An intricate multi-course celebration of Japanese ingenuity enjoyed, in advance of this weekend's G20 get together. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
Towards the end of my recent Speakers for Schools engagement, to an audience of 120 bright 14- and 15-year-old boys at the Royal Liberty School in Essex, one boy asked me the inevitable but always difficult question. ‘Where would you choose for your final meal?’ ‘Spain or Japan', came my reply. ‘The former country for its seafood, the latter for the respect its chefs have for the seasons’.
The question came just before we set off on my fourth trip to Japan, a trip that was to include my first visit to the art island of Naoshima and also to Osaka. A night in Osaka delivered my first opportunity to enjoy the seasonal cooking of Hideaki Matsuo, as well as the warm hospitality of his wife Katsuko, at their Kashiwaya restaurant.
This restaurant, about a 15-minute taxi drive from the city centre, was first opened by Hideaki’s father in 1977. Hideaki took over in 1992. A year later, the whole building was renovated by a master craftsman and has remained untouched ever since – all polished wood and sliding screens. This has great advantages as well as one obvious disadvantage.
The most obvious of the former is a sense of timelessness. From the moment we arrived until the moment we left, we were welcomed like old friends as we were ushered into the building, through a recently watered garden. Once we had removed our shoes we were led upstairs with many a gracefully waved hand to the largest of their four private dining rooms, all in traditional Japanese style, to a table laid for 14.
Katsuko and her five female assistants, all in a formal kimonos, immediately put us at our ease. My only criticism of this smoothly run establishment is that the lighting seems far too bright to this westerner, more attuned to an office rather than to a restaurant’s more subtle interior.
Matsuo’s goal, via the mechanism of a kaiseki, or a multi-course menu, is to follow the seasons, to allow his kitchen to use only ingredients that are available there and then on his menu. There are no restrictions on cooking techniques and the crockery is invariably used to highlight whatever the effects the season may offer. The whole menu depends on the timing of your visit, so when we ate there in early June, it was aone, the season of spring/summer. This menu will not be served again until the same time next year.
Exemplifying this approach, we began and ended with two dishes that showed off not just the season but also the kitchen’s technical expertise.
Our first course was to recall the time when ice was presented to the Emperor’s court and was represented by a cube of himuro tofu encased in a clear coating with the addition of some powerful ginger. The last was described as fruit balls with honey jelly but who could believe that passion fruit, kiwi fruit and the first of the season’s cherries could pack such finesse of flavour?
Each separate course in a kaiseki menu has its own name. Otsukuri involved some extremely fresh sashimi of flatfish, horse mackerel and seared bonito all served alongside top-quality wasabi. Hassun is the name given to the set of three particular pieces of crockery, of obvious elegance, that contained a piece of conger eel, just in season, with taro; a piece of deep-fried ricotta cheese, enhanced with a speck of mustard; and some sweet potato, enlivened with ground cherry and broad beans.
But what epitomised Matsuo’s obsession with seasonality came with our next course, a matching of grilled ayu, or sweet fish, with aubergine enhanced with red and yellow miso. The ayu are now farmed, but were once taken from the mouths of cormorants that had string around their necks, according to Richard Hosking’s indispensable book A Dictionary of Japanese Cooking, and are no more than 3 inches in length. Deep fried and served whole, the crispness of their flesh was in sharp contrast to the softness of the vegetable.
Our final two savoury courses represented Matsuo’s take on eel. The first under the heading of hachi, and described as ‘something like eel’ was in fact four cubes of soy beans prepared to look just like eel topped with pungent Japanese pepper paste. Then came the real thing, served in a ohitsu, a traditional and obviously well-worn Japanese dish made of cypress wood, before it was served in quite generous portions to the table. There were quite a few takers, I could not help noticing, for seconds.
The final factor in this restaurant’s charm is its sommelier, Masahiro Matsuoka, who joined here in 2013 after several years in Paris working at the George V and Aida restaurants and has put together a highly targeted and well-chosen wine list, including an extensive range of Ramonet burgundies.
Such a meal is not inexpensive at 25,000 yen, or just over £180/$230 per person, including service. But it was a flawless experience. And, as I would have explained to the schoolboys had I had the opportunity, it was a meal in which the cooking, the service and the wines all contributed in equal, memorable measure.
Kashiwaya Osaka Senriyama 2-5-18 Senriyama-nishi, Suita, Osaka 565-0851 Japan; tel +81 (0)6 6386 2234