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The Unrequited Quest of the Impossible Restaurant: Matsumoto

The Unrequited Quest of the Impossible Restaurant: Matsumoto
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  • The Unrequited Quest of the Impossible Restaurant: Matsumoto

    Post #1 - August 30th, 2005, 2:26 pm
    Post #1 - August 30th, 2005, 2:26 pm Post #1 - August 30th, 2005, 2:26 pm
    1. Questions

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    Is anything new still possible?

    Would we know it if we saw it?

    Can a place as impossible as Matsumoto survive?

    And does every place that forces you to think about what cuisine is about have to have "Moto" in its name?

    2. Louis Szathmary

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    The name Louis Szathmary came up at dinner last night. From the 1960s to the 1980s Szathmary's Chicago restaurant, named with deceptive modesty The Bakery, was one of the trendsetting restaurants in the country, less for its food (undoubtedly fine as it was) than for helping establish the chef as a star who worked the room and appeared on TV promoting his books and played the genial host-restaurateur-- a position in fine restaurants which had often been filled by someone, but rarely if ever by that unseen working class tyrant, the chef.

    For someone whose name conjures up an image of French traditionalism, old peasant ways and martial Parisian kitchens, Szathmary was actually much closer to the mad scientists of Moto-- he came to Chicago initially to help Armour develop packaged frozen foods, for instance. It was a short step from there to packaging the chef himself as an essential ingredient, the wellspring of authenticity from whom the restaurant's goodness flowed. Like Leo Burnett, the savvy, tough-as-nails Chicago ad genius whose greatest creation was not the Marlboro Man or the Jolly Green Giant but Leo Burnett, the guileless jes' folks ad man, Szathmary proved the truth of the old adage, "Sincerity is everything. If you can fake that, you've got it made."

    As we sat down at Matsumoto, we were greeted by the hostesses with the menu for our meal-- handwritten in Japanese.

    3. The authenticity of rice and ocean

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    A moment later we were presented with a bottle of sake, and for the second time this year I was treated to an explanation of how many times each grain of rice from my sake had been polished.

    That time, it had been amusing and novel, even as the sakes lived up to the outlandish image of little Japanese ladies polishing rice by hand with discernable levels of refinement. This time it was a glimpse of a way of life.

    That is, of course, what we always want from that elusive beast the "authentic" experience-- to share, at the primal level of our most basic senses, taste and smell and touch, in the experience of being Japanese or Tuscan or Thai. There was considerable discussion, between ourselves and with our hostesses, about how they have sometimes tailored the menu (in one case resulting in disappointment, clearly) to be more or less traditionally Japanese for non-Asian customers. It had taken Cathy's legwork and previous visit, as well as the visits of other LTHers, to persuade them that there was a market for the traditional Japanese menu among non-Asian customers. That we wanted to eat what they eat, at the deepest and least altered level possible.

    Yet the first courses at Matsumoto were a reminder that genuine authenticity is equally well described as alien. The French authentically eat cheese with veins of fuzzy gray mold that would make us throw away a peach. As Cathy2 has reminded us recently, Isaan Thais authentically enjoy a nice plate of bugs. And as the challenging first courses we had at Matsumoto proved, the Japanese make little distinction between dinner-- and a swamp.

    4. The diner who fell from grace with the sea

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    I know that GAF took extensive notes on the precise dishes and preparations, and Crazy C and Helen probably have more knowledge of the cuisine in the first place, so I will simply write of my impressions as the gaijin guinea pig, the one being dared to try the sort of things I had carefully avoided in the past.

    In the center, an oyster shooter with a quail egg in it. The liquid was robustly salty, like tomato juice or blood, too rich and savory to drink more than a little of at a time without feeling your senses overwhelmed.

    To its left (also seen in the preceding photo) was squid parts, I was never quite sure from where, raw, slippery but with a hard edge which made them turn and thrash in the mouth as you tried to chew them, as if they were the live octopus in that video recently linked to on this site. Despite that unnerving sensation, I actually found this one growing on me (as opposed to attaching itself to me parasitically), a gently briny taste and almost obscenely slippery texture well set off by the shavings of green onion.

    With that, you had the first of two appearances of a mountain yam which, boiled presumably, broke down into a sort of porridge-like goo. In this case it served as a base into which sea cucumber stomach had been Frappucino'd. I tried very hard to avoid saying what this gooey stuff reminded me of before someone at the table blurted out the inevitable comparison: "Snot." Flavor was as minimal as the texture was unappealing, and I decided that having finished the others, I could send this dish back largely undisturbed.

    On the other side, a green seaweed in a vinegar sauce-- my tastebuds said "We like!," my sense of touch said "You're eating moss from an overgrown pond." This one, though, I could see growing on you (again, I don't mean in that way, that I suppose you could see that, too); delicate, velvety, subtle and seductive, like the ghosts or water spirits in Japanese movies who lure men into the water to stay with them forever.

    From there the final glass was practically comfort food, and surprisingly easy to take-- a clam in a sweetish, malty-tasting red bean sauce. More like bar food than ghost food, it was almost a letdown for not making my nervous system confront the very limits of what it was willing to allow me to ingest without forcing right back up.

    Having eaten most of my food so far, having tried everything, I, not Matsumoto, had passed the test of authenticity, and would be allowed to continue eating.

    ...to be continued...
    Last edited by Mike G on August 30th, 2005, 6:59 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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  • Post #2 - August 30th, 2005, 3:31 pm
    Post #2 - August 30th, 2005, 3:31 pm Post #2 - August 30th, 2005, 3:31 pm
    5. Comfort food

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    Do you remember the first time you had sushi? (Yes, I know this is sashimi, we didn't know the difference then.) That you ate uncooked fish?

    Did you ever imagine a day when it would be like returning to the safe and comforting after something far, far stranger?

    Incidentally, speaking as I was of Leo Burnett, at one point (c. 1992) one of my creative directors announced a moratorium on "sushi" as a punchline in food commercials. It was too easy a laugh. Not long after, Dick Orkin did a spot in which he got big laughs out of the particularly pungent repetition of the word "larb." Now that's staying ahead of the competition.

    The sashimi, by the way, was absolutely top quality, as melt-in-your-mouth good as Katsu, Bob-San, any I've ever had. As good as Mom's mashed potatoes or hot apple pie.

    6. Building a bridge to the 21st century-- from the 12th

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    I first saw the floating orange thing through the viewfinder. What an attractive slice of pickled ginger or something, I thought.

    It wasn't until I looked at the real thing that I knew how fake it was.

    This was an amazingly delicate mushroom broth, served most attractively like tea, with bits of fish at the bottom to be picked out and eaten. In many ways this was the dish that most fit my preconception of what a kaiseki meal would be-- subtle, ascetic, contemplative, harmoniously drawn from the most basic ingredients and served with artful simplicity.

    And then, like a Ginza neon sign suddenly blasting over the temples of Kyoto, there was this aggressively pink spongy thing floating in the middle of it. The sort of rice flour artificial-dyed shaped product you find in plastic bags at Mitsuwa and buy not knowing if it's candy or seaweed crackers. At Avenues they'd crush and sprinkle them over foie gras, at Moto they'd make them themselves in a cyclotron, a postmodern comment on the whole business of authenticity. But this was the natural postmodernism of Japan, instinctive, happy to use the modern and see no contradiction. The only inauthentic thing would be to pretend it didn't exist and serve a kaiseki meal that pretended to belong to the past alone.

