Cuisine: Kaiseki, Japanese banquet prix fixe
Menu: https://www.kenzonapa.com/menu (February/March 2023; changes every 2 months)
Review Date: February 23, 2023
Kenzo’s kaiseki is in the spirit of the traditional Japanese banquet, but with some modern influences. Although they make mention of French influence upon their food, during our meal we saw little evidence of it. Judging from the Web photos of Wakuriya/San Mateo’s kaiseki dishes, Kenzo hews closer to the traditional Japanese in composition and presentation. Here, only the occasional Western touch is shown in a sauce, or in the mixing of the courses. Kenzo truly shines in the elegant simplicity of their presentation, especially combined with the beauty of their serving dishes. Their kaiseki is a true feast for the eyes, with each course relating to the current season.
Pls note: this is a long review, with photos of 7 of the nine courses. I may need to break this up into two posts, so apologies in advance (I don’t often post w/photos, LOL).
We started by choosing our tea. There is a choice of two green teas: Matcha or Hojicha, a roasted green tea. We chose the Hojicha, which is very similar to a black tea. It was superb quality, well worth taking several minutes to savor it by itself.
Hyogo Seabream and Bottarga: estate grown mizuna leaves, daikon, myoga ginger buds and yuzu pepper infused vinaigrette.
A rice ball was covered with two slices of seabream, sprinkled generously with fine-grated orange bottarga and topped with finely shredded ginger buds. The seabream was good but it was the bottarga which upped it a full level. This bottarga was delicate yet flavorful: salty but not overly so, with a rich umami that elevated the seabream and its accompaniments. The tangy vinaigrette added a punch of flavor without being too harsh. A lovely dish with fine balance, and absolutely five-star.
Seasonal Hassun: rolled blue shrimp and napa cabbage, estate grown sweet potato with sesame cream and chrysanthemum cress with peanut butter.
I’ve never been a big fan of shungiku (cress), but it was excellent in this prep. The Aomori smelt were three fresh smelt chunks gently cooked by marinade brine. The prosciutto-rolled raw shrimp were soft and sweet, topped with a mound of bright green, finely shredded shiso leaves. The Japanese white yam was fried with a light batter, with a dab of mild sesame cream and a yam chip on top. All of them were lovely, with clean, soft flavors. I especially loved the smelt, which were sweet and delicate. There was a small bowl with beech mushrooms and finely slivered green beans, topped by two slivers of ripe plum tomato.
The miso croquette was less successful for me. I’m not fond of red miso, although the stronger flavor is appropriate for the cool-weather season. The flavor of the pureed beef was barely evident; Wagyu is not my favorite beef. I find it tender and rich, but so mild as to be uninteresting.
Chiba Golden Eye Snapper Owan: signature dashi broth, estate grown turnip, shiitake mushroom, mitsuba parsley and yuzu.
Wonderful, with a richly flavored dashi broth that owed nothing to soya. The snapper was gently poached, fragile and subtly sweet in flavor. The yuzu added color and a quick burst of flavor, without acidity that might overwhelm everything else. Spouse and I agreed this was another five-star dish all the way: the essence of simplicity and quality.
Cherry Wood Smoked Toyama Yellowtail Sashimi: broccolini, Japanese yam, mustard and Jidori egg yolk soy sauce.
One could taste the buttery hamachi as well as the sweet aftertaste of cherrywood smoke. It was delightfully different than the usual “let me hit you over the head with SMOKE!” one gets at BBQ eateries. Jidori egg yolk makes a Japanese version of a Hollandaise, but uses dashi broth and soya for flavoring. Spouse was fine with the sauce, but I left most of mine untouched. Coleman’s mustard powder never scores points with me; I find it too harsh.
Course #5, sorry no photo
Grilled Alaska Sable Fish: Japanese taro, Komatsuna spinach and yuzu infused Saikyo brand miso.
The fish was very soft and fresh. Both of us thought there was too much sauce – notable, as other courses were properly restrained in the amount of sauce used. It had a sweet/salty profile that would easily overwhelm the mild sablefish. I scraped most of it off the fillet and dabbed it instead on the starchy taro and the bright green parcooked spinach. It was fine with those in combination.
Crispy Nagasaki Sea Eel Okakiage: lotus root dumpling, kale and sansho pepper.
FYI: there was a pair of dumplings with eel slices on top – I ate one before remembering to take a photo! The thin eel fillets were crusted with okakiage, aka crushed senbei, Japanese rice crackers. I did feel their heavy soya flavor almost overwhelmed the eel. I don’t usually care for lotus root, but it was delicious prepared as a steamed slice thickened with rice flour, similar to the Cantonese lo bak goAlthough not completely successful, I enjoyed the contrast of textures; smooth-textured steamed dumpling and crunchy-crusted eel, accented with the fragile crispness of the kale chip.
A5 Satsuma Wagyu Tenderloin Jibuni, burdock root, maitake mushroom, scallion and Shizuoka Region wasabi.
