So we had one of those odd dining experiences on Friday night that led to a long bout of soul searching and discussion of who we really are, what we really want, and what the heck it means to get "cuisine" in the Bay Area?
The event that spawned all this was a dinner with Randy and Cindy of Food Migration at Kappa --a little open secret of a place, located in Japantown above the Denny's and behind a barely discernible sliding door, marked only by a lantern painted with the name of the place... in Japanese. The husband and wife team who run the restaurant-- which, and I kid you not, is approximately the size of our none-too-palatial living room-- reserve only ten places for dinner each night.
The place has cachet.
Now let me preface my next rant, by saying, that really, truly, we went there with an open heart and an empty stomach. Sea snails, okra, dried herring roe, natto, monkfish livers -- bring it on. We had at least two members of our group who would eat any of those items, and four out of four of us had our game faces on.
Our hostess, outfitted in a lovely kimono, led our group into a "private" alcove, somewhat separated from the bar, where other patrons were already watching, as their dinners were constructed.
It felt a little segregated, but I thought, well, if I do anything embarrassing with the food ("No, no, NO! You're not supposed to snort the natto!"), at least no one but good friends will have to bear it.
The menu came in both Japanese (a beautifully hand-calligraphed version seen above) and English, although, the kind of English that really requires you to know Japanese. Fortunately, Cindy had the foresight to bring along a book of Japanese food words, which she could surreptitiously consult under the table.
"Psst! Does it say what's ooh-soo-zuck-oo... oo...oo... thingamajig?"
Our hostess, who is doubtless, experienced at assisting hapless gringos as they wade through the menu, could hardly have helped but pin us as total koryori virgins. She offered several recommendations as to sake selections, of which we knew nothing, but were interested to taste-test. We started with a sweet Kikusui, and then moved to Hakkaisan, and finished with a third selection, whose name I can not remember, because I consumed too much of the first two.
As an amuse-bouche, a lovely little piece of cooked tuna, marinated in a tangy sweet sauce and topped with sesame seeds came our way.
We also had ordered one of the day's specials, a fava-bean mousse topped with a stock-flavored gelatin and a cooked shrimp.
This was probably my favorite dish of the evening, although I didn't realize it at the time... Very light and a wonderful mix of flavors and textures, it really had a beautiful delicate touch.
In the spirit of adventure, we had also ordered the sea snails. My Omnivore and Cindy both popped those suckers down, leaving one each for Randy and myself. I looked at it carefully, examined the small horns on the creature's head, thought about the whole "texture" thing, looked deeply into my heart and said, "Um... nope. Can't do it."
To which Randy responded, "Well, if she's not going to do it, neither am I."
"Good man. " Thanks for backing me up, Randy!
We were informed that it was, in the parlance of Iron Chef, "a bit rubbery."
Monkfish livers. Okay. Okay. I like liver. I like it. I do. Just because I've never eaten fish liver... (did I even know that fish HAD livers?) I take an experimental bite. Okay. Alright. Yes, it's not bad. A bit on the bland side for liver, but maybe that's a better thing when you're talking liver. Really, quite nice.
We consume the monkfish livers aggressively.
Fried black skin pork cutlets.
I'm starting to feel a little dubious now about the cooking. I mean the execution. We cook a lot of pork products in our house. And in this part of the country, I feel there's no reason why pork should ever be dry, low-flavor or difficult to bite through. And this panko-crusted cutlet was all three. It did however come with a killer brown sauce and mustard, which vastly increased the flavor, but still couldn't save the dish for me.
And filed under "Texture Adventures" is the sea scallop special. This is a raw scallop with cooked okura (okra) tororo. Basically Slimed Slimy Slime.
I appreciated the sweetness of the scallop, although I guess it was a bit of a surprise for me that it wasn't cooked, which I discovered on putting it into my mouth. I liked the saltiness of the fish roe. But I just can't get with the snotty texture of the okra, which was just...just...slimy.