    ...to be continued...
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  • Post #3 - August 30th, 2005, 4:13 pm
    Post #3 - August 30th, 2005, 4:13 pm Post #3 - August 30th, 2005, 4:13 pm
    Mike G wrote:
    there was this aggressively pink spongy thing floating in the middle of it. The sort of rice flour artificial-dyed shaped product you find in plastic bags at Mitsuwa and buy not knowing if it's candy or seaweed crackers.


    Great narrative thus far...can't wait to hear the rest.

    The 'pink spongy thing' is called Fu, and it is made from wheat gluten. And the only flavor it carries is the flavor of the food that it is soaking in....And it comes in all shapes and sizes and colors. My favorite? Round, colorless. mmmmmmm.
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  • Post #4 - August 30th, 2005, 5:16 pm
    Post #4 - August 30th, 2005, 5:16 pm Post #4 - August 30th, 2005, 5:16 pm
    And now - as you wait breathlessly for Mike G's elegant narrative to continue, is a second take: completely different, but perhaps not so:

    Pre-Med at Matsumoto

    Globalization takes its toll. With the expansion in the United States of the depth and complexity of Asian, Latin, Eastern European, and, now, African haute cuisines, how can the serious diner break from the constraints of culinary cliche. In a world system, provincialism chains one to ignorance.

    I have consumed piles of sushi, sashimi, teriyaki, tempura, ramen, and poki. Yet, although I have an intuitive grasp of the rudiments of French cuisine (at least a rudimentary grasp of the intuition of ...), my knowledge of the philosophies and possibilities of Japanese cuisine is narrow. Every visit to a Japanese restaurant is like sleeping at a Tokyo Holiday Inn where "the best surprise is no surprise." Even with a son who speaks Japanese, spending time in Kyoto, and another who views far too much anime, I am as pure a Midwestern gaijin as might be found. Hai!

    After last night, this must change. But change is never easy. Five of us (Cathy2, Cathy's friend Helen, Crazy C, Mike G) dined at Matsumoto, a new and significant Japanese restaurant along a rather unprepossessing Chicago commercial strip (a center of ethnic cuisine in Chicago - Lawrence Avenue may well be the most appetizing street in the city). The meal will alter how I taste.

    Dinner at Matsumoto stands in distinct contrast with a Philadelphia meal that a friend and I shared at Morimoto, the eponymous restaurant of Iron Chef Morimoto. That meal, worthy as it was (a three star meal, I felt), did not jolt me. Morimoto is shaped through Japanese preparation as shaped by an American sensibility. I have not visited Japan, and so this claim may seem amusing to those with a knowledge of the Tokyo dining scene. However, the restaurant with its Orientalist touches, has an ambience of an American's night on the town. The Omakase (a tasting menu but - I believe - with less philosophical import than a Kaiseki menu) was worthy, with a hamachi sashimi the high point. I still fondly recall a Japanese inflected foie gras plate and a luscious tiny wild plum. Unsurprisingly the fish dishes - both the raw and the cooked - were the emotional center of the meal. The pace was a little rushed, as dishes were hustled away before they were quite done, but the waitstaff were agreeable in that very American fashion that waiters outside of Manhattan cultivate.

    A student confronting a new world is swamped by information, none of which quite makes sense. There are no handles through which knowledge can be ordered. Everything stands alone. Perhaps one loves the idea of being a surgeon, but one must still pass organic chemistry. So many new and inexplicable things for which the comfortable familiarity of experience is useless. However, the cute metaphor of organic chemistry is inadequate to describe the experience of a Japanese Kaiseki menu (Kaiseki is a style of Japanese degustation menu, but is one that is linked to the philosophy of the seasons, an expression of a philosophy of living - the gustatory equivalent of Ikebana.) Facts are not what are required in exploring the intricate corners of Japanese cuisine - philosophy and sensation are. If art students were required to pass "organic virtuosity" classes, the metaphor might be more apt.

    I lightly use the pre-med metaphor to excuse what the internists of Japanese dining will recognize as my offenses, gaffes, and embarrassments. I aim for a C+, passing, if lacking much distinction.

    Matsumoto as a restaurant space is reminiscent of a pleasantly proportioned and designed neighborhood restaurant with a color scheme emphasizing gray and plum. Its decor is not much different from Chicago's reliably excellent Katsu, but not comparable to those seductive Japanese restaurants that specialize in "Sushi and the City," such as Japonais. The decor at Matsumoto may confuse those who see high-end restaurants as places where architects display their craft. How often does one consume a $150 banquet with wooden pull-apart chopsticks? There may have been gold leaf on the sashimi, but not on the utensils.

    Throughout the meal we were educated by the charming Chiyomo and her assistant, our beloved server (and superb English-speaker) Suziko. Both were somewhat startled (at least the matter was raised several times) that we had prepared for the most authentic Japanese cuisine (what that means is a subject for professional authentologists). Without our two guides our experience would have been pallid and my confusion would have been disordered, not compellingly mysterious.

    This is a chef who embraces his art passionately. The chef arrived at 11:00 a.m. to prepare our menu. He must have whirled and dashed in the kitchen to construct our four hour dinner. The soy sauce is made in-house (although, at least, for our banquet, the wasabi was not). Our sake, Junmai Ginjo, a gift from the owner, was a smooth as a Japanese river stone, rice water in a velvet glove. While I love the more pungent sakes, Ginjo is from highly polished rice (30%, I believe), and is as polished a liquid as I have tasted aside from certain rare Grand Crus.

    The menu:

    1) Oyster Shooter with quail egg in a soy broth
    2) Squid innards, salt and sake
    3) Sea Cucumber Liver with Mountain Potato mash
    4) Seaweed in a sour liquid
    5) Clam with dried bonito flakes
    6) Assorted Sashimi
    7) Broth with Shimeji mushrooms
    8) Crab with a soybean (yuba) skin with Namatake mushrooms
    9) Grilled salmon with pickled lotus root and pepper, and egg squares
    10) Braised duck with green onion bundles
    11) Fried sea urchin on fried noodles
    12) Oysters with red miso and green onions
    13) Geoduck clams (mirugai) in a lightly sour sauce with carrot and cucumber
    14) Assorted sushi
    15) Fruit soup

    These images do not begin to do justice to the complexity of tastes. My most vocal complaint is the amount of food. But the time we reached course 13, doing justice to these creations proved impossible. I know that to take sushi home for lunch is a culinary crime, but not to do so would be a crime against all that my mother taught me, rather too well (Eat! Eat! People are starving in New Orleans!).

    The moment of truth was the presentation of the first courses, five jewels, each in their own glass, and each confronting this American with the recognizing that my culinary map has many gaps: I am Magellan with clean and open hands. This tray as visual display could have been a creation of Charlie Trotters or the other American chefs of the age, influenced, like Picasso by foreign climes. The texture, however, was not for an American chef to imitate. Ultimately tastes are building blocks - sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and (some say) umami, a savory taste intensifier. However, textures are not universals, but tied to the very idea of what edibility is. Consuming these exquisite starters forced me to confront textures that seemed just wrong, but in their disturbing impropriety forced a reconsideration of the possibility of food itself.

