Monday, September 12, 2005

Pre-Med at Matsumoto

Globalization takes its toll. With the expansion in the United States of the depth and complexity of Asian, Latin, Eastern European, and, now, African haute cuisines, how can the serious diner break from the constraints of culinary cliche. In a world system, provincialism chains one to ignorance.

I have consumed piles of sushi, sashimi, teriyaki, tempura, ramen, and poki. Yet, although I have an intuitive grasp of the rudiments of French cuisine (at least a rudimentary grasp of the intuition of ...), my knowledge of the philosophies and possibilities of Japanese cuisine is narrow. Every visit to a Japanese restaurant is like sleeping at a Tokyo Holiday Inn where “the best surprise is no surprise.” Even with a son who speaks Japanese, spending time in Kyoto, and another who views far too much anime, I am as pure a Midwestern gaijin as might be found. Hai!

After last night, this must change. But change is never easy. Five of us (Cathy2, Cathy’s friend Helen, Crazy C, Mike G) dined at Matsumoto, a new and significant Japanese restaurant along a rather unprepossessing Chicago commercial strip (a center of ethnic cuisine in Chicago - Lawrence Avenue may well be the most appetizing street in the city). The meal will alter how I taste.

Dinner at Matsumoto stands in distinct contrast with a Philadelphia meal that a friend and I shared at Morimoto, the eponymous restaurant of Iron Chef Morimoto. That meal, worthy as it was (a three star meal, I felt), did not jolt me. Morimoto is shaped through Japanese preparation as shaped by an American sensibility. I have not visited Japan, and so this claim may seem amusing to those with a knowledge of the Tokyo dining scene. However, the restaurant with its Orientalist touches, has an ambience of an American’s night on the town. The Omakase (a tasting menu but - I believe - with less philosophical import than a Kaiseki menu) was worthy, with a hamachi sashimi the high point. I still fondly recall a Japanese inflected foie gras plate and a luscious tiny wild plum. Unsurprisingly the fish dishes - both the raw and the cooked - were the emotional center of the meal. The pace was a little rushed, as dishes were hustled away before they were quite done, but the waitstaff were agreeable in that very American fashion that waiters outside of Manhattan cultivate.

A student confronting a new world is swamped by information, none of which quite makes sense. There are no handles through which knowledge can be ordered. Everything stands alone. Perhaps one loves the idea of being a surgeon, but one must still pass organic chemistry. So many new and inexplicable things for which the comfortable familiarity of experience is useless. However, the cute metaphor of organic chemistry is inadequate to describe the experience of a Japanese Kaiseki menu (Kaiseki is a style of Japanese degustation menu, but is one that is linked to the philosophy of the seasons, an expression of a philosophy of living - the gustatory equivalent of Ikebana.) Facts are not what are required in exploring the intricate corners of Japanese cuisine - philosophy and sensation are. If art students were required to pass “organic virtuosity” classes, the metaphor might be more apt.

I lightly use the pre-med metaphor to excuse what the internists of Japanese dining will recognize as my offenses, gaffes, and embarrassments. I aim for a C+, passing, if lacking much distinction.

Matsumoto as a restaurant space is reminiscent of a pleasantly proportioned and designed neighborhood restaurant with a color scheme emphasizing gray and plum. Its decor is not much different from Chicago’s reliably excellent Katsu, but not comparable to those seductive Japanese restaurants that specialize in “Sushi and the City,” such as Japonais. The decor at Matsumoto may confuse those who see high-end restaurants as places where architects display their craft. How often does one consume a $150 banquet with wooden pull-apart chopsticks? There may have been gold leaf on the sashimi, but not on the utensils.

Throughout the meal we were educated by the charming Chiyomo and her assistant, our beloved server (and superb English-speaker) Suziko. Both were somewhat startled (at least the matter was raised several times) that we had prepared for the most authentic Japanese cuisine (what that means is a subject for professional authentologists). Without our two guides our experience would have been pallid and my confusion would have been disordered, not compellingly mysterious.

