Chef of Chefs @Zeniya, Kanazawa

Date of Visit:  March 1 2013

The Kaga cuisine of Kanazawa is a distinct regional cuisine known as kaiseki ryori (a traditional Japanese multi-course meal) which is famed  for fresh seafood  caught off the Sea of Japan, rice and vegetables growned in the Kaga Plain and superior sake made from the quality water from the Hakusan Mountains.

It was a lucky fluke that  Zeniya turned up in my search for fine dining in in Kanazawa.  Little did I know that Chef Shinichiro Takagi is well-known for his innovative approach to Japanese cooking.  Zeniya’s founder was his father who started the restaurant in 1970.

We were thrilled to find out that Chef T spoke English and kept us entertained and informed throughout dinner about the local culture and places to visit.  He also told us that he has another restaurant in Kanazawa in the Geisha district and another overseas branch in Seoul.  He also divulged that his father and him were invited to open a fine dining establishment in Sydney in the 80’s, but the deal did not go through.  With training from the famous Kyoto Kitcho restaurant and having studied abroad including a stint in New York, it’s  no wonder then, Chef T regularly guest chef overseas. On the night of our dinner, he and his team of chefs had just returned from a week long of cooking for a private function in Saudi Arabia.

The unassuming restaurant is actually a 2-storey building with large private dining spaces, popular with the local politicians, media personalities including overseas star chefs Tetsuya and Alain Duccase!  To be close to action, we chose to sit at the  eight-seater counter.

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The food at Zeniya is a celebration of the culinary culture of Kanazawa, where local produce is artfully presented  and also healthfully with a twist.

1st COURSE

White Fish with Amasake (a traditional Japanese sweet low alcohol drink made from fermented rice)

An artfully arranged pair of fish atop fresh produce in sweet mirin

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TO DRINK:

YACHIYA SAKE  from the most famous and oldest sake brewery in Kanazawa.  It is a family business started in 1628 and currently in its 16th generation.  True to Japanese family-run restaurant tradition, his wife came out to pour a round of sake for us.

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There has been comments that kaiseki was developed in Kanazawa as a means to show off the fine lacquerware.  The lacquer ware and crockery that the food were presented at Zeniya were from Chef T’s father’s collection from over 40 years ago.  They are still in pristine condition.  Chef T also mentioned that a must-visit in Kanazawa is the gold leaf factory where he had accompanied Alain Duccase to buy 200 sets of gold-leaved chopsticks!

2nd COURSE

Soup

The soup was very light, yet bursting with umami.  Egg and fish, wakame with wild fern from the mountains and a slice of carrot to add colour

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3rd COURSE

Sashimi, prawns in yuzu accompanied by local tomatoes.  

The star of the plate is definitely the baby tomatoes.  Have you ever seen such small cherry tomatoes?  Red distinctive rings on the the prawns marking freshness and ‘seasoned’ by the squeeze of yuzu juice.

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AMUSE BOUCHE

Chef T’s explained that this is his twist on carpaccio.  Bonito shavings on marinated sashimi decorated with edible flowers.  It certainly has a ‘twist’, very tasty and ‘Italian’ with additional flavouring, departuring from the traditional sashimi of soy sauce and wasabi.  The piece of fish practically melts on my tongue.

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4th COURSE

BBQ Clam

The prepping of the locally sourced Manjugai clam was a bit violent!  The clam was given a few slaps on table to toughen it, because otherswise it would be too soft.  Then sliced and presented on a bowl of ice.  The rock was handpicked from the river, less than 10% made it to the table since it need to sustain very high temperature.  This is a DIY where we cook the clam on a hot stone, then dip the clam into the soy sauce under the watchful eye of the chefs.

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5th COURSE

Assorted Sashimi accompanied by local Kaga root vegetables

This is an exquisite platter of appetisers.  Each piece is meticulously prepared.  The star here is the Firefly Squid on a gold-plated plate that Kanazawa is so famous for.  The squid signals the arrival of Spring and is special as it emits blue light.

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6th COURSE:

Grilled Fish

Milky and tender – what more can I say?

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7th COURSE:

Beef

Kogashima Beef, one of the Top 3 beefs in Japan, served with freshly grated wasabi, turnip and leeks.  The beef was not fatty, but meltingly tender.

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8th COURSE:

Crab Rice

Grilling the crab legs

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Lots of fiddly work to pick the meat out of the long spindly legs of the crabs, so co-operations of 2 chefs are needed.  Chef T on the right with his second-in-command.

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Accompanied by pickles and wakame

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O-Cha to cleanse our palate

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DESSERT

A very simple dessert to finish our meal – a humongously sweet strawberry

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Dining at Zeniya is not cheap at ¥30,000 per person, but Chef Takagi – with his entertaining stories and sociable demeanour – completes the experience.

A Barbie Doll’s Lunch @Miyoshian in Kenrokuen Garden, Kanazawa

Date of Visit: March 1 2013 (on my birthday!)