    The oyster shooter, the first starter, was, to Western tongues, the most conventional of the five. A perfect fresh oyster floating in a miso jus, nudged by a raw quail egg. Americans do not need to be told the arousing properties of oysters, and any viewer of the brilliant 1985 film Tampopo knows what a raw egg can do. We had just started, and already the bed beckons.

    The second cup proved a different species altogether. I don't know which part of the squid was at our service, but eating this innards was like approaching a cup of chewy, live anchovies in a thickened and salty liquor. Were I expecting Western cuisine, this would be an ouch! moment, but I am a novitiate searching for truth. I can not pretend that I will pair this with cereal - it will never be my comfort food - but I will think of it long after my Cheerios are soggy with soy milk.

    The third dish was the most challenging of the evening, sea cucumber liver in a mountain potato (yam) puree. Imagine me: I thought that I would be able to hold to the potato while being challenged by that liver. The potato was a golden, slimy mucilage that at first taste reminded this Yankee of boiled okra without any of its charms. I couldn't finish this dish which left me bereft of the full range of what chef Matsumoto can be. I remain an accidental tourist. But that sea cucumber liver wasn't half bad.

    Seaweed in sour liquid was velvet threads soup. A cocktail of Spanish moss is no Martini, but its texture, bolstering a sweet sourness, is something to consider. The texture of this dish will return whenever I trek through a southern swamp.

    The tray ended with clam with dried bonito flakes. The clam was properly chewy, the liquid sweetish, and the flakes added an singular crispiness that made the chewiness seem a reproach to the softness and the crackliness of so much western cuisine.

    The sashimi, sprinked with gold flakes, was to be reminded of the potential of Japanese cuisine as known in the west. Each fish was magically above its peak of freshness (fish that would become fresh tomorrow), and each was constructed with accompaniments as to be its own work of art - toro, scallop, salmon, flounder, squid and a creamy sweet shrimp. This was perfection, but by raising the bar made so much other sashimi seem like yesterday's meal.

    Course seven was essence of soup: a miso broth, flavored with Shimeji mushrooms, white fish (according to JeffB: escolar). In each earthenware tea kettle, was a rosy star of wheat gluten (fu, queijo explains). I have picked and eating mushrooms for decade, but I learned how the hidden heart of a mushroom tastes. This deceptively modest soup was a religious experience.

    Crab with tofu skin (yuba) and salmon roe, nametake mushrooms and mountain potato puree was a dish that proved more accommodating that I might have expected. While the textures were still somewhat novel, by two hours into the meal my understanding was beginning to dawn, facilitated by the most elegant sake. My gaijin skin was slowly shedding. The ovals of crab were complimented by the range of savory and deep flavors and intriguing textures, making each bite an essay of possibility. It was like a Trotter's dish as passed through a cultural mirror.

    Course nine was grilled salmon with pickled lotus root and pepper and egg squares. JeffB points out that his salmon was a bit overcooked. Mine was perfect in the center, but slightly dry on the edges. This course was perhaps the most conventional dish of the evening (excluding the dovine sushi). Its glory was the presentation, cemented by a lotus root that resembled a slice of trompe d'oil Swiss Cheese. The squares of yellow and white egg were so quiet and discrete that one could hardly imagine that they harbored any of those fats that have excluded eggs from breakfast tables.

    I adore duck, and for many years were drawn to the inevitable main course canard until I duck became a cliche as it was smothered each fruit in the orchard. But tonight my passion was reborn. This duck was cooked in a golden crown set atop an elegant tabletop stove heated by hot rocks. Here it was shiitake that gave flavor to the broth. Five pieces of duck surrounded fasces of green onion. I experienced perfection as the duck was perfumed from outside and from within. The texture of these bites was beyond compare. And not a fruit to be seen.

    Course eleven was boiled black triangles of dough filled with pressed fried sea urchin, crab, and salmon. Perhaps the filling was not as glorious as some of the dishes and some liquid accompaniment would have helped, but the arrangement in shape was striking as it sat upon thin, budding noodles that had a crispness unlike any I have tasted.

    By the time that the oyster with red miso arrived, I was slowing. The size of portions is a matter that Matsumoto might wish to review as smaller plates benefits both diners and owners. This was another course cooked at the table. The oysters were powerfully sweet and pungent while bathed a subtle soy sauce with green onions. My final oyster remained on my plate but I miss it.

    Course thirteen might have been more memorable had I more capacity. Here was a plate cleanser from another culinary planet. Geoduck clams (mirugai) sat a bowl of purest ice water with cucumbers and carrots giving color and crunch. If one did not leave refreshed, one was but half a diner.

    Finally a gigantic platter of sushi with some exquisite vegetable carvings. I was now unable to appreciate the freshness of the dish (and the size of the offering was a gift from the chef), but saved for the following lunch, I cannot recall fresher fish.

    We reached dessert, an aftermath that was a final palate cleanser. Grapes, kiwi, strawberries, black beans were served in a super-sized martini glass filled with some of the sweetest but lightest syrup than a human could prepare. There is no comparison to a classically trained pastry chef, but fortunately this light ending never tried. My tongue was ready for a second dinner, a challenge that my poor stomach could not abide.

    No meal must reach perfection, or we could just stop eating. However, Matsumoto provides a level of dining that demands the attention of every chef, every gourmet, and any one who thinks about food.

    Last night we five were the only diners at Matsumoto. If this grand, newly opened restaurant is as quiet in October, culinary Chicago will have lost its way.

    When I visit glittering Masa in the opulent Time-Warner Center, Chef Masayoshi Takayama will have a high bar to meet the brilliance of this simple kitchen in the deepest heart of ethnic Chicago.

    Matsumoto Restaurant
    3800 West Lawrence Avenue
    Chicago
    773-267-1555

    Morimoto
    723 Chestnut Street
    Philadelphia
    215-413-9070
  • Post #5 - August 30th, 2005, 6:42 pm
    Post #5 - August 30th, 2005, 6:42 pm Post #5 - August 30th, 2005, 6:42 pm
    Course eleven was boiled black triangles of dough filled with pressed fried sea urchin, crab, and salmon. "


    They were actually a paste of whitefish, salmon and sea urchin wrapped in seaweed and deep fried.

    Also the fish in the mushroom broth was fluke. More specifically, it is enkawa, the muscle around the fin of hirame. The same cut as in Erik M's post here
  • Post #6 - August 30th, 2005, 6:50 pm
    Post #6 - August 30th, 2005, 6:50 pm Post #6 - August 30th, 2005, 6:50 pm
    And so our prismatic portrait of this meal continues...

    7. Arun Sampanthavivat

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    Some smart-aleck wrote not too long ago about how some new restaurant was practically guaranteed the top spot on Chicago magazine's list of the 20 best restaurants in town, just because of its pedigree, which boasted two of the most visible and talked-about chefs in town, Roland Liccioni and Arun Sampanthavivat. In other words, the establishment magazine was anointing an establishment restaurant from two establishment chefs, is what this guy was basically saying. And thus did the tight little food community stay tight-- and little.