This is a chef who embraces his art passionately. The chef arrived at 11:00 a.m. to prepare our menu. He must have whirled and dashed in the kitchen to construct our four hour dinner. The soy sauce is made in-house (although, at least, for our banquet, the wasabi was not). Our sake, Junmai Ginjo, a gift from the owner, was a smooth as a Japanese river stone, rice water in a velvet glove. While I love the more pungent sakes, Ginjo is from highly polished rice (30%, I believe), and is as polished a liquid as I have tasted aside from certain rare Grand Crus.

The menu:

1) Oyster Shooter with quail egg in a soy broth
2) Squid innards, salt and sake
3) Sea Cucumber Liver with Mountain Potato mash
4) Seaweed in a sour liquid
5) Clam with dried bonito flakes
6) Assorted Sashimi
7) Broth with Shimeji mushrooms
8) Crab with a soybean (yuba) skin with Namatake mushrooms
9) Grilled salmon with pickled lotus root and pepper, and egg squares
10) Braised duck with green onion bundles
11) Fried sea urchin on fried noodles
12) Oysters with red miso and green onions
13) Geoduck clams (mirugai) in a lightly sour sauce with carrot and cucumber
14) Assorted sushi
15) Fruit soup

These images do not begin to do justice to the complexity of tastes. My most vocal complaint is the amount of food. But the time we reached course 13, doing justice to these creations proved impossible. I know that to take sushi home for lunch is a culinary crime, but not to do so would be a crime against all that my mother taught me, rather too well (Eat! Eat! People are starving in New Orleans!).

The moment of truth was the presentation of the first courses, five jewels, each in their own glass, and each confronting this American with the recognizing that my culinary map has many gaps: I am Magellan with clean and open hands. This tray as visual display could have been a creation of Charlie Trotters or the other American chefs of the age, influenced, like Picasso by foreign climes. The texture, however, was not for an American chef to imitate. Ultimately tastes are building blocks - sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and (some say) umami, a savory taste intensifier. However, textures are not universals, but tied to the very idea of what edibility is. Consuming these exquisite starters forced me to confront textures that seemed just wrong, but in their disturbing impropriety forced a reconsideration of the possibility of food itself.

The oyster shooter, the first starter, was, to Western tongues, the most conventional of the five. A perfect fresh oyster floating in a miso jus, nudged by a raw quail egg. Americans do not need to be told the arousing properties of oysters, and any viewer of the brilliant 1985 film Tampopo knows what a raw egg can do. We had just started, and already the bed beckons.

The second cup proved a different species altogether. I don’t know which part of the squid was at our service, but eating this innards was like approaching a cup of chewy anchovies in a thickened and salty liquor. Were I expecting Western cuisine, this would be an ouch! moment, but I am a novitiate searching for truth. I can not pretend that I will pair this with cereal - it will never be my comfort food - but I will think of it long after my Cheerios are soggy with soy milk.

The third dish was the most challenging of the evening, sea cucumber liver in a mountain potato (yam) puree. Imagine me: I thought that I would be able to hold to the potato while being challenged by that liver. The potato was a golden, slimy mucilage that at first taste reminded this Yankee of boiled okra without any of its charms. I couldn’t finish this dish which left me bereft of the full range of what chef Matsumoto can be. I remain an accidental tourist. But that sea cucumber liver wasn’t half bad.

Seaweed in sour liquid was velvet threads soup. A cocktail of Spanish moss is no Martini, but its texture, bolstering a sweet sourness, is something to consider. The texture of this dish will return whenever I trek through a southern swamp.

The tray ended with clam with dried bonito flakes. The clam was properly chewy, but the flakes added an singular crispiness that made the chewiness seem a reproach to the softness and the crackliness of so much western cuisine.

