where character and peacefulness preside over pretension. I bow in deep respect to this exceptional chef who has pampered me with an unforgettable private feast and I leave, smiling, riding high from this meal that has nourished my body and my soul to its very core.

Kodama

1-10-6 2F                                  Nishi Azabu, Minato-ku                            Tokyo, Japan                                                                                                                   (03) 3408-8865

Random trivia: Sake lees, rich in amino acids, are highly praised by Japanese women for their beauty benefits. They are used in hand creams, facial packs and creams for their skin brightening and whitening effects.

Tsubaki 海石榴 – Okuyugawara, Japan

The mountains, a baby pink hue of blushing spring cherry blossoms, turns a vivid green in the summer to a lively chorus of shrilling cicadas, then transforms into a stunning background of reds and yellows as the autumn maple leaves take on their fiery colors.  In the dead of winter is when I find these majestic mountains in its most beautiful state, a steely landscape hushed by the deep snowfall and the valley below blanketed in pure white.

Every year I look forward to this serene view of the Okuyugawara mountains from my private outdoor onsen, a rotenburo bath made with hinoki cypress wood that gives off a refreshing forest aroma as I soak in the healing hot springs at Tsubaki ryokan. There is nothing quite like a ryokan experience in Japan where guests travel from afar to indulge and relax in the comfort of true Japanese hospitality.  Tsubaki, a traditional ryokan opened in 1978, is only an hour by express train from Tokyo and an additional 30 minutes by car along the coast line, straight past the mikan orchards that grow on the slopes of Atami and deep into the hidden mountains of Okuyugawara.

As I take that first step through the entrance of Tsubaki, I leave all of my stress and worries at the doorstep and enter into a haven of beauty and serenity.  Ryokan are traditional Japanese inns where people come to rejuvenate their body in the healing waters of the local natural hot springs, rest their weary feet in the comfortable tatami rooms and nourish their souls with traditional kaiseki meals.

It is quiet at Tsubaki, a good soothing silence save for the occasional soft rustle of leaves swaying in the cool wind and the gentle babble of the stream that runs below.  A faint aroma slithers through the hallways, a brew of incense and freshly whisked green tea, while guests shuffle along the cobblestone paths in their yukatas to the communal bath for their first soak of the day.

There are 15 rooms at Tsubaki, each tastefully decorated in wabi sabi aesthetics of simple and understated beauty with accents of ancient scrolls, beautiful ceramics and breathtaking ikebana flower arrangements.  Some, like my favorite room, have an unobstructed view of the forest and the snow capped mountains, while others look over the koi pond and the zen rock gardens.  The room smells like fresh straw, and I lay down on the floor, my body flat against the green tatami mats as I deeply inhale its aroma into my lungs for my first real moment of relaxation.

Since 1978 Tsubaki has been one of the most exclusive ryokans in the country, maintaining the same level of hospitality and quality of service since its opening.  There is a Japanese term called ‘ichigo ichie’ 一期一会, meaning ‘one time, one meeting’.  Each new encounter, each new meeting is a unique and special moment that will never recur in one’s lifetime, and therefore, must be treated with utmost sincerity.  The staff at Tsubaki live by these standards, and make every moment truly unforgettable and exceptional. For this reason, each room has an attendant, a nakai-san, that sees to your every need.  One of their many important duties is to work with the chef to ensure an enjoyable kaiseki meal.

A stay at a traditional ryokan is as much about the food as it is about the hot springs.  A full course kaiseki meal is part of the allure of this exquisite Japanese experience, and at Tsubaki, Chef Tadanori Igarashi has been creating tasting menus for its guests since its opening in 1978.  Kaiseki is a type of art form that paints edible murals of seasonal landscapes on canvases of beautiful ceramics and lacquerware.  It is a labor intensive process for the chefs, a precise craft that takes years to master, to be able to express such artistry and elegance.

Each plate is a study in balance and refinement, and there is a smooth flow of concepts and flavors from course to course.  It is important that this elaborate meal, a ritual that when properly done takes 3-5 hours, follows a traditional formal structure in order to observe an overall sense of harmony.  The menu, beautifully handwritten in Japanese calligraphy, presents the courses in its appropriate order.

Sakizuke (先付): an amuse bouche

A shot of plum wine commences our meal, followed by the sakizuke course of kelp wrapped sayori gently curled around green bouquets of brassica with a touch of Kamo rice vinegar from Kyoto.

Hassun (八寸): the second course, sometimes called the zensai course, sets the seasonal theme with one type of sushi and an assortment of smaller bites

This kaiseki meal at Tsubaki, enjoyed this past winter shortly after the New Year, is about celebrating new beginnings and prosperity.  Slices of flash seared sea cucumber with ponzu are presented in a crane shaped ceramic bowl to symbolize longevity, with ribbons of gold and silver mizuhiki strings expressing joy.  Komochikombu (herring egg coated seaweed), a caviar topped potato chip, cured karasumi bottarga made with mullet roe, a bitter orange syrup of salted cod ovaries in an aromatic bowl of carved yuzu and a cut of ayu with its roe simmered with sansho berries symbolize fertility and new life.  A green fukinotou butterbur stem, simmered with peppercorns, gives me a bitter bite that I love with my glass of cold sake, to which I follow with the delicious pieces of pressed salmon matsumae sushi.  This hassun course brings seasonal gifts of land and sea together on the plate for a picturesque arrangement of colors and shapes.