    The irony of this, of course, is that calling Arun part of the establishment by itself calls into question the very idea of an establishment. Love his place or think it's wildly overrated, there's no denying that his ascendancy is a triumph for the idea of global cuisine-- and a shattering of the old ideas of what constituted haute cuisine. 25 or so years ago, when the most popular dish in town was Louis Szathmary's Armour-plated beef wellington, he opened a little restaurant in an obscure, probably scary part of the city, and devoted his energies to showing that his native cuisine could be as flavorful, as complex, as artful, and (that ultimate validator) as expensive as any in the world. And to the enormous credit of many hundreds of Chicagoans with discerning taste buds and expense accounts, they took him up on it, overcame their obvious reservations, and made reservations for such bizarre things as meat dishes containing coconut milk and fish sauce (it's got what? How the hell do you ferment a fish? Isn't that called rotting?)

    My question is, will people do the same someday for this dish?

    This-- admittedly gorgeous, but very alien-- is the crab tofu, with tofu skin, in round 2 of the mountain potato or yam porridge-like stuff. This time the stuff was warm, savory with little rust-colored mushrooms and salmon roe. The texture was less off-putting, the subtle flavor of crab and salty roe was likable, and yet-- I could not make this dish come together for me. Take a slice of tempura maki and put it in warm runny Malt-O-Meal and then wish for them to cohere into a single balanced and logical dish-- but they didn't, for me. Not only the dish itself but the language it was speaking in remained alien to me.

    Yet I cannot dismiss the possibility that the fault was mine, rather than the dish's. The question is, are people adventurous enough to try such things often enough to find out if they can like it, ever? More to the point, are they adventurous enough to venture up to Lawrence Avenue and give Matsumoto the chance they once gave Arun? Or has the globalization of the upscale downtown restaurant's idea of cuisine paradoxically made customers less willing to escape the cocoon of the upscale parts of town?

    GAF mentioned that there was a disconnect between the food, which was prepared on a level comparable, at least, to any fine restaurant in the city, and the setting and accoutrements of the restaurant, which are pleasant and upscale but in the sense of a better than average Chinese restaurant charging $12.95 for General Tso's Chicken, not in the sense of Japonais, Le Lan or Shanghai Terrace, Asian-influenced downtown restaurants in a similar price range. And Koreatown on Lawrence is no River North or West Town, clearly, on a hipness scale. Should decor and location matter?

    We know that the party line LTHForum answer is no, as it was at Chowhound-- of course, we all say, a $5.95 meal often blows away a $25.95 one for taste and originality. But this wasn't a $5.95 meal. And if theoretically, we all credit the owners for putting their money into, as GAF said, fresher than fresh fish and the like, in actuality the instinct that wants a setting as theatrically clever and dramatic and upscale as the food at these prices is hard to overcome. Or if not a Vivo-type setting, maybe a Disneyland Tokyo version of Old Japan, tatami mats (though heaven knows I was glad to have a real chair for the four hours) and the kind of geisha-style service T.R. Reid talks about on one of these Splendid Table shows, when he eats at the kind of high roller place where you have to have an intoduction to get a reservation and the bill is sent to your secretary afterwards so that nothing so sordid as money sullies the evening.

    I don't know that I really wanted that, compared to what we had, which was the tremendously friendly and homey attention of our hostesses. But it is one reason why I wonder if Matsumoto will be an impossible restaurant, in search of a clientele that doesn't exist, at least in quantity-- the people who will treasure authenticity which occasionally baffles them, and overlook the lack of some of the other compensating factors that assure you that whether or not the food tasted good, at least the decor looked like it did.

    8. The 10:40 Number

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    There's a Broadway tradition called the 10:40 number-- a rousing musical number scheduled about 20 to 30 minutes before the end of the show, to wake everyone up for the finale and make sure they're in a good mood as they exit the show deciding whether to tell everyone they loved it or it stank.

    In tasting menus, the equivalent is the piece of red meat that arrives just when you've had about enough of spoons of cryogenic Wheaties in a fennel plasma state and want some real food, goddamit. There wasn't any red meat in this meal but the salmon served this purpose, leading up to the real showstopper...

    9. Duck In A Box

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    Another reminder of Moto, this specially designed cooking box delivered to the table, one for each of us. GAF has hymned this dish so for once I think I'll let pictures and someone else speak for it; the fact that I took and posted so many will, I think, speak for itself as far as my reaction-- and interaction-- with this dish goes.

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    ...to be concluded...
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  • Post #7 - August 31st, 2005, 10:07 am
    Post #7 - August 31st, 2005, 10:07 am Post #7 - August 31st, 2005, 10:07 am
    10. Satiety

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    As our meal moved into its fourth hour we were, frankly, worn out-- if there is one thing I would say against this gluttonous feast and the shower of riches that our hosts had provided for us, it was that unlike the best degustations I've had, this one didn't display an almost paranormal sense of what our level of fullness would be and what would be the perfect food item to enhance, rather than merely add to, our degree of stuffeditude.

    So at this point, when we should have been winding down, instead we got one of the more filling dishes of the night, these nori "ravioli" with a kind of sea urchiny paste inside them, which you could lightly dust with either a blend of salts (my preferred) or herbs.

    These were followed by the dish that I think would have worked better after the duck-- a true palate cleanser and refresher, a bowl of ice water in which sat slices of geoduck clam and a few vegetables. The idea of using seafood as a palate cleanser rather than, say, ginger or sorbet was one of the most interesting ideas of the night; seafood tastes are normally the kind of thing you cleanse your palate of, you'd think it made no more sense than brushing your teeth with garlic, and yet this was effervescently light, ethereal, completely effective. (Alas, partly due to my semi-stupor state I didn't get good pictures of this or the next dish.)

    This was followed by another dish that I think none of us wanted to see at this late stage in the game: a kind of oyster stew, which was simply far too robust, too ripe in flavors, too thick and hearty in texture, for that point in the evening.

    And then came...

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    By this point the disconnect between our ability to eat and the largesse we were being treated to was almost comical-- they might as well have brought us a Thanksgiving turkey as this giant platter of sushi, and in fact half or more of it went home with us. But it is a tribute to their hospitality and gratitude to Cathy in particular for her work in steering non-Asians to the restaurant in the last week or two, and also to their extraordinarily high standards which would not have allowed them to keep the fish around for another day, that they offered it to us in such quantity (and with such artistry) at this point in the meal.

    10. Soft landing

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    Finally, a last dish that seemed exactly appropriate to our state-- a simple, delicious fruit cocktail. Palate, and to some extent wallet, cleansed by one of the best and most thought-provoking meals of my life-- the thoughts it most provoked being: what am I looking for in a meal at this price range?

    10. The Impossible Matsumoto

    I read an article in The New Yorker 8 or 10 years ago about a novelist who had written an impossible novel-- an epic, Tolstoyan account of life between the wars, aristocratic and cosmic and philosophical and dense and resolutely uncommercial. The problem was that he had a temperament to match-- asked to cut 50,000 words he turned in a manuscript 100 pages longer; prodded to make the speaking voices of his characters more easily distinguishable, he returned with even longer speeches about the nature of man in the cosmos spoken between two Cockney privates in the trenches. His book was a failure at the ground-floor level of commercial acceptability, which was meeting certain basic criteria of naturalism in speech and action, shared alike by everyone from Saul Bellow to Dan Brown; yet the author of the piece suspected at the same time that the book was a work of genius all the same, and that it was the world of publishers and readers, not this author, who were being difficult and stubborn in refusing to open their conception of what a good book was-- to admit this potentially great one.