The dish looked gorgeous, but ultimately, I put a chalk mark in my mind next to "cultural differences" and moved on.
My Omnivore had already started on a piece of this kazunoko, or dried herring roe with shaved bonito over it. I knew that because I could hear him crunching ... and crunching ... and crunching. It was really loud.
Cindy took a piece, and I could hear her crunching...and crunching... and crunching...
I shifted the plate closer and picked up a piece, which was pretty much brick hard. Learning nothing from the experience of others, I popped the whole thing in my mouth, and was crunching...and crunching... and crunching. Actually the crunching sound inside my head was far more disturbingly loud than on the others, as if each crunch were echoing off the bones of my skull. I continued unhappily crunching, feeling as though I were trying to consume very finely made, plastic bubble-wrap.
I've since done some reading up on kazunoko because I couldn't quite believe that this was seriously how it's supposed to be served. I mean, yeah, the texture was a shift from the Slimed Slimy Slime, but should it cause an ache in the jaw? Someone more experienced than I, please inform!
By this time we were feeling like this adventure in Texture land was all well and good, but we wanted some food now, please. Some nourishment? Some calories? Please?
We ordered duck breast, three small slices, about an inch and a half across each. Nice flavor, but not amazingly good.
Some red snapper, this was quite good. The fish had been marinated in something fairly yummy and then grilled, and it was moist and probably the boldest flavor of the evening.
There were also chicken wings, which were consumed with slightly desperate speed before we could snap a photo.
And by the time we arrived at this point, it was about 9:30 pm, almost everyone else had left, and they were turning up the chairs and mopping the floor. Time to go.
So I don't know what to tell you, all ye who adore Kappa. We didn't have a great time, AND it was $256 for our party of four --who drank, it must be admitted, a fair amount of sake. (As an aside, if tasting sake is your thing though, the list at Kappa seems very fairly priced and perhaps a nice way to introduce yourself to various styles.)
Were they having an off night? Did they decide that a group of newbies and koryori virgins should be placed in The Room of Isolation and fed The Special Menu? Did they say to themselves, "Oh, so you won't take the omokase menu, eh? That'll larn yah!"
Or did they spot my none-too-suave digital camera action, think "damn, she's going to blog us and send thousands of tourists swarming our ten-seat dining establishment [obviously not knowing that given my blog traffic numbers, that would NEVER occur]. Toshi, sweetie, quick, gimme the crunchy roe. No, no, the CRUNCHY roe! [nudge, nudge, wink, wink.]"
Or is this really how Japanese cuisine goes? Dearohdear.
We all repaired back to our apartment for some buttermilk panna cotta and strawberries, to discuss, and because, truth be told, we were all still hungry.
The whole experience stirred some conversation though. I mean, how bad was it really? There were some good dishes, and there were some really unusual things that turned out better than I'd thought they might be. But for sheer satisfaction, not to mention price/value ratio, I felt that Kappa fell below the mark.
I mean for heaven's sake, I left hungry. Now I'm not the most voracious eater, and over the years, I've learned that you don't need to have gigantic portions on a plate. What matters most to me is whether my mouth has been satisfied or not. I could eat a giant plate of pasta and still need more because the sauce had no flavor. Or I could have three exquisite raviolis that taste like heaven and feel like I don't need another bite. So the fact that we all left unsatisfied from a place that was all about refined tastes makes me think to myself, "Maybe those 'Flava profiles' were just not on."
By contrast, I could have gone across the way to Tanpopo Ramen and gotten a bowl of noodles in a heavenly miso broth, and come out not only satisfied, but with a doggie-bag of leftovers that would serve me for lunch as well.
Maybe I'm just the vulgar, oafish American, who can't appreciate the subtlety of fine Japanese cuisine. Perhaps I need edumacatin'. Or maybe I should just stick with the cheeseburger and fries. Niman Ranch, please, with some Emmenthaler and Yukon Gold potatoes. Thanks.