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Kawahara: Thrilling, exciting, game-changing kaiseki

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

Kawahara has only been up and running for a year and half but, in that time, owner-chef Kouji Kawahara has found loyal patrons and landed himself a Michelin star. Or, as he charmingly puts it, “I’m in that red book.”

From the outside, his restaurant is humble. It’s squeezed into a row of small houses in a back alley beneath an overpass on which traffic pours in and out of Umeda. There is little to hint at the magic beyond the hemp noren curtains at the entrance.

The fare is kaiseki, the traditional multi-course meal, but it is different: For every course over this long lunch, Kawahara does something that’s either thrilling, or mad. These are not adjectives you usually use to describe a kaiseki meal.

Kawahara’s creative approach favors substance over style, as demonstrated by his hassun (seasonal) course. While some chefs go overboard and dress their hassun with elaborate concoctions that could double as a hat at a royal wedding, Kawahara modestly hid our dishes beneath a single bright green mulberry leaf.

In concert, the eight lunchtime diners removed the leaf to reveal a beautiful array of colors that included bright red gazpacho, and a dish of octopus smothered in a mango sauce that had a hint of vinegar. But it was the tiny slice of “watermelon” that all the accolades went to. It was a watermelon only in appearance. Kawahara had taken a hemisphere of zucchini, removed a semi-circle and filled it with mentaiko (pollock roe) creating the appearance of a watermelon.

It was a single bite of bliss, a theme that flowed through much of the rest of the meal. Another superb mini-dish was the whelk, a deep, rich shellfish that came served with black nattō.

If I had the chance to take a peek at Kawahara’s playbook, it might say something like this: “Do something unusual with each dish.” That logic seemed to extend to his audacious dress sense too; I think he might be the only kaiseki chef I’ve ever seen wear a bow tie.

The sashimi plate — comprising cuts of mackerel from Wakayama Prefecture and bonito from Chiba Prefecture — was accompanied by a paste made from ginger, scallions and wasabi, which besides having an interesting texture was also a novel break from the mound of wasabi that usually accompanies sashimi.

He decorated the dish — colored by a motif of fireworks — with hana sanshō (pepper flowers) and a pale yellow okra leaf; edible fireworks atop painted ones.

As lunch tapered off, Kawahara could have taken it easy. Instead there was a pause as he went to the fryer to give a round of geso (squid tentacles) the tempura treatment before mixing them into freshly cooked rice flavored with soy sauce. This dish alone, with its depth of flavor and texture, is reason enough to return to the restaurant.

But most of all, you should stop by because at Kawahara, here is a chef who is slowly but surely transforming kaiseki.

Lunch ¥4,860; dinner ¥12,960; Japanese menu; some English spoken