|Kiyoe Higashimori leads a customer into a private tea room at Bizen Kaiseki on Railroad Street, a tea house next to Bizen Restaurant. Kaiseki is the seasonal meal that accompanies the Japanese tea ceremony.|
Bizen, the always-crowded Japanese restaurant at 17 Railroad St., has spread its wings, so to speak, with a beautiful new space next door. Opened in December, Bizen Kaiseki realizes owner Michael Marcus' dream of creating an authentic Japanese tearoom, that would celebrate the cuisine of Kaiseki.
Kaiseki means warm rocks and refers to the stones Japanese Buddhist priests of the Middle Ages would place on their stomachs, while fasting and meditating, to distract themselves from hunger.
In the late 17th century, Sen Rikyu, patriarch of the Japanese tea ceremony, figured out a more successful solution to hunger: He actually fed the priests. Appointed by the emperor, Rikyu gave greater shape to the tea ceremony, which is as much about style as food preparation: a harmonious blend of utensils, beauty and edibles. He borrowed the name Kaiseki for this tea ceremony cuisine.
Marcus has had a love affair with Japan, especially its pottery, since the 1970s when he went to live there and study ceramics in Bizen. His pottery, in the unglazed Bizen style, is an essential part of the dining experience at his restaurant.
"I have been living and dying by this restaurant for the last year and a half," he said.
Marcus spends a lot of time explaining to customers the concept of the tea ceremony and the space they inhabit once they enter stone-paved path that leads past six private tearooms, each enclosed by shoji doors.
He encourages you to "take off your watch" and "live for the moment." (Needless to say, you might want to also turn off your cell phone.)
"The sound of the tea ceremony is the water boiling in the kettle," he goes on, lulling you into the mood to enjoy your ensuing six-, eight-, nine- or 11-course meal.
Marcus has hired two Kaiseki chefs to prepare the multicourse feasts. (Feast, in this sense, is more spiritual and gourmet than sizable.)
Everyone starts out with the Sakizuke (meaning "awakening the palate"). Ours was a small salad of organic mesclun greens, Canadian rock shrimp (a minimalist portion) and Angus beef tataki with a spicy ponzu sauce.
A vegetarian version is available with sliced and dried persimmon, chestnuts and a scooped-out orange canister filled with greens.
In the $40, six-course version we had, the Sakizuke was followed by a delicate but salty broth called wanmori (clear soup). Succulent red snapper is gently boiled in a light soy broth with sea urchin and white scallions. A surprising sparkle of citrus, reminiscent of lime, ex-plodes in your mouth from a Japanese fruit called yuzu.
The Mukozuke (dish set beyond the rice) was the sashimi segment of the feast. Fresh slices of clam, salmon, blue fin toro and shrimp were accompanied by the strongest wasabi I have ever tasted -- a tribute to its freshness.
Though we were about to enter our fifth course, the men at our table were ready to call for warm rocks to quell their hunger pangs since each serving so far had been only slightly more than an amuse-bouche, or tasting.
Ironically, what came next was a plate of extremely hot rocks -- beautiful, black stones on which raw slices of fish or beef were to be cooked.
Alaskan black cod and Angus beef tenderloin made up this Yakimono (grilled thing) course. The fish seemed to be plucked directly from the waters and then marinated in miso. The result was a very flavorful and moist delicacy. The vegetarian version of this was, however, boring and not as successful.
We were nearing the end of our epicurean voyage.
Agemono, meaning "deep-fried thing," followed. It was my least favorite because I'm not a fan of tempura. But chefs Toichi Nakanishi's and Mito Masami's version is light and airy.
I was told that I ate fried burdock but I really couldn't differentiate between the ginnan, kaki, kuri, renhorn, gobo or shiitake.
All dishes are served with go-han (rice). But ours, unintentionally, arrived as a dessert. Had it come earlier, it would have alleviated some of the hunger pangs my dinner guests experienced.
What was missing was the tea. Evidently, the "good" tea (ma-cha) is extremely expensive and only served with the higher-priced prix fixes.
"But, we are still evolving," said Marcus, when I complained that a tea ceremony without tea is like a baseball game without the ball. He plans to introduce more tea, and more ceremony in the very near future.
The service was as exquisite as the meal itself, with a highly trained wait staff.
You are served privately in your zashiki -- special ceremonial rooms lined with tatami mats. Be sure you ask for the ones that have the well under the table for your feet, unless you have studied yoga long enough to endure a two-hour meal in the lotus position.
Marcus is a generous host and everything at Bizen Kaiseki bespeaks style and good taste. When you're ready to abandon your watch, cell phone and shoes, visit Railroad Street's very latest resident.
Bizen Kaiseki, 21 Railroad St., Great Barrington. Tel. (413) 528-9696 or 528-4343
Style: Seasonal cuisine of the Japanese tea ceremony
Prices: Five prix fixes: $40 (per person for six courses) $60 (sushi and sashimi only) $80 (nine courses), $100 ("monkey course"), $150 (11)
Smoking: No smoking, no shoes
Hours: Winter: Wednesday to Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. Summer: Lunch: 12 to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: 5 to 10. Call for starting dates.
Noise level: Only the sounds of your own conversations
Credit cards: All major
Specials: Will be adding more varieties of prix fixe and an a la carte Kaiseki menu. Also coming soon: Japanese tea ceremony demonstrations accompanied by a Shokado Bento (kaiseki box lunch) and a Joyous Spring Pottery Gallery of Bizen ceramics downstairs that will sell pottery and have additional seating for the Kaiseki restaurant.
January 28, 2004