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Clarity, quality, purity and simplicity: The pared-back refinement of kaiseki, Japan’s traditional high-end cuisine, is too often described as formal or minimalist. Yet at its most profound, the alchemic synergy of ingredients, technique, season and setting can be close to transcendent.

That is the level to which chef Takuya Kataori aspires every day. And that is why he likes to open each meal at his intimate restaurant in Kanazawa by preparing dashi, made from scratch in his narrow open kitchen.

In the time-honored style, he uses just three ingredients. He starts with aged konbu (kelp) from the island of Rishiri, in northern Hokkaido. This he steeps for almost two days in spring water that he collects himself from a noted source in the hinterland of the nearby Noto Peninsula. Once the water is up to heat, he adds a mound of katsuobushi — shavings from cured, smoked fillets of katsuo (skipjack tuna) prepared in Makurazaki, on the farthest tip of Kagoshima Prefecture in southern Kyushu.

The process is only done after his customers have arrived and settled in at their places along Kataori’s pristine six-seat counter. The sound of the hard blocks of katsuobushi being finely shaved on a traditional kezuriki plane; the wafting fragrance from the dashi pot; and finally the taste, comforting but assertive, and with great ocean depths of umami. With your senses fully primed, it is now time to embark on dinner.

In pursuit of perfection

Kataori was born in Himi, a port city overlooking the fertile waters of Toyama Bay. From the age of 20, he served an 11-year apprenticeship at Tsuruko, a former Kanazawa ryotei (exclusive high-end Japanese restaurant) that was revered for the quality of its cuisine. Rising through the ranks, he became head chef while still in his 20s, and under his tenure it gained two Michelin stars.

Chef Takuya Kataori goes to the fishing ports of Toyama Bay himself to find the best ingredients for his menu. | TAKEFUMI HAMADA
Chef Takuya Kataori goes to the fishing ports of Toyama Bay himself to find the best ingredients for his menu. | TAKEFUMI HAMADA

Even before Tsuruko closed in November 2018 — like many ryotei catering to expense-account parties hosted by politicians and captains of industry, it fell out of favor — Kataori had made his next move. After several years of planning, finding the right location and acquiring the necessary fixtures and tableware, he and his wife, Hiromi, opened their own restaurant.

The small house stands inconspicuously on the left bank of the Asano River in a quiet corner of Kanazawa, a short stroll from the city’s historic Higashichaya district but altogether less touristed. Inside and out, it was fully renovated and refashioned with understated timber furnishings fitted by carpenters trained in the classic sukiya style.

More than just a fresh start in a different location, the new restaurant represented a major change of scale and focus for Kataori. Now he could direct his attention more intently than ever on his calling: To elevate and give a platform to the outstanding food ingredients of his home region of Hokuriku, specifically Ishikawa and Toyama prefectures.

All the best chefs search out the finest ingredients, but Kataori takes this quest to the ultimate extreme. Rather than relying on middlemen in the city, he heads directly to the fishing ports on the Noto Peninsula, or to his hometown, Himi, where he rigorously selects the pick of the catch landed by the fishermen, even before it has been auctioned.

That requires a very early start. On most mornings, he sets out before first light so he can arrive at the wharfs by 5:30 a.m. His aim is not merely to buy the best seafood available, but to ensure that he can pack and transport it with the utmost care. One essential aspect of this is to prepare the fish as soon as possible using ikejime, a technique that halts the process of rigor mortis and preserves the flavor until the moment he can serve it.

There are often other ports of call on Kataori’s daily route. He stops off to pick up the vegetables that he has grown for him by organic farmers, to forage for wild herbs in the hillsides, and to refill his canisters of pure mountain water at the sacred Fujinose spring.

During the brief period from late September when the prized matsutake pine mushrooms appear, he drives all the way to Suzu, at the far end of the Noto Peninsula, where he picks just enough of the musky, aromatic fungi for his needs that day. Because the round trip takes him six hours in all, during that season — it usually lasts through October — Kataori only serves one sitting of customers (he usually has two for dinner). For him this extra outlay of time and effort is essential if he is to offer this vaunted delicacy at its finest.