Futamono (蓋物): a “lidded dish”, also referred to as wanmono, which presents a warm soup

A floating leaf on the surface of a pond, a green kinome pepper leaf creates a beautiful scenario in this futamono course where a white fluffy hamaguri clam shinjo infuses its bold flavors into the suimono broth.  A green udo stem, crisp both in texture and in its fennel-like flavor, create a contrast against the delicately constructed temarifu, a pillowy ball of gluten with colorful decorations to resemble a traditional New Year toy called a temari.

Mukōzuke (向付): a seasonal sashimi plate

The mukozuke course presents the freshest offerings of the sea in a simple presentation so that the guests can enjoy the pure flavors of the fish.  Divine cuts of fatty bluefin toro are augmented with a hint of Japanese karashi mustard and soy sauce, and meaty akagai clams of a warm orange hue are perfect with freshly grated wasabi.  The final sashimi presented in the hamaguri shell-shaped ceramic, a symbol of love and harmony, is hirame wrapped in a rich coating of uni that woos with its sweetness.

Meshimushi (飯蒸し): a steamed rice course, a special dish that is not often included in a standard kaiseki

Kuri okowa, a steamed glutinous mochi rice dish with chestnuts and a sprinkling of black sesame salt, is another celebratory dish that the Japanese commonly prepare for festive occasions.  The red hue imparted by the azuki beans is what makes this dish a symbol of happiness and joy, a standard offering at birthdays and weddings.

Takiawase (焚合): simmered vegetables served with meat, fish or tofu

In keeping with the traditional Kyoto style of kaiseki, this takiawase course keeps the seasonings light and subdued to appreciate the true flavors of the vegetables at their peak. Horikawa gobo, a thick spongy burdock root that is a winter standard, is stuffed with minced chicken meat and simmered in a light dashi until the vegetable has been plumped full of umami.  Lightly sake braised abalone, tender and moist, is accompanied by boiled mibuna greens and a dash of yuzu rinds for aroma.

Yakimono (焼物): broiled seasonal fish

2 delicacies that pair beautifully with cold dry sake find its way onto my plate for the first of the yakimono courses.  Sweet luscious cream oozes from within the seared membranes of the fugu shirako, poisonous puffer fish sperm sacs that are particularly plump and lovely this time of year.  To contrast, there is a triangular wedge of lightly seared bachiko, dried sea cucumber ovaries with a salty briny flavor that intensifies with each successive bite.

We each get our own plate of ise ebi, a majestic Japanese spiny lobster that is arguably the most festive culinary symbol for New Year celebrations.  The sweet flesh is briefly tossed in shuto, salt marinated bonito innards, then baked on a hot stone to a dramatic orchestra of sputters and sizzles as we all wait, impatiently, for our moment to pounce.

Shiizakana (進肴、強肴): also called azukebachi, is a course designed to encourage the consumption and enjoyment of sake

As if the 2 yakimono courses aren’t enough to encourage happy sake drinking, we get a trio of delights representing cardinal Japanese winter delicacies that make the sake flow even more freely.  Suppon nikogori, a thick gelatinous soup of snapping turtle with enough collagen to equal a Botox treatment, is served in an aromatic yuzu bowl, and Matsuba crab competes with Kegani hairy crab for a stand off where both ultimately win.

Onmono (温物): a warm braised dish, sometimes presented as a hot pot

The onmono course, as it is one of the last courses of a kaiseki meal, is intended to aid digestion and be gentle on the nearly full stomach.  A mixture of madai (tile fish), grated turnips, gingko nuts and wild mountain vegetables are simmered in a dashi broth, the result a simple and mild flavored course infused with the chef’s love.

Gohan (御飯): a rice dish made with seasonal ingredients

Kō no mono (香の物): seasonal pickled vegetables

Tome-wan (止椀): a miso or vegetable soup

Rice, miso soup and pickled vegetables are how a kaiseki meal typically ends, a simple combination that echoes the roots of Japanese cuisine.  Chef Igarashi himself comes out to present this last course, a fuki gohan made with tangy butterbur stalks and an assortment of tsukemono (pickled vegetables) that includes yellow takuan, thinly sliced senmaizuke turnips, matsutake mushrooms infused with kombu, cucumber asazuke and red shiso calabash (hyoutan shibazuke).

In the winter, traditional Kyoto style kaiseki calls for a white miso base soup. In the summer, a more robust and intense dark red Hatcho miso. Spring and autumn incorporate both for a blended miso base.  For this winter tasting menu, we slurp a nameko mushroom white miso soup- comforting, warm and delicious.

Mizumono (水物): a seasonal dessert of fruits, confections, ice cream or cake

First a plate of sweet juicy fruits- strawberries, blueberries, papaya and melon with a sprinkling of clear kanten crystals, followed by a Japanese dessert of koshian azuki bean paste encased in a fluffy green tea shiroan icing.

Beautiful arrangements of seasonal ingredients with intricate garnishes, course after course, presented on attractive plates that enhance the appearance and theme of the food forms the basis of a multi-course Japanese kaiseki meal, and within the structured flow of the banquet, the chef expresses his sensitivity and style to delight his guests.  It is a special experience to enjoy this in between relaxing dips in the hot springs, and to have the staff pamper you with their kindness and hospitality.  For the ultimate kaiseki experience you can even have geisha accompany you for the meal.  Geisha, who are highly skilled female entertainers versed in traditional Japanese song and dance, will keep the conversation lively and most importantly, as your dinner hostesses, they will ensure that your sake cup is never empty.

Tsubaki ryokan                                                                                                              776 Miyakami, Yugawara machi                                                                    Ashigarashimo-gun, Kanagawa prefecture            Japan                                                                                                                             TEL: 0465-63-3333

Random trivia: Did you know that there can never be a married geisha? If a geisha marries, she must retire.