The sashimi, sprinked with gold flakes, was to be reminded of the potential of Japanese cuisine as known in the west. Each fish was magically above its peak of freshness (fish that would become fresh tomorrow), and each was constructed with accompaniments as to be its own work of art - toro, scallop, salmon, flounder, squid and a creamy sweet shrimp. This was perfection, but by raising the bar made so much other sashimi seem like yesterday’s meal.

Course seven was essence of soup: a miso broth, flavored with Shimeji mushrooms, white fish (according to JeffB: escolar). In each earthenware tea kettle, was a rosy star of processed rice. I have picked and eating mushrooms for decade, but I learned how the hidden heart of a mushroom tastes. This deceptively modest soup was a religious experience.

Crab with tofu skin (yuba) and salmon roe, nametake mushrooms and mountain potato puree was a dish that proved more accommodating that I might have expected. While the textures were still somewhat novel, by two hours into the meal my understanding was beginning to dawn, facilitated by the most elegant sake. My gaijin skin was slowly shedding. The ovals of crab were complimented by the range of savory and deep flavors and intriguing textures, making each bite an essay of possibility. It was like a Trotter’s dish as passed through a cultural mirror.

Course nine was grilled salmon with pickled lotus root and pepper and egg squares. JeffB points out that his salmon was a bit overcooked. Mine was perfect in the center, but slightly dry on the edges. This course was perhaps the most conventional dish of the evening (excluding the dovine sushi). Its glory was the presentation, cemented by a lotus root that resembled a slice of trompe d’oil Swiss Cheese. The squares of yellow and white egg were so quiet and discrete that one could hardly imagine that they harbored any of those fats that have excluded eggs from breakfast tables.

I adore duck, and for many years were drawn to the inevitable main course canard until I duck became a cliche as it was smothered each fruit in the orchard. But tonight my passion was reborn. This duck was cooked in a golden crown set atop an elegant tabletop stove heated by hot rocks. Here it was shiitake that gave flavor to the broth. Five pieces of duck surrounded fasces of green onion. I experienced perfection as the duck was perfumed from outside and from within. The texture of these bites was beyond compare. And not a fruit to be seen.

Course eleven was boiled black triangles of dough filled with pressed fried sea urchin, crab, and salmon. Perhaps the filling was not as glorious as some of the dishes and some liquid accompaniment would have helped, but the arrangement in shape was striking as it sat upon thin, budding noodles that had a crispness unlike any I have tasted.

By the time that the oyster with red miso arrived, I was slowing. The size of portions is a matter that Matsumoto might wish to review as smaller plates benefits both diners and owners. This was another course cooked at the table. The oysters were powerfully sweet and pungent while bathed a subtle soy sauce with green onions. My final oyster remained on my plate but I miss it.

Course thirteen might have been more memorable had I more capacity. Here was a plate cleanser from another culinary planet. Geoduck clams (mirugai) sat a bowl of purest ice water with cucumbers and carrots giving color and crunch. If one did not leave refreshed, one was but half a diner.

Finally a gigantic platter of sushi with some exquisite vegetable carvings. I was now unable to appreciate the freshness of the dish (and the size of the offering was a gift from the chef), but saved for the following lunch, I cannot recall fresher fish.

We reached dessert, an aftermath that was a final palate cleanser. Grapes, kiwi, strawberries, black beans were served in a super-sized martini glass filled with some of the sweetest but lightest syrup than a human could prepare. There is no comparison to a classically trained pastry chef, but fortunately this light ending never tried. My tongue was ready for a second dinner, a challenge that my poor stomach could not abide.

No meal must reach perfection, or we could just stop eating. However, Matsumoto provides a level of dining that demands the attention of every chef, every gourmet, and any one who thinks about food.

Last night we five were the only diners at Matsumoto. If this grand, newly opened restaurant is as quiet in October, culinary Chicago will have lost its way.

When I visit glittering Masa in the opulent Time-Warner Center, Chef Masayoshi Takayama will have a high bar to meet the brilliance of this simple kitchen in the deepest heart of ethnic Chicago.

Matsumoto Restaurant
3800 West Lawrence Avenue

723 Chestnut Street


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