The carapace of a female crab is packed with a generous serving of two types of crab eggs. | TAKEFUMI HAMADA
The carapace of a female crab is packed with a generous serving of two types of crab eggs. | TAKEFUMI HAMADA

The local smorgasboard

Kataori’s menu comprises 11 dishes that generally follow the traditional kaiseki order. However, there are noticeable differences when compared with the much more common Kyoto style of the cuisine. This is mainly due to the landlocked location of the ancient capital and the way seafood in particular is served.

In summer, hamo (pike conger eel) is an essential part of Kyoto’s cuisine; but in Kanazawa there is no tradition of raising or using it. Likewise, while tai (sea bream) is considered almost sacramental in kaiseki, especially for its celebratory connotations, it does not flourish in the Sea of Japan. Rather than buying these fish from elsewhere, Kataori would rather substitute other species more readily available and that are part of the local ecosystem.

Toyama Bay, which is just an hour’s drive away, is renowned for the range of seafood it offers — from shiro-ebi (small, tender white shrimp) to hotaru-ika (tiny, one-bite “firefly” squid, named for their natural bioluminescence). Larger fish from the Sea of Japan are also available from Himi and the other fishing ports, including kue (grouper), nodoguro (blackthroat seaperch) and kanburi, the rich, fatty yellowtail of winter that is coveted during the cold months.

The crabs' pincers and legs are dipped into a rich sauce made from the tomalley. | TAKEFUMI HAMADA
The crabs’ pincers and legs are dipped into a rich sauce made from the tomalley. | TAKEFUMI HAMADA

A remarkable feast

In winter, though, the meal revolves around one ingredient in particular: Kanazawa’s prized long-legged zuwaigani (snow crabs). Females, with their plentiful roe, are known as kobako-gani (literally “flavor box” crab), while males are kanō-gani (a portmanteau from the place names “Kaga” and “Noto”). At the peak of the season, in December, both play a memorable role on Kataori’s menu.

Kataori’s sublime take on a regional speciality, 'furofuki' daikon. | TAKEFUMI HAMADA
Kataori’s sublime take on a regional speciality, ‘furofuki’ daikon. | TAKEFUMI HAMADA

Dinner opens with a couple of appetizers. First, perhaps, furofuki daikon (soft-steamed white daikon topped with savory miso), a rustic staple here transformed into an exercise in understated elegance. And a clear soup of that steaming, fragrant dashi bathing a small cut of lightly steamed white-meat fish. And then, the main event begins.

The carapace of a large female snow crab is placed in front of you, filled with a heaping mound of fluffy sotoko (crab eggs) and the same volume of warm, runny uchiko (immature crab eggs). The contrast in texture and temperature is perfect; the flavor superb.

That’s just the start. Kataori then brings in trays laden with fierce-looking male crabs. Their long legs are gently grilled over charcoal just enough that they relinquish their tender white flesh. The tomalley (the rich inner juices) are cooked down to a thick sauce that you use as a dip for the legs and pincer meat prepared in shabu-shabu style.

Later on, interspersed with side dishes of vegetables, seafood and even duck, the crustaceans will also feature as sashimi, crab tomalley “risotto” made with plump mochi rice, and even crab meat in a thick clear sauce served over rice as a closing dish.

It is a remarkable feast. But that will be the case whatever season you visit, according to Takefumi Hamada, one of Japan’s leading gastronomes who documents his travels on his Umamiholic YouTube channel.

“When it comes to ingredients like crab or matsutake, there are no restaurants to rival Kataori, even in Tokyo,” Hamada says. “But whatever the food, he draws out its essence. He has developed his own style in a way that is subtle but profound. It’s a cuisine that perfectly reflects the seasons and the local ecosystem.”

It is an assessment that appears to be shared by the Michelin inspectors, too. In their most recent Hokuriku guide (May 2021), Kataori was awarded two stars. Needless to say, it is now one of the most sought-after reservations in all of Japan.

Namikimachi 3-36, Kanazawa, Ishikawa 920-0928; 076-255-1446; kataori.jp. Open daily, two sittings: 5 p.m. & 8 p.m.; also lunch 12 noon Wed. & Sun.; set menus from ¥35,000 (varies according to season and ingredients); closest station Kanazawa; smoking not permitted; major cards; no menu; little English spoken.

The Japan Times Cube’s annual Destination Restaurants selection showcases the abundant food culture on offer outside of Japan’s major cities.

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