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Kaygetsu: Poetic Japanese dining in Menlo Park

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Strains of chamber music from hidden speakers guide customers from a parking lot to peaceful little Kaygetsu. Though one would not expect to find a Japanese restaurant that specializes in $95 kaiseki meals next to Safeway and Long's Drugs, Kaygetsu is positioned in a small enclave of Asian shops on the perimeter of the Sharon Heights Shopping Center.

Once inside, a different sensibility takes over. Kaygetsu's esthetic closes off the outside and focuses attention inward, on the poetry of a ritualized meal.

Most patrons make the pilgrimage to Kaygetsu for the prescribed courses of restaurant-style kaiseki _ a progression of small dishes, organized by cooking technique, that celebrate the season. The meal starts with a decorative cold starter, moves through a slow cooked dish; then, sashimi; then, a steamed dish; a grilled dish; a rice dish; then dessert.

The courses are presented on ceramic, lacquer and bamboo pieces that not only refer to the shapes and colors of the preparations, but the season.

Kaiseki developed centuries ago as a simple if formal meal of small dishes that preceded chanoyu, or the Zen Buddhist tea ceremony. The restaurant form of kaiseki is convivial instead of a meditation, and in the case of Kaygetsu, accompanied by sake.

Our late winter meal began with sake ($34 additional), nutty, elegant Masumi “Nanago” daiginjo served in a sculptural, pedestal glass. It ushered in what looked like an edible flower arrangement on an eye-shaped lacquer tray. The highlight was sweet snow crab and fresh tofu skin with a dab of crab butter, perched on tiny sparkling cubes of gelled dashi (smokey bonito and kelp broth).

Three more sakes got fruitier and more citrusy, and the food, simpler. A clear, deeply flavored fish broth was the star of the slow-cooked dish. Sashimi of wild hamachi, shima-aji (a striped jack) and a sweet raw shrimp, arrived in a deep, blue and white, flower pattern bowl.

The steamed dish, stunning in a slant-sided celadon bowl, offered a couple of bites of tai snapper and cabbage wrapped in wheat gluten, topped with buttery sea urchin roe. At the bottom, warm, clear, slightly thickened broth speckled with suspended bits of spinach, enchanted.

A red-and-white flowered square plate framed luscious, rare slices of duck breast, garnished with the finest threads of scallion and red chile. It came with a soft boiled quail egg which we broke open and ate with a tiny wooden spoon _ so charming.

The rice dish that always ends the meal, was delightful, dotted with bits of salmon and jewel-like salmon roe.

Forest green squares of creamy, airy green tea-soy milk mousse came on a contrastingly rough, unglazed, cement-like piece of pottery, a fantastic composition, though the blueberry garnish and some awfully good strawberry sauce were “seasonal” in Chile, not Menlo Park.

This description only touches at the many details of this meal prepared by two Kyoto-trained kaiseki chefs. Overall, the flavors were classic Japanese _ balanced, subtle, evocative. There were no fireworks and no extravagance. With sake and a 16 percent added service charge the bill comes to about $150 a person.

You've spent several hours in a spare room, windowed on two sides with shades carefully drawn to reveal tree branches instead of parking lot. Dark wooden tables are set with rice paper placemats printed with seasonal cherry blossoms. Music follows you as you walk to your car afterwards, the final course of Kaygetsu's kaiseki experience.

Restaurant info


Location: 325 Sharon Park Drive, Menlo Park

Contact: (650) 234-1084 kaygetsu.com    

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday

Price range: Seven-course kaiseki meal, $95 per person; a la carte dishes and sushi, $6 to $22

Recommended dishes: Kaiseki meal

Credit cards: All major

Reservations: At least one day in advance for kaiseki meal

Patricia Unterman's new San Francisco Food Lover's Pocket Guide is now available at bookstores. Contact pattiu@concentric.net  

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