Monday, September 15, 2008

Sasaki: Outsider's Look

Of course, this is not going to be completely free of prejudice; I had been working at Sasaki for several months until I finally got to eat in the establishment. It took me five months and friends from Tokyo/New York/Hong Kong to work up the energy to make myself a reservation.

Yes, it's awfully difficult to get a seat at Sasaki. Currently (as of September 2008), all seats are booked for the year, and Oyassan isn't taking any reservation for next year until December 5th. Every night the restaurant is completely packed, a wonderful phenomenon for a restaurant to be full-capacity on a daily basis.

My friend, his wife and his parents came to visit the terrifyingly hot and humid ancient capital during their vacation in early-August. Though the heat of Kyoto struck them viciously, particularly compared to their prior stop of Hokkaido, they braved it not only with a smile, but with style. I stumbled into the dining room in my sundress and beads of perspiration on my back, where the lovely family was already seated dressed handsomely and acrisp in tailored shirts.

A feast in such hot weather is a tricky thing. Eating produces heat inside the body. So does drinking alcohol. Enjoying rich foods and alocoholic drinks may taste good initially, but doesn't feel good in the end in extreme heat. Spending the first full Kyoto summer had been a challenge for yours truly as well; I had been consuming only crisp lager-type beers and kakino-tane crackers as dinner and ice cream bars as breakfast and lunch.

As a way to battle this sort of culinarily disasterous and non-nutritious diet, Japanese food marketers work on the "stamina" approach, boasting nutrition-rich foods as suitable for summer. The most traditional summer stamina food is the barbecued eel. Although it started from a clever business strategy, it is an age-old tradition to eat the fatty fish in the summer. Along a similar line, you are encouraged to eat hot and spicy foods in the summer, since drinking and eating chilled foods often during this season weakens the digestive system.

But, really, do you honestly want to eat fatty and spicy foods in summer? I personally don't. I simply want to eat seasonal foods and feel good after the meal. At Sasaki I looked forward to a beautifully prepared kaiseki cuisine with seasonal ingredients to restore my body.

We were not in for a dissapointment.

The meal started with a visually stunning dish of sea urchin (Rausu, Hokkaido) and sweet white shrimp (Toyama) sandwitched between blanched zuiki, or sweet potato stem, all surrounded by gelee of tomato water. The next plate was three small glass cups surrounded by ice that held meat from Hokkaido hairy crab and diced mountain potato, pike eel roe with vinaigrette, and tofuyo, a cheese-like fermented tofu well-known in Okinawa. These three items are a dangerous invitation for sake.
After the first two chilled dishes, the soup course is a welcoming experience. Fluffy pieces of hamo, pike eel, with its bones cut to perfection curl up like chrysanthemum flowers. Hamo is the summer fish in Kyoto; its delicate flavor is treasured in this city and appears prominently during Gion Festival in July. The delicate broth with grated okra slips down the throat in the most pleasurable way imaginable. The warmth settles the stomach and prepares us for more to come.

The sashimi platter is plated magnificently for two. Raw octopus (Okayama) is tender and sweet; pike eel yakishimo style with its skin-side charred has a rippling mouthfeel and is completely different texture-wise from the one we found in the soup; kuruma prawn (Ohita) is sweet and flavorful, unlike the dry tasteless ones I've found in New York. Two pieces of toro sushi with fresh wasabi the size of small mountains complete the course with a great sense of satisfaction.

Ayu, or Japanese river trout, is grilled on charcoal. The small yet fully-grown wild ayu is a specialty of Lake Biwa in Shiga prefecture. You can eat the whole fish from head to tail, allowing you to explore its sweet and tender meat, bitter intestines and crisp fins and tail. The following dish is slow-poached abalone from Shimane. The large slices are served room temperature with natural fish gelee flavored with citrus vinegar. The accompanying Mizu eggplant and Fushimi peppercorns are Kyoto's special local vegetables. The eggplant is served raw, only rubbed with salt and unroasted sesame oil to rid its extra water, and tastes as sweet as a ripe fuit. Fushimi peppercorn is grilled and marinated in dashi; it bursts with flavor as you bite into it.

A hot pot - literally so hot that the broth is still bubbling - is filled with tilefish from Tsushima and matsutake mushrooms. After eating the epitomical Kyoto summer fish hamo in serveral previous courses, the tilefish is a wonderful change of texture and flavor. Matsutake mushrooms hint the much awaited approach of autumn.

The rice is cooked in a clay pot and topped with fillets of grilled sanma, or saury, from Hokkaido. It's a fishy fish, not to mention a home cook's ingredient rarely seen in a kaiseki restaurant. Grated daikon and pickled mibuna (a Kyoto vegetable somewhere between lettuce and spinach) cuts the fat of sanma and adds freshness to the dish.
The dessert is layered cantaloup and melon gelee with seasonal fresh fruits, white peach, Kyoho grape and watermelon.

Wonderful food in a lovely setting and good friends make a special experience. Filled with good food and sake, I slept like a baby.

Waking up was another surprise; I was hungry, ready for a good breakfast. The meal from the night before was satisfying and nutritious, yet not heavy. I felt energized and refreshed. Now, that's "stamina" food.

Gion Sasaki
Yasaka-dori, Ohwaoji Higashi Hairu, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Hours: Lunch 12 pm, Dinner 6:30 pm (Arrive at least 10 minutes before)
Budget: Lunch 8,000+ yen, Dinner 20,000+ yen

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Kei,

Thanks for giving us insights on Gion Sasaki. We're visiting Kyoto for the first time this Summer and would like to stop by.

Do you know if there's a difference between lunch menu and dinner menu? Dinner set price is 4 times from lunch, so we were wondering if the damage will be justified. :-)