According to a scroll curled delicately on the table at Next Restaurant, “Kaiseki layers the literal, hidden, and subconscious representations of nature and humanity in food in order to transport the diner.” On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, four of us were transported.The art of the meal was impeccable, with more exquisite cultural references than I could take in or remember.
Named for the warm “bosom stones” Buddhist monks used under their robes to make them feel full, Kaiseki has come to mean a series of small courses served prior to strong, bitter tea. The dining experience is now elaborate and complex but still culminates in rice, soup and pickles, followed by tea. For the first time at Next, Erica and I were joined by friends, Harriet and Lou. The evening began with lighting of a branch, symbolizing autumn, hung from a sculpted moon.
Our first course was a sweet and smoky cornhusk tea, uniting Japanese tradition with midwestern produce. A sort of tofu made of chestnut and miso carried the aroma of burning hay into the next course.
Japanese Maple Forest (above) was a spectacular assortmant of small appetizers, a sort of autumn, Asian counterpart to the “Winter Woods” course on Next’s Childhood menu. Among the delicious morsels were shrimp heads, bodies and legs, each prepared separately, fish roe on fried soy milk skins, and fried, shaved parsnip. Two sashimi courses followed, accompanied by a shiso dipping puree and red sea grapes. A “lidded” course came next: a rich broth, “maple dashi,” once again smoky and garnished with tiny shimeji mishrooms.
Substantial chunks of grilled, skewered barracuda provided more substantial food, served with a delicate wasabi leaf dip and an egg-yolk-soy sauce.
The delicate, savory custard called chawanmushi came next, while pine needles on a hot stone in the center of the table added aroma. The tiniest tempura imaginable were made of fried chrysanthemum, shiso leaf and eggplant, perfectly crisp. Sakes of increasing complexity accompanied each course, with a specially brewed Haptera Ale from Chicago’s Half Acre for the barracuda. The last savory course was the soup, rice and pickles that once were added to the kaiseki stones as prelude to matcha tea. For the second time in the meal, I felt that I was eating sustaining food, in addition to absorbing art and culture. But the art was still there, in the form of gorgeously arranged vegetables in the pot over which a broth was poured. Sticky rice and shochu “kakushigura,” a barley whiskey, accompanied.
“First Snowfall” was sweet, with an edible maple leaf, a fuyu persimmon half stuffed with persimmon mousse, a fried soy milk skin, soy ice cream and a deeply caramelized carrot. The long-anticipated tea and a gelatinous “warabi mochi”, eaten in blobs speared with a stick, finished the meal.
Though autumn had ended, the moon made a farewell appearance at the end, and I felt the season had never been so closely observed or deeply celebrated. But I confess I ate a piece of squash pie when I got home.