Kenrokuen in Kanazawa (entrance fee ¥300, free for Seniors over 60) is one of the 3 Great Gardens in Japan’ (the other 2 being in Kyoto and Okayama). Unfortunately, our timing wasn’t great as we arrived on an early spring morning with a heaving sky which later drizzled. The garden is smaller than I had imagined with a couple of souvenir shops, but neither served hot coffee, except from the vending machine! The garden is pristine with pine trees and very meticulously landscaped. I saw the gardeners busy combing the ice off the lawn. I was wondering about the ropes in the trees. Apparently, they were to prevent the trees from snow damage, but now they are mostly decorative and even the tiny bonsai plant that I saw is roped. This is Kanazawa’s trademark I was informed!

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Kenrokuen Garden, Kanazawa: One of the 3 great gardens in Japan

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2-legged stone lantern. ‘Kotoji’

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Ropes in trees – trademark of Kanazawa!

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Gardeners busy sweeping the snow off the lawns to prevent ice damage

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Water, trees, stone paths, wooden shack

Our lunch today is at Miyoshian located right in the middle of the Kenrokuen Garden. Our lovely concierge from our hotel had booked for us a table by the window, so we can enjoy the serenity of the pond at the same time listening to the soothing trickling of the Midoritake waterfall.

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Miyoshian: Sitting over the Hasuike Pond inside a rustic timber shack

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There are 2 Miyoshian restaurants in the garden. We chose the tatami room(reservation recommended), the other restaurant opposite has tables and chairs for seatings, but no views.

Interior of the restaurant. Traditional tatami floors, dim lights, low tables set the tone for a rustic experience.  However, best of all, the heater which saved us from the chill (the smell from the gas took a bit of using to…nonetheless…)

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Unfortunately, since we are not used to sitting kneeling on the floor, our legs started to get numb soon after

The Lunch:  Set meals starts at ¥1500, but since we had made a reservation for the tatami room, we had to take the ¥2000 lunch set. Service was spotty, with only 2 forgetful waitresses who had to scurry from the other restaurant, but otherwise very amiable.

After ordering our pre-ordered set lunch, we were served a sweet, thick, gooey fermented rice beverage, which we all enjoyed.  We assumed it to be a non-alcoholic sake.

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Ama-zake: Traditional drink of Hina Matsuri. Made from ‘kome koji’, the same rice used for sake

When our set lunch arrived, we were taken aback but humoured with the childishness of the lunch-set assortment – green, white, peach-pink, yellow – is this a lunch for Barbie?

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Lunch fit for Barbie

The funny thing about Japanese hospitality is that they will speak to you in Japanese even though they know that you can’t understand a word of what they were saying – they will still very patiently introduce each dish presented.

Unfortunately, it was not until I got back home in Sydney and did some googling on what we ate that the symbolic significance of the food served to us were understood.  Nevertheless, better late than never, here is my deduction of our Barbie’s lunch.

Our Barbie’s lunch was actually a Hina Masturi lunch set featuring the all-important Hina Matsuri color palette of green, white, peach-pink and yellow. Their dainty presentation originates from the refined foods of which ladies of the imperial court had in the Edo Era.

  • Green: Signifies spring and new life;
  • Whilte: Signifies long life and fertility;
  • Peachy pink or red:  Signifies health and to ward off bad karma;
  • Yellow (in some regions):  Refers to the yellow flowers of the nanohana plant, a vegetable related to broccoli that is a major harbinger of spring.
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‘Fruits from the sea’ (prawn, snail, fish, jellied crabs), bamboo shoot and mochi

The three small stickyballs in pink, white and green on a stick are called dango, similar to mochi, except with no fillings.

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Delights of Kaga Cuisine on the tray

Clockwise from top left.

  • Jibuni is a local duck stew which we were looking forward to sampling, was an acquried taste.  It is rather a rather odd piece of sweet cold piece of meat in batter
  • Sashimi wrapped in a tough thick kombu with a piece of shiso leaf for taste
  • Chirashi-zushi, or “scattered” sushi, a bed of sushi rice with various colorful toppings was very edible
  • Ushiojiru is a clear soup made from hamaguri clams, which I believe to be in season.  The shells symbolise a joined pair, signifying the wish for a happy union in marriage.
  • Hasumushi is grated Kaga lotus root with shrimps and gingko nuts that is steamed, and covered with a thickened broth. It has a glutinous texture.

To conclude our meal, we were served a sweet and savory puff rice, called Hina arare.  As far as the lunch went, we were not impressed at all, but still…

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Hina arare puff rice mix

… I would still recommend the experience of having tea instead and enjoy the peace and tranquility of the garden setting. (It is a marvellous thing that the Japanese do not talk loud and use mobile phones.)

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View out to the pond

…Perhaps a more ‘authentic’ and better tasting Jibuni can be found at the shops outside the garden at  ¥550. There are also plenty of modern cafes outside serving pasta.

I also visited Seison Kaku Villa (entance fee ¥1000) which I highly recommend.  This 2-storied building had the Buke-Shoin (Samurai) style rooms on the ground floor and a  Sukiya-Shoin (combination of Samurai and Tea-ceremony) style rooms upstairs.  Walking on the squeeky patio was interesting as it still emitted the sounds of nightingales when weight was pressured on.  The upstairs were coloured in bright blues, reds, purple and black – very innovative for its time.  Choice glass imports from the Netherlands were also preserved showing the wealth of its owner Maeda Nariyasu.

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Seison Kaku (a national treasure)

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Antique Hina Masturi Dolls on display inside the museum (photo I took from the JR magazine)