On an evening in late March, a group of well-heeled guests arrive at the Nippondaira Hotel, on a high plateau in the center of Shizuoka City, for the fifth edition of Dining Out, a series of creative pop-up dinners held at various locations around the country. The theme this time was hanami — the tradition of holding convivial gatherings beneath flowering cherry trees — and the event commenced in a Japanese-style room with tatami-mat flooring and a view overlooking the garden. Rows of cherry trees lined the grounds, and beyond the bay the snow-covered summit of Mount Fuji peeked through the clouds.
An emcee delivered greetings as servers passed out cups of Hakuin Masamune Junmai-shu sake, made nearby in Numazu, along with the first amuse-bouche: grilled unagi (eel) coated with caramelized sugar and sealed in plastic packages to resemble Unagi Pie — a popular local confection made of coiled puff pastry — prepared by chef Zaiyu Hasegawa of Tokyo’s Jimbocho Den.
“When you ask foreign people to name their strongest images of Japan, they usually answer, ‘geisha, cherry blossoms and Mount Fuji.’ So we’ve brought these things together today,” the emcee announced.
A troupe of geisha dancers and musicians entered on cue and gave a haunting performance of traditional folk songs. It was a surreal experience, a moment of genuine beauty born of a tongue-in-cheek idea. All of this was perfectly fitting for Hasegawa, a chef whose modern takes on kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) are rife with culinary witticisms.
Dining Out began in 2013 as a way to showcase regional food culture against a backdrop of nature. The itinerant events each feature a leading chef who travels to the area where the event will be held to source ingredients and work with local craftsmen. Although all of the dinners have included Japanese sake and wine, the most recent event, Dining Out Nihondaira, was the first to put sake in the spotlight.
The sake menu — a range of brews from Shizuoka Prefecture selected by Den’s Emi Hasegawa and Noriko Yamaguchi — accentuated the subtlety of the chef’s cooking to great effect and demonstrated sake’s ability to harmonize with dishes at different temperatures. Warmed Kikuyoi Tokybetsu Junmai-shu was a sublime match for the rich turtle soup, which came in an exquisite wooden bowl carved from the trunk of a cherry tree. Eikun Tokubetsu Junmai, made with Homarefuji rice and served at room temperature, underscored the velvety texture and clean umami of a dish prepared with two kinds of bream in a thickened sauce. Kinmei Yamahai Junmai-shu was a surprising match for the dessert of semi-dried strawberries and cream, flavored with salted cherry blossoms. Served hot, the sake initially tasted dry but became sweeter and milder as it cooled.
Dining Out is usually held outdoors, but the windy March weather prevented the organizers from sticking to the original plan. “I’m afraid that this time, it’s ‘Dining In,’ ” the emcee apologized. Even so, it was the perfect hanami experience. As night descended over the shadowy figure of Mount Fuji, I sipped my warm sake and watched the garden lights illuminate the cherry trees from below.
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