Kaiseki is a formal, almost ceremonial, Japanese cuisine devoted to a series of small courses. It’s as much about taste as it is the textures, the colors of the food, the vessel it’s served in and the seasons reflected in each menu. If you talk to chef Yoshihiro Matsumoto of Nanzan Giro Giro, the new kaiseki-only restaurant in Honolulu, you’ll realize that for him, kaiseki is a deeply personal affair. “Kaiseki is relationship of restaurant and customers,” he says in broken English. “Customers trust a restaurant, no need menu…And I must take to them Japanese kaiseki restaurant’s soul.”
Matsumoto is from Kyoto, home to the first restaurant under the Nanzan brand (the second is in Paris). Of his culinary training, he says, “Kyoto is super strict world. There are so many professional cook, chef. We have no end of job until we die. We are going to train our skill, to continue to think about what I can do for customers. This is Kyoto culinary common sense.”
From the 30 or so counter seats flanking the open kitchen, you can watch him and the other cooks preparing your food: grilling salmon, arranging a carrot curl with long metal chopsticks, vigorously whisking matcha powder for a cup of tea, even individually washing and drying the dishes, which are handmade by Nanzan, an artist in Kyoto and the restaurant’s namesake. The entire kitchen is contained in the center, an Iron Chef sort of stage without the Chairman’s running commentary. Just know that from these seats, you won’t be the only one watching–the gregarious brigade of cooks also looks on, seeking affirmation after each course. Request the eight seats in the back lounge area if you prefer more privacy.
By the time you read this, what I had at Nanzan Giro Giro will no longer be available. But that is the nature of kaiseki; at Nanzan, the menu changes monthly. For a sense of what awaits, our seven courses began with a raw slice of hamachi and asparagus tips in ponzu–not particularly novel, but a refreshing start. More intriguing was the tiny broiled smelt fillet on top of “corn jello,” garnished with a lightly sweet fish bones cracker–I would order a bowlful of these brittle fish bones if I could. There’s the sesame tofu studded with lotus root and bathed in a particularly smoky dashi. A lidded, intricately carved and painted bowl reveals a kurobota pork shabu shabu and oyster mushroom tempura over noodles with gobo sauce and dill, an unusual flavor to find in a Japanese restaurant.
Our “main course”–not so many bites bigger than the other courses–is a shrimp and fava bean fish cake fritter topped with a green onion omelette in a thick, viscous dashi spiked with wasabi. At this point, I’m a bit tired of the gelatinous texture repeated like a refrain throughout the courses; I long more for something I can sink my teeth into. But maybe that’s just because I’m two hours into dinner and still very much hungry. We close out with grilled salmon and mustard leaf, plated on a celery and lettuce sauce; a filling ochazuke with braised yuba; and for dessert, adzuki bean ice cream mousse with whipped yogurt, kiwi sauce and pistachios, with an intensely-flavored mini chai macaroon that steals the show.
Dinner here is the equivalent of a Terrence Malick film–it unfolds slowly and appreciation is in the details: the flair of the handmade ceramics; precisely-plated courses; movement in the spotless, grease-free kitchen (some cooks even wear geta, the wooden-platform slippers); the novelty of ingredients not often found in Honolulu restaurants; and unusual flavor pairings. For those raised on Michael Bay-style cuisine, expecting brawn and explosions and bold flavors, they may find the food on the bland side.
It’s a funny juxtaposition between Nanzan Giro Giro (on one corner of Pensacola) and Sports FanAddicts (also newly-opened in the former Aku Bone), on the other corner, which offers local bar food like wasabi hamburgers and furikake garlic chicken. You may eat your dinner at Nanzan counter-style, but the flavors (not to mention aesthetic) couldn’t be further from that of the bar across the way.