Last week we experienced kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) at a tiny tucked-away restaurant in a strip mall in San Mateo–Wakuriya. What a surprise find!
Kaiseki cuisine is as much an art form as a type of gourmet dinner. Not unexpectedly, kaiseki has its origin in Zen monastic cuisine and aesthetic taste. Leaves and fresh flowers, often edible, suggest animals and seasonal variations in the moon and night sky.
Passing through a long draped noren curtain, we opened the artisan wooden door, and stepped into a long narrow restaurant dimly lit and minimalist in decor. The ambience conveys the most elegant of Kyoto restaurants, taking you to another locale far from San Carlos. Seating only 16 diners (either at 6:30 or 7:30), Wakuriya offers a pre-fixe classical menu of nine dishes, focused on local seasonal ingredients. (Complete monthly menu is available online.)
Chef Katsuhiro Yamasaki and his wife prepare and serve the exceptional menu as if you were guests at a private dinner party. Every dish was a photo-op. I was in love at first sight with the very first bite! Chef Yamasaki prepares every small plate in a precise and impeccable manner, and service is perfectly timed. Each piece of porcelain, lacquerware or glass–even the lotus root coasters–are unique and exquisite. The play between the plate and the food instantly conveyed a sense of spring and Mrs. Yamasaki patiently explained the meaning of the aesthetics.
The first sake served was a house exclusive– infused with a touch of honey. A superb sake selection was offered, including flights of unusual citrus-flavored sakes and even one effervescent one! The starter courses included a maguro tartar of beautiful tuna sashimi over sushi rice with the tiniest dollop of wasabi matched in color by a scattering of small fava beans; a selection of Kobe beef with baby squid, asparagus and pickled cod caviar and snapper sashimi with salmon roe; an astonishing color burst of chawan-mushi (traditional yellow egg custard) overlaid with a green pea-sprout puree and filled with snow crab and shiitake mushrooms. And that was only the beginning! Six more courses including a deep fried scallop/sea -urchin croquette, plum-lemon sorbet palate cleanser, grilled black cod, and a choice of either pork donburi or red snapper chazuke made all four of us feel there was no room for dessert. But the white sesame mousse with strawberry gel actually was the perfect, final flourish to a remarkable meal!
Kaiseki is often very expensive because of the labor and care that goes into each tiny dish. Yet we found Wakuriya’s price per diner ($95 without tip and sake) to be fair and justified. Reservations are difficult, so plan to call immediately after midnight exactly 30 days before your desired date and leave a message. Mrs. Yamasaki will call you back the next day–we felt like we had won the lottery! Special requests need to be made about four days in advance–for gluten-free, no red meat, etc., but I think Wakuriya is at its best if you can eat the meal as originally designed in classical Japanese taste.