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Kaygetsu

May 17, 2007

It seems hard to believe that one of the Bay Area’s best Japanese restaurants is located in a quiet strip mall in the hills of the Peninsula city Menlo Park, and yet, this is the case — sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Located in a strip mall off of Sand Hill Road, with Safeway and Longs as its neighbors, the small restaurant Kaygetsu is a hidden gem of the first order. It leads a mild-mannered existence, quietly serving diners one of the finest kaiseki menus (perhaps the very finest) to be found in the Bay Area. Kaiseki, a tradition originating in Kyoto, is a multi-course meal originally intended to accompany the tea ceremony. It has since evolved away from its tea ceremony origins, but there is a focus on careful preparations of seasonal ingredients. True kaiseki is an art form unto itself, an exquisite combination of art, beauty, and cuisine working together in perfect harmony.

The focal point of Kaygetsu’s mission is to provide an authentic, high quality kaiseki menu. The menu changes every six weeks (twice each season) and directly reflects the fish and vegetables that are in season at the time. These menus are constructed by Kaygetsu’s kaiseki chefs, Shinichi Aoki and Katsuhiro Yamasaki, both trained in Kyoto. The focus on kaiseki is no small feat in this corner of the world, whose population largely views Japanese cuisine as consisting exclusively of tempura, teriyaki, and sushi — or so you’d think by looking at the menus of most Bay Area Japanese restaurants. Now, Kaygetsu does have a sushi bar in the corner with a separate sushi menu (consisting mostly of nigiri and a few token rolls, of the simpler, more traditional variety such as tekka maki — no crazy Dragon Rolls here!), and several a la carte cooked dishes are also offered — but the raison d’etre is really the kaiseki menu.

We will get to the kaiseki in just a bit, but there is one other important thing to note. Although Kaygetsu focuses on kaiseki, Toshi-san, the itamae at the sushi bar, is one of the finest sushi chefs to be found in the Bay Area. It is a pleasure to watch his hands, nimble and deft, form, within just a few seconds, masterpieces of nigiri sushi construction — dead-on precise slicing of the fish, and perfectly proportioned fish and rice. Like kaiseki, the craft of sushi is another art form of sorts, and watching Toshi-san rapidly but expertly sculpt perfectly-sized pieces of nigirizushi is a treat. The fish at Kaygetsu is of very high quality, but it is also expensive. A combination of the high quality fish and the fact that this restaurant does not focus on sushi contributes to the high prices; a single piece of nigiri is usually at least $3.50, and much more than that for the “market value” items. Toshi-san does not keep a really extensive fish supply, but he has a few special items which might appear in the sashimi course of the kaiseki. The selection is still much better than what you would find at your average neighborhood corner sushi restaurant, but because of the focus on kaiseki, the selection is not as stellar as you might think it would be, given the quality of the fish. The somewhat smaller fish supply prevents the sushi bar at Kaygetsu from attaining the legendary status of the old sushi bar at Anzu under the helm of Takahashi-san (who, regularly, on a good evening, carried at least few dozen distinct fish types, some quite difficult to find elsewhere) — sadly defunct and very much missed, since Takahashi-san has left San Francisco. Nonetheless, in terms of chef skill and fish quality, Kaygetsu’s bar is one of the best, most authentically Japanese sushi bars to be found in the Bay Area, and it definitely warrants a separate trip.

Enough about sushi, though: we had our eyes set on kaiseki. The kaiseki experience is subdued in atmosphere, but sublime in terms of the cuisine, making it an excellent choice for a Mother’s Day dinner last week. We had the late spring kaiseki menu, which features 6 courses, followed by a final dessert course. First up was the sakizuke starter course, which featured three delectable, carefully-presented morsels:

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From left to right in the picture: (1) amaebi (sweet shrimp) enveloped in gelatin, (2) sea urchin and kisu, served fried, with fava beans, and (3) perfectly seared slices of white tuna topped with a light sauce from shiitake mushrooms.

The starter course was immediately followed by a seasonal assortment of sashimi (served with fresh wasabi): a delicate preparation of snapper, treated with the lightest ponzu sauce,

tb_kaygetsu_sashimi_1.jpg

and slices of hon maguro (blue fin tuna) and shimaaji (stripe jack):

tb_kaygetsu_sashimi_2.jpg

The hon maguro was rich and almost pillowy, while the shimaaji had an excellent texture: just the right level of firmness and initial resistance that melted away after a few seconds, with a bright lift in the flavor occurring later in the process of chewing. All three specimens of fish were very good.

Next was the takiawase course, which featured assorted slow-cooked vegetables:

tb_kaygetsu_takiawase.jpg

Included are dried tofu, bok choy, fuki (giant butterbur), konnyaku (a potato-like vegetable in the taro family that is valued for its medicinal properties), and kabocha squash. A delicate preparation of these excellent ingredients masterfully preserved the individual taste and texture of each component, with the clear fish broth tying together all elements of the dish. Highlights here included the lovely sweetness of the kabocha squash, and the distinctly sponge-like texture of the tofu: upon biting the tofu, a small rush of broth would leak out, much like a sponge. The release of liquid invites at least a small comparison to the rush of soup that comes from biting into a xiao long bao (Shanghai soup dumpling), but this version is more subtle and nurturing.

The fourth course was the sunomono,

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with barely blanched fresh octopus and white kikurage mushrooms, which had a thin, wonderfully elusive, chewy texture. Both octopus and mushroom paired well with the plum sauce, which was not the least bit cloying.