    That's how I feel about Matsumoto in certain ways-- without question this was one of the great meals of my life, yet the greatest things about were the things that challenged me the most; the sashimi was lovely, but I can have that elsewhere; what captivates me, what fascinates me now, are the things that resisted my attempts to understand and love them, the briny, offputting cocktails of pond scum and invertebrates, the mysterious combinations of tofu and yam goo and crab balancing and working in some way that remains as opaque to me as a conversation spoken in Japanese.

    And without question this is one of the great new restaurants in the city (it goes without saying that it will deserve to make a certain magazine's list of such things next year more than all but one or two of the more commercially savvy spots that actually will), yet the very fact that, like that author I read about, it's incapable of completely meeting the commercial idea of what a great (aka expensive) restaurant should be, in decor, in table accoutrements (the cheap disposable chopsticks GAF mentioned), in incongruously homey service (not in any way to slight the immensely warm and friendly welcome we received), mean that some people will write it off as amateur night, as an average ethnic restaurant getting ideas above its station, before they ever have a chance to discover the artistry and challenges and, yes, authenticity coming from the kitchen. Alas, I fear that Matsumoto may be so authentic that it will never learn to fake sincerity well enough to be the hit it deserves, on food alone, to be.

    Image

    * * *

    Many many thanks to Cathy2 for championing this restaurant and tenaciously ensuring that we got the real, 100% traditional meal. As noted, I strongly recommend dropping her name, referencing our meal and the others previously written about, and doing whatever else you need to do to ensure that you get the same sort of treatment, though it's clear that most of the apprehension about serving such a meal to non-Asians is already gone.

    Matsumoto Restaurant
    3800 West Lawrence Avenue
    Chicago, IL 60625
    Tel: 773/267-1555
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  • Post #8 - September 1st, 2005, 4:07 pm
    Post #8 - September 1st, 2005, 4:07 pm Post #8 - September 1st, 2005, 4:07 pm
    I've finally finished consuming and digesting this thread.

    Truly one for the ages. Thank you.

    Best,
    Michael
  • Post #9 - September 10th, 2005, 10:57 am
    Post #9 - September 10th, 2005, 10:57 am Post #9 - September 10th, 2005, 10:57 am
    On Thursday I had a $100, very traditional kaiseki at Matsumoto. I hadn't intended to eat any hundred-dollar meals during this visit to Chicago, but after reading the encomiums on this thread I couldn't resist. My impression is that my meal was quite different from the one described by Mike G. and GAF, though I did get a sashimi plate, and one other dish was the same (try and guess which one before I reveal it below). Unfortunately, I didn't write down everything, but I'll try and remember what I can.

    The meal started with an “appetizer plate,” holding the following:

    1. An oyster in a shot glass filled with vinegar.
    2. Two small pieces of tsugugai: this is a type of clam which was cooked with soy sauce, and very tasty. When I told Chiyomo that this was had been my favorite of the dishes on the plate, she said (as best I can remember) “Oh, you like chewy and strong flavors! The others were traditional Japanese style.” (Having tried to comport myself as a true lover of authenticity, I was slightly embarrassed at hearing this.)
    3 and 4. Four small “rolls” that looked like miniature sushi rolls, though they didn’t taste like it. Two were “crab tofu” (whether that’s tofu with crab mixed in, or imitation crab made of tofu, I don’t know) wrapped in tofu skin; I don’t remember what the other two were.
    5. The infamous sea cucumber liver and mountain potato puree. I actually liked this, much to Chiyomo’s amazement (she told me that even some Japanese don’t like it); I didn’t find anything gross about the texture. Chiyomo also told me that mountain potatos are traditionally regarded as male potency-enhancing.

    That was it for the appetizer plate; all the courses after this were served separately.

    6. Assorted sashimi: toro, flounder, scallop, squid, and sweet shrimp. While not on the level of Masa’s sushi, this was very good, with delicate flavors, and enjoyable contrasts in texture among the various types of fish.

    7. Soup of “soybean skin,” apparently pureed; also pureed seafood. Again, the flavor was delicate, so much so that at first it struck me as bland, but it gradually grew on me, and I finished the bowl with pleasure. In fact, I’d say that “lightness” and “delicacy” were the main characteristics of the kaiseki as a whole.

    8. Daikon (Japanese radish) with a red miso (iirc) glaze, and two slices of duck on top. This was probably my favorite dish of the meal. The daikon, one large piece, was cooked until it was soft, and its delicate flavor of the daikon combined very well with the more assertive flavors of the glaze and duck.

    9. Small balls of some sort of seafood (crab, maybe) coated with very thin, very crispy, sticks of multicolored Japanese noodles, so they looked like chestnuts, and with a dried, green Japanese seasoning whose name I forget sprinkled on top. This may have been the first time Chiyomo saw this dish; she was very impressed with its appearance, and wanted to make sure that I was too. And it tasted very good as well.

    10. Large balls of sticky rice stuffed with a mixture of meat and shrimp, in a broth with lots of seaweed and some teeny-tiny mushrooms. This was my least favorite dish of the evening, and the only one I didn’t finish. It struck me as bland rather than delicate, and didn’t improve as I ate more.

    11. A whole ayu (a river fish, not found in the U.S. but very popular in Japan, as Chiyomo explained to me), about eight inches long, grilled (I think) with a miso-flavored coating. Good, though the coating was very salty. On the same plate was a piece of lotus root; also two sweet beans covered with tiny crunchy yellow spheres which I was later told were like rice crackers, which were a delightful surprise.

    12. Crab, a thin slice of red daikon, octopus and asparagus, arranged in a stack, resting on a pool of plum miso sauce. The highlight of this dish was the very fresh asparagus.

    13. The next and final course was scheduled to be the dessert. Suziko asked me if I wanted dessert now, or wanted to add another course, for an additional $10-20. Unlike Mike G. and GAF, I wasn’t at all stuffed, so I decided to go for an extra course. This turned out to be a mistake. What I received was a breaded Spanish mackerel marinated in sweet and sour sauce. While it wasn’t bad in itself, it was very heavy compared to the rest of the meal, and the overpowering flavor of the sweet and sour sauce didn’t harmonize at all well with the other courses.

    14. Finally came dessert: miniature white and yellow mochi (rice cakes) and sweet black beans in a light syrup, with small pieces of a “green water vegetable” sprinkled on top, served chilled in a large martini glass. This was delicious and refreshing. The water vegetable had a fascinating texture.

    Overall, while no single dish blew me away (and they were undoubtedly not intended to), the cumulative effect of so many simple but impeccably prepared dishes of different flavors and textures added up to a meal that was more than the sum of its parts. I’ve had multicourse meals (whether they were called “kaiseki” or not) at other fancy Japanese restaurants, including Nobu and Heat, but none of them provided the same sort of experience (which is not to say that those others weren’t good in their own way).

    I agree that it would be a crying shame if Chicago can’t support a restaurant like this. But I have my forebodings. I suspect that the average non-Japanese diner with the budget to spend $85+ on a meal expects something flashier (and I confess this usually includes me). Chiyomo herself was unsure of the viability of the traditional kaiseki: she spoke of it as an experiment, and urged me twice to tell the server my opinion of the meal when I was done, so that if I was unhappy they could consider making changes. If I actually had found the meal too bizarre for my tastes, I would have been in a real dilemma: whether to be honest about my reactions, or soft-pedal them so as to encourage them to continue to serve traditional food. Fortunately, I did like nearly every course.