This was the highest level of A5 Wagyu, being Level 12 (grade levels run upwards in quality, 5-12). A red wine wasabi sauce napped the plate, with a small rod of additional wasabi to mix in if desired. Spouse mixed his in; I left mine on the side. Large cubes of very rare beef sat atop. The burdock was a hefty wedge. A halved clump of maitake mushroom was grilled, along with the scallion.
We eat a fair amount of beef, and I have had four of the five varieties of Wagyu. But the texture of the Level 12 - A5 surprised both of us. In the lesser level A5 steaks, we have not noticed any texture difference, merely that the meat is juicier, tender but not mushy (unlike lesser grades of beef, for example).
But the Kenzo A5 had a very different texture than any red meat we have had before. The Level 12 beef was smooth and soft, with no visible meat fibers. In fact, the texture was almost identical to the Mediterranean toro (bluefin tuna) we had in the sashimi course which followed the beef. Although soft, it was not mushy – but it is totally unlike any steak or roast you have had before. It will indeed almost melt in your mouth.
Due to the richness of the Wagyu, this is a filling course despite being only three cubes of beef. The sauce was well-balanced and subtle, as it needs to be since this type of beef is very mild-tasting. The beef, burdock and grilled maitake were excellent with the delicious sauce, which was one of the few items based on a French recipe.
Course #8, no photo: Chef’s Selection of Sushi: served with red miso soup.
The nigiri was flounder, topped with a dab of puréed ume fruit. Although I’ve always had it pickled, this seemed fresh, without any fermentation. We missed hearing what the second nigiri was. Albacore, perhaps? The fillet was cross-hatched, then very lightly brushed with a high-quality soya. It, too, was very good. The third nigiri was the highest-quality toro, from the Mediterranean. Rich in flavor and meaty in taste, it does indeed ‘melt in the mouth’.
The chirashizushi was lightly pickled rice with fresh snow crab and Hokkaido scallop. The snow crab was more subtle in flavor than Dungeness, but sweet. Usually when we encounter snow crab, it’s frozen and tasteless, but here it showed the delicate flavor of this species. There was also a ball of rolled pickled white ginger, which Spouse used but I left untouched.
We were then offered the option of ordering extra sushi. Spouse opted to have two extra – scallop and uni, both from Hokkaido. The uni nigiri was impressive: this was the largest amount of Hokkaido uni we’ve ever seen in a single serving.
The red miso/red bean soup was served in a small covered cup, after the sushi course. The beans were puréed into the dashi with the miso and soya. It remained an unthickened broth but I found it fairly salty, even with the sweetness of the adzuki red beans. Spouse thought the soup was okay, but unfortunately I’m not a fan of adzuki in any form. Aside from the red miso soup, we would rank this course as a tie for second with the starter course, Zensai. The Suimono, dashi soup course, was still our favorite.
Chef’s Featured Desserts (trio).
The first dessert was a hojicha tea agar pudding, topped with two mandarin orange supremes. This was delightful, barely sweet and with the neutral taste of agar thickener, the smoky tea flavor really came through. The second dessert was two rectangles of almond jelly, topped with puréed kiwi, blanched almonds, and glazed pomegranate seeds. Again, a refreshing dessert, sweeter than the tea pudding. The third cup held a kabocha squash sherbet. The faint sweetness of the squash was amplified by a brown sugar syrup drizzled on top. A small slice of squash was candied as a garnish, giving a textural contrast.
All of them were excellent. My favorite was the hojicha pudding, but I loved the creativity of the trio. They made a perfect ending to an elegant feast.
We really enjoyed this dinner. Banquet food is on a different level from street food, home cooking, or restaurant food. It has – or should have – precision, elegance, and subtlety. Kenzo’s Head Chef Kenji Miyaishi does an amazing job of introducing high-end Japanese cuisine that is far beyond the ‘fifty ways to use teriyaki sauce on everything’ trend that has taken hold at the average Japanese restaurant.
As Martin, our waiter remarked, this is an introduction to the appreciation of delicate, natural flavors. When you are using the very best quality ingredients, the intent is to balance those flavors to show all of them at their finest, together in a harmonious whole. After we finished, he asked which course we liked best. We voted for the soup without hesitation. I remarked that it is very rare to be able to taste a dashi made properly, without the crutch of soya added.
This was my second kaiseki dinner, and Spouse’ first. There are many celebrated high-end restaurants in Northern CA, but very few of these are Asian restaurants. If you enjoy Asian food, experiencing a formal banquet meal will add immensely to your understanding of the cuisine. Difficult as it is to make a reservation at Kenzo Napa, it is well worth the effort.
Two people, dinner: $225.00 per person. There is no charge for the additional sushi, should you order extra as Spouse did. Service charge included, for a total of $485
note: Kenzo Napa has announced the charge is rising to $275/pp starting April 1, 2023.