The yaki mono was attractively displayed,

tb_kaygetsu_yakimono.jpg

featuring delicious, colorful, perfectly cooked vegetables (including potato, daikon, and bamboo shoots) layered atop a piece of domestic Kobe beef from the Snake River area. Although the beef was slightly tough, it was also highly flavorful, with nice notes of ginger and soy.

The sixth course, and the last of the main meal courses, was the gohan mono, which included a hearty, nurturing dark red miso soup with a touch of mustard, and a small bowl of rice cooked with tender asari clams:

tb_kaygetsu_gohanmono.jpg

The seventh and last course was the dessert course:

tb_kaygetsu_dessert.jpg

A black sesame gelatin was served with pristine strawberry slices, resting in a pool of kuromitsu, which is essentially a Japanese molasses. The flavors here complemented each other perfectly, and the dessert was an excellent end to the meal.

This is one of the best, if not the very best, kaiseki experience to be had in the Bay Area. We’ve never been to Kyoto, so we can’t compare this to the original, but this is definitely the best kaiseki experience we’ve ever had. As you might expect, it does not come cheaply — as of writing this review, the kaiseki menu is $95 per person, with an optional $34 sake pairing (we did not order this). There is also a 17% service charge automatically added to the bill, which functions in lieu of a gratuity. Obviously this is not an everyday sort of meal, but it is a wonderful experience for a special occasion, and we feel that the quality justifies the price. It’s also probably a bargain compared to what this might cost in Kyoto, and there’s no airfare. The menu featured a diverse set of dishes, excellent ingredients that were carefully prepared, and lovely presentation. In addition, the service was excellent. Our server was very knowledgeable about every detail of each course, and he paced the delivery of the courses well, allowing enough time for us to savor each dish and enjoy conversation, but never leaving us wondering when the next course would come. In terms of both the service and the food, Kaygetsu offers a first-rate dining experience. Bravo.

RATING:

COST:

325 Sharon Park Drive (near Sand Hill Rd.)
Menlo Park, CA 94025
Phone: 650.234.1084
Hours: Tues-Fri, 11:30 am – 2:00 pm; Tues-Sun, 5:30 pm – 9:30 pm. Closed Mondays.
A note on reservations: Kaiseki (dinner only) requires that reservations be made 48 hours in advance, but because the restaurant is small, you may want to allow even more time, to help ensure you get the time slot you want. Since the kaiseki meal does take at least a couple hours, only a limited number of seatings are available each night.

Cuisine: Japanese
Neighborhood: Menlo Park

How to get there: Kaygetsu is not at all in a transit-friendly location, so we can’t provide detailed public transit info like we usually do. The restaurant is located on the free Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) Marguerite shuttle bus line, so it’s not impossible to reach via transit, but for all practical purposes, you will probably just want to carpool.

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11 comments

  1. I suppose I’ll need to give it another shot – I tried it when it first opened and it left much to be desired. The sashimi platter was quite ordinary and the ingredients overall were just slightly better than average.

    I’ll mark it down as a re-visit.


  2. I couldn’t say for sure, as I don’t have an earlier kaiseki experience at Kaygetsu to compare it to. I’d be interested in your thoughts as to whether things have improved since the early days of the restaurant. There aren’t that many places in the Bay Area that do kaiseki, but compared to those, this is definitely the best that I’ve tried. As I mentioned in the post, I haven’t been to Kyoto, or even to Sugiyama in NYC, which is supposedly a great spot.

    On the point of fish quality, I know from your own blog posts that you’re a repeat customer at fish powerhouses like Kuruma. I haven’t yet had the pleasure of visiting these restaurants (hopefully soon!), so once more, that isn’t a comparison I could make. But in the context of the Bay Area, Kaygetsu serves some of the better quality fish to be found. This would probably be less clear from just the small sashimi course in the kaiseki menu, as compared to a full omakase at the sushi bar.

    I hope that you enjoy your return visit better than the first visit. I liked the ingredients, but even more, I felt they were handled quite well, both in terms of Toshi’s handling of raw fish and the cooked portion of the kaiseki dinner.


  3. Holy son of a gun! This place must be the sushi restaurants of all sushi restaurants! And the textures of their ingredients sound unrivaled! (E.g. “pillowy,” “wonderfully elusive, chewy texture,” and “spongy” tofu that is like a soup dumpling!) Shoot, you don’t need to convince me to try this place!


  4. New banner, or am I mistaken?


  5. @Tusk: You are not mistaken, it is a new header! I like to switch ’em up every once in awhile; you know, keep people on their toes 😉


  6. Yea – I like the new header (and the old one) – both work will with your colors. Maybe you can set up one of those rotating banner systems.

    The description of this restaurant is beyond parallel. You’ve instilled in me the strong desire to explore every strip mall and hole in the wall in search of something similar.


  7. my god. that food looks insanely good. if i ever visit SF, i’m going to plan a visit there. the price is pretty scary, though. you almost might as well go to Japan.


  8. @Doug:

    Maybe you can set up one of those rotating banner systems.
    I used to rotate these more frequently, but in the past several months, I sort of forgot about it. It’s a good idea.

    You’ve instilled in me the strong desire to explore every strip mall and hole in the wall in search of something similar.
    Excellent! That means I’ve done my job 🙂


  9. @Thomas: Kaygetsu is actually a bit of a trek outside of SF proper, which might make it difficult to visit for a vacation, depending on how long the trip is. Similar offerings can be found in SF, some quite good, but none quite as good.


  10. Excellent review on Kaygetsu. Toshi-san is indeed one of the greatest classically trained nigiri chefs in the Bay Area.


  11. Very nice. I’m really happy that kaiseki is starting to become the new hot cuisine here in the west. The LA Times did a story about how Western chefs are trying to bring it LA and NYC. We really need more of these places here in the States.



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