    Nor were the signs I saw encouraging. I arrived at 6:00 and exited at 7:30: in all that time not a single other customer appeared, except for a family of three who were effusively greeted by the chef and followed him into another room, where they stayed. Whether they were paying customers dining privately or just friends or relatives of the chef stopping by, I don’t know.

    Chiyomo told me that the menu changes daily, depending upon what ingredients are available. She also said that in summer the available ingredients are limited, but in fall and winter they get in more expensive ingredients, such as abalone, king crab, and matsutake mushrooms (a type of mushroom regarded as a great delicacy in Japan). I can’t afford to eat at Matsumoto every time I visit Chicago, but I do want to go back in a couple of months to sample some of these delicacies.
    Last edited by Adam Stephanides on September 12th, 2005, 8:18 am, edited 1 time in total.
  • Post #10 - September 11th, 2005, 9:56 pm
    Post #10 - September 11th, 2005, 9:56 pm Post #10 - September 11th, 2005, 9:56 pm
    Adam,

    Thanks for the report. Everyone whose reported has had meals with very little overlap, which is in keeping with Matsumoto's standards of a menu developed every day. For a chef this really keeps them on creative toes and keeps us an interested audience.

    The real intended audience for Matsumoto is the Japanese community and the deeper pockets of the Japanese ex-pat business community. Our bumping into it a few weeks ago, which has encouraged a string of visits has been manna from Heaven. I believe they never dreamed there would be interest from non-Japanese in kaiseki dinners. Except for JeffB's initial foray, I haven't heard anyone whose visit coincided with a Japanese contingent. I do want them to succeed, but I wonder if they are getting the support from the Japanese community; which should be their bread and butter.

    If you arrived at 6 and left at 7:30, then by Charlie Trotter standards you had your meal at warp speed. Last year when I dined at Charlie Trotter's kitchen table, I had an opportunity to speak to the waiters and chefs. They have by design a course every 20 minutes, which is slowed or speeded up by the activity at the table. If the grouping is enjoying themselves, then they are on the 20 minute or so timer. If there is little conversation, then they up the pace to keep the action moving. By CT standards, you would have been dining for at least 3 hours. Do you think if the pace was slower at Matsumoto, then the quantity of food presented would have been less taxing?

    When I was at CT's, there were courses where I would have preferred more especially as there was so little you had to be concious of every bite to fully experience it. Whereas at Matsumoto there was enough to experience each item without having to appreciate the one and only morsel as I experienced at CT's. While at one level I understand the comments to maybe reconsider the quantity offered for each course, though I don't want portions reduced where I have to treat each bite as my last.

    I expect to go back to learn how Matsumoto has evolved as well.

    Best regards,
    Cathy2

    "You'll be remembered long after you're dead if you make good gravy, mashed potatoes and biscuits." -- Nathalie Dupree
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  • Post #11 - September 14th, 2005, 10:22 am
    Post #11 - September 14th, 2005, 10:22 am Post #11 - September 14th, 2005, 10:22 am
    Hi,
    I'm new to this Forum, but couldn't resist to make a comment.
    I'm Japanese and very pleased to hear about Matsumoto.

    Matsumoto-san and I are good friend as well as Chiyo-san and Tozuka-san.
    My family love Matsumoto-san's food.

    I will let them know about this Forum and comment and either myself or someone from the restaurant would get back to you.

    Japanese ex-pat are much fewer than a decade ago since many financial institution have backed to Japan. That is the reason why many Japanese restaurants owned by Japanese in downtown Chicago closed. Yanase, Suntory and some others. Hopefully, there are enough to go to Matsumoto and make them survive.

    If you have any question, please ask and I will do my best.

    Shu
  • Post #12 - September 14th, 2005, 10:49 am
    Post #12 - September 14th, 2005, 10:49 am Post #12 - September 14th, 2005, 10:49 am
    Welcome Shu,

    I don't know if Chiyo has been reading these comments, however she does know we have been commenting about it here.

    Thanks for the explanation of the shifting economics of the Japanese ex-pat community. I had been wondering about that.

    Look forward to your future contributions.

    Regards,
    Cathy2

    "You'll be remembered long after you're dead if you make good gravy, mashed potatoes and biscuits." -- Nathalie Dupree
    Facebook, Twitter, Greater Midwest Foodways, Road Food 2012: Podcast
  • Post #13 - September 14th, 2005, 1:11 pm
    Post #13 - September 14th, 2005, 1:11 pm Post #13 - September 14th, 2005, 1:11 pm
    LTH,

    Had the pleasure of Trixie-Pea and m'th'su's company at Matsumoto last evening. We opted for the upper level Kaiseki and, for those who do not wish to read the entirety of my rather lengthy report, each component of our meal was wonderful.

    Trixie-Pea brought Roederer Estates Anderson Valley Brut champagne, I brought Hawk in the Heavens sake and Mike, Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13 year old. We drank in that sequence and it was the perfect order, with the rye, and it's slightly sweet and light vanilla note, complimenting the later courses surprisingly well. Glassware was perfect, drink specific for each type and the whiskey glasses, which were slightly convex on the bottom, rocked slightly for a pleasing effect.

    We were given a choice of rooms and opted for the understated, and comfortable, smaller of the two private rooms. Service, in every aspect, was perfect. Easily equaling, and in many cases besting, top tier restaurants. We were served 11 courses, with a bonus 12th. My descriptions don't do justice.

    1) Bonito w/Satoimo: 4-golf ball sized slightly dense, fairly neutral flavored potato balls covered in lightly smoky bonito shavings. Serving portion was, seemingly, disproportionately large. I was worried when right out of the box we were served large, mildly bland food, and thought ugh-oh, here comes the 'American' version, but this was not the case. Also, given the complete spectrum of the meal a neutral start with a hint of sea, from bonito, was spot-on.

    2) 5-small courses
    a) Sea Urchin w/wasabi and smelt roe. Smooth urchin w/wasabi accented perfectly by the 'bite' from vinegar and pop from smelt roe.
    b) Mountain Potato w/sea cucumber stomach. Vicious strong sea flavor. Aggressive flavor, but perfectly complimented. Fujiko said the sea cucumber stomach was one of the more expensive ingredients used in our meal.
    c) Seaweed w/sweet and sour sauce and salmon roe. Razor thin slice of daikon between layers.
    d) Roe of River Fish (Ayu) in a decorated cucumber cup. Strong fish flavor, quite salty. Very good in the small portion offered.
    e) Squid entrails marinated with salt and sake. Very brown sauce/liquid tasted almost chocolaty to me, was squid 'guts' pureed with uni and soy.

    3) Sashimi course. Sanma, Blue Mackerel sashimi, on a composed sashimi plate, was possibly the best bite of the evening. The Sanma was topped by a ring of octopus. Ika (squid) was quite wonderful, with a very pleasing texture. Hirame (halibut) delicate flavor. Ama-ebi (sweet shrimp), sweet of-the-sea flavor, served along with the head, which we indelicately mined. Maguro (tuna) was more on the order of Chutoro (medium fatty tuna) with a rich, luxurious mouth-feel. Hiragai (Japanese scallop) had a markedly different texture, slightly dense, than what I've had in the past. The scallops light flavor complimented the denser texture.

    4) Clear broth w/ yuba (tofu skin) sea urchin/shrimp dumplings and Shimeji mushrooms. Light, clear broth perfectly served as a refreshing, palate cleansing course.

    5) Fried Kinkin Snapper from Hokkaido in sauce w/Nameko mushroom, bonito and shredded white of spring onion. Crisp crunchy fin/tail contrasting perfectly with soft flesh and Nameko mushrooms.

    6) Crab maki style with sea urchin and shrimp flavor egg served along side mildly spicy roasted pepper and eggplant. Served with two dredging salts, dried umeboshi/shiso and seaweed/salt/sesame.

    7) Hot Pot on individual live fire burners. Both fresh and fried tofu, intensely flavored sardine ball, Shiitaki mushroom, spring onion, Fu (bean cake) in a fragrant fish broth.

    8 Mizu Tako (water octopus) from Hokkaido with asparagus, beet and fresh crab in an umiboshi/vinegar/beet/miso sauce. One of the highlights of the evening, the sauce, with it's lightly sweet notes, being so delicious I found myself wishing I had a spoon.

    9) Ika (squid) filled with rice, black caviar and salmon roe. Squid, once again, was of a slightly different texture/flavor, and was complimented nicely by the two types of roe.

    10) Unagi (fresh water eel) with Shiitaki mushroom, shrimp, egg, soybean skin and Mountain Potato. Evocative of Chawan Mushi, but slightly brothy. Wonderful, full flavor, slightly oily from the Unagi. Very nice mouth-feel.

    11) Yokan, red bean cake w/egg white and a sweetened chestnut. Bean cake was quite dense with a neutral 'interesting' flavor. This course served as dessert along with green tea.

    As we sipped our tea, in the afterglow that comes from a great meal, coupled with interesting conversation, Isao introduced Matsumoto. Without forethought the three of us stood up and clapped in appreciation. At this point we had switched from sake to the Van Winkle Family Rye and offered both Isao and Matsumoto a drink, which they accepted. Fujiko accepted a drink as well and in short order the 6 of us were sitting around the table in lively conversation.

    As wonderful as our meal was, and, believe me, it was tremendous, the 45-minutes to an hour we spent in conversation with Isao, Matsumoto and Fujiko equaled. Just a short note about Fujiko, her patient, informed, straight forward approach, coupled with her willingness to explain in detail to three inquisitive customers, contributed greatly to our experience.

    Conversation turned to Matsumoto's friendship with Katsu and I mentioned Katsu's wife's, Haruko, love of natto. Matsumoto said he did not have natto in-house, but decided to make us a dish using red miso.

    12) Dote Yaki, Fresh oyster with red miso, white scallion, shimeji mushroom. The thick miso cooking paste, a mix of red miso, yellow egg, sugar and sake, was rich, intense and nicely complimented by the Van Winkle Rye.

    The three of us spent 4-1/2 hours at Matsumoto, which seemed to go by, retrospectively, in an instant. We then chatted outside Matsumoto for 20-30 minutes not wanting our evening to end.

    Pictures to follow.

    Enjoy,
    Gary
    One minute to Wapner.
    Raymond Babbitt

    Low & Slow
  • Post #14 - September 14th, 2005, 8:48 pm
    Post #14 - September 14th, 2005, 8:48 pm Post #14 - September 14th, 2005, 8:48 pm
    Humble, spontaneous, tactile, traditional, humorous, celebratory, serious, warm, gracious, beautiful, accommodating, surprising, true.

    Writing this post is harder than I thought it would be. Matsumoto as whole, as an experience, struck an emotional chord with me that can only happen when all of the forces of nature and beyond align. Great food and drink, great hosts, great company, great room—yes, yes(!) all of the above, but it was something else that elevated our experience to that of something truly special.

    I don’t know what it was. But it was.

    Just a couple of things to add to G Wiv’s tasting notes:

    G Wiv wrote: Bonito w/Satoimo: 4-golf ball sized slightly dense, fairly neutral flavored potato balls covered in lightly smoky bonito shavings. Serving portion was, seemingly, disproportionately large. I was worried when right out of the box we were served large, mildly bland food, and thought ugh-oh, here comes the 'American' version, but this was not the case. Also, given the complete spectrum of the meal a neutral start with a hint of sea, from bonito, was spot-on.

    Satoimo is known as a taro potato—it’s less starchy than taro root, but more starchy and dense than an Idaho. The liquid in the bottom of the bowl was dashi (kombu kelp and bonito broth), which was lightly thickened by the Satoimo. I also was a little worried about the large portion size…but in the end my fears were unjustified.

    G Wiv wrote: Sea Urchin w/wasabi and smelt roe. Smooth urchin w/wasabi accented perfectly by the 'bite' from vinegar and pop from smelt roe.

    The smelt roe, masago, was flavored with wasabi. The bright green roe you sometimes see used in maki sushi preparations. This was my favorite of the 5 mini-courses. The uni was so sweet and fresh.

    Mountain Potato w/sea cucumber stomach
    Mountain Potato (Yamaimo) I think, did a nice job of neutralizing the intense funk of the Sea Cucumber (namako)stomach. This dish was made up of about a 20 to 1 ratio of tuber goo to slug stomach. I wouldn’t say I loved the taste of this, but I did love eating it—and experiencing a new food texture. To recreate the mouthfeel, I imagine you could throw a bunch of raw okra in the blender, puree until it’s a oozing, slimy mass, then combine it was some runny, cooled cream of wheat. Enjoy!

    Roe of River Fish (Ayu)
    I enjoyed this simple bite very much after the onslaught of sweet, salt and sour from the seaweed dish.

    G Wiv wrote: Squid entrails marinated with salt and sake. Very brown sauce/liquid tasted almost chocolaty to me, was squid 'guts' pureed with uni and soy.

    My notes say that brown sauce was made with pureed squid stomach, salt, and sake. Although, either way, this was surprisingly delicious.

    G Wiv wrote: Sashimi course. Sanma, Blue Mackerel sashimi, on a composed sashimi plate, was possibly the best bite of the evening. The Sanma was topped by a ring of octopus. Ika (squid) was quite wonderful, with a very pleasing texture. Hirame (halibut) delicate flavor. Ama-ebi (sweet shrimp), sweet of-the-sea flavor, served along with the head, which we indelicately mined. Maguro (tuna) was more on the order of Chutoro (medium fatty tuna) with a rich, luxurious mouth-feel. Hiragai (Japanese scallop) had a markedly different texture, slightly dense, than what I've had in the past. The scallops light flavor complimented the denser texture.


    If I had to choose a highlight to the meal, this was it. The fish was beautiful, fresh, and new (to us). As Gary noted, the Sanma sashimi was unbelievable. In a meal of so many stomachs, I found that fact that the Sanma has no stomach mildly amusing. The presentation was great. It was basically the whole fish, expertly broken down, and then artfully reassembled with the head and tail. Mike went so far as to nibble on the carcass as to not waste one precious atom of Sanma. This fish is only in season for a brief time, and apparently not available anywhere else in Chicago. (Run, don’t walk). The rest of the offerings were very good as well, the hiragai and the ika were especially good. The wasabi that we were served (and correct me if I’m wrong) was not fresh, but not powdered either. Rather it was pre-grated, and delicious.

    Fried Kinkin Snapper from Hokkaido
    Fujiko said this fish was rare to see in restaurants, even in Japan.

    Crab maki style with sea urchin and shrimp flavor egg served along side mildly spicy roasted pepper and eggplant. Served with two dredging salts, dried umeboshi/shiso and seaweed/salt/sesame.
    I thought the mild eggplant flesh and spicy chile were great dipped in these interesting salts.

    Hot Pot on individual live fire burners. Both fresh and fried tofu, intensely flavored sardine ball, Shiitake mushroom, spring onion, Fu (bean cake) in a fragrant fish broth.
    Not being a fan of fish meatballs of any sort, I left my sardine balls in my bowl. When Fujiko came to collect our dishes, she wanted to know why I didn’t eat them—but her questioning was not accusatory or defensive. I think she truly wanted to know what we liked and what we didn’t, and why.

    Mizu Tako from Hokkaido with asparagus, beet and fresh crab in an umiboshi/vinegar/beet/miso sauce.
    This really was a spectacular dish. The Mizu Tako was unlike any other octopus I have eaten. The flesh almost had a delicate grain to it—as opposed to the smooth texture you normally have.

    Dote Yaki
    When Matsumoto went back into the kitchen to make another dish, I didn’t know how I was going to eat another bite, that is until he came back with this fragrant oyster-miso stew. Under normal circumstances, I could have eaten this entire thing with a little steamed rice and pickles.
  • Post #15 - September 14th, 2005, 9:41 pm
    Post #15 - September 14th, 2005, 9:41 pm Post #15 - September 14th, 2005, 9:41 pm
    I have little to add to G Wiv and Trixie-Pea's apt and thorough accounts of our most memorable meal, except:

    --Chef Matsumoto is licensed to prepare fugu in 5 Japanese cities.

    --When asked if the restaurant might one day serve fugu, both Chef Matsumoto and Isao enthusiastically said yes--if only fugu were available here.

    --According to Chef Matsumoto, there is a lot of fugu fraud in Asia; unscrupulous chefs frequently prepare and serve imposter blowfish.

    --Isao and Matsumoto have been plotting their domination of the Chicago kaiseki market for four years.

    --Isao once worked as the personal chef of Gerald Ford’s daughter in Vail, Colorado.

    -- A total of three sea creatures in our meal hailed from the waters surrounding Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan: the kinkin snapper, the redundantly named "water octopus" (i.e mizu tako), and the squid, which Fujiko explained were of a smaller species than we are used to, and which may account for the magically resilient yet tender texture these cephalopods possessed.

    --Fujiko memorably described the length of a typical mizu tako, as approximate to her own height, which I would guess to be about 5'3"
  • Post #16 - September 15th, 2005, 7:14 pm
    Post #16 - September 15th, 2005, 7:14 pm Post #16 - September 15th, 2005, 7:14 pm
    trixie-pea wrote:The wasabi that we were served (and correct me if I’m wrong) was not fresh, but not powdered either. Rather it was pre-grated, and delicious.

    Trixie-Pea,

    You are, as usual, absolutely correct, I should have written *real, not fresh. I believe they said it was grown in Washington state, as opposed to Oregon , New Zealand or Japan.

    Enjoy,
    Gary

    * 99.9999% of 'wasabi' consumed is actually horseradish with a dollop of mustard oil and green food coloring. I like 'wasabi' fine, but actual wasabi root, freshly grated if possible, is subtle, delicate, ethereal, some heat, but secondary to flavor. Real wasabi also has a different mouth feel than ersatz wasabi, with ersatz being a smooth paste and real having a slight texture from the small amount of root strands remaining from grating.
    One minute to Wapner.
    Raymond Babbitt

    Low & Slow
  • Post #17 - September 18th, 2005, 1:03 pm
    Post #17 - September 18th, 2005, 1:03 pm Post #17 - September 18th, 2005, 1:03 pm
    LTH,

    Pictures from our, Trixie-Pea, m'th'su, G Wiv, Kaiseki at Matsumoto on 9.13.05.

    For descriptions of individual dishes please see posts in thread.

    Matsumoto
    Image

    Menu 9.13.05
    Image

    Trixie-Pea
    Image

    m'th'su
    Image

    1) Bonito w/Satoimo
    Image

    2) 5-small courses
    Image

    3) Sashimi course
    Image

    Sanma, Blue Mackerel sashimi
    Image

    4) Clear broth w/ yuba (tofu skin) sea urchin/shrimp dumplings and Shimeji mushrooms.
    Image

    5) Fried Kinkin Snapper from Hokkaido in sauce w/Nameko mushroom, bonito and shredded white of spring onion.
    Image

    6) Crab maki style with sea urchin and shrimp flavor egg served along side mildly spicy roasted pepper and eggplant.
    Image

    7) Hot Pot on individual live fire burners.
    Image


    8 Mizu Tako (water octopus) from Hokkaido with asparagus, beet and fresh crab in an umiboshi/vinegar/beet/miso sauce.
    Image

    9) Ika (squid) filled with rice, black caviar and salmon roe.
    Image

    10) Unagi (fresh water eel) with Shiitaki mushroom, shrimp, egg, soybean skin and Mountain Potato.
    Image

    11) Yokan, red bean cake w/egg white and a sweetened chestnut.
    Image

    12) Dote Yaki, Fresh oyster with red miso, white scallion, shimeji mushroom.
    Image

    Matsumoto/Isao
    Image

    Trixie-Pea/Fujiko
    Image

    Matsumoto
    Image

    Squid entrails from course #2
    Image

    Real wasabi
    Image

    Staff meal
    Image

    Additional pictures may be found Here

    A terrific evening and one I hope to repeat in the near future.

    Enjoy,
    Gary
    One minute to Wapner.
    Raymond Babbitt

    Low & Slow
  • Post #18 - September 19th, 2005, 2:47 pm
    Post #18 - September 19th, 2005, 2:47 pm Post #18 - September 19th, 2005, 2:47 pm
    Gary, you've convinced me: it's time to break into my Communion money and make the trip to Matsumoto.
  • Post #19 - September 19th, 2005, 2:57 pm
    Post #19 - September 19th, 2005, 2:57 pm Post #19 - September 19th, 2005, 2:57 pm
    Hey, did they get rid of the "Welcome" smocks already? Nimble.

    OK, it's getting the the point where I doubt anyone can view the images on this thread and question at least Don Matsumoto's skills. I see a rapid evolution going on before our eyes.

    Query whether the evolution happens without the primordial scum pond that is Online Food Forum.

    The crab maki style has me wanting to go back soon.
  • Post #20 - September 20th, 2005, 1:02 pm
    Post #20 - September 20th, 2005, 1:02 pm Post #20 - September 20th, 2005, 1:02 pm
    I wanted to thank Cathy and the rest of LTH for the info on Matsumoto -- I've been lurking for the past year, CH before that. We had the $80 non-traditional menu on Saturday night (Sept 17) and it was a great, really memorable meal. We were a little nervous about having ordered non-traditional -- 3 of us are Korean, another Pilipino, so that's a lot of "taken for granted" fermented food-stuffs and guts between us although on the phone, I'd assume they would think we were non-Asian. (although i didn't make the reservation, maybe my friend left her last name?)

    They gave her 2 options on the phone -- a very traditional and non-traditional "modern japanese menu". Picking the latter, we had 8 or 9 courses -- and they were all really excellent -- I didn't plan on posting so I didn't make a point of committing to memory, sorry...

    1. sardine with pickled vegetable and spicy mayo (excellent, substantial, refreshing start to the meal -- we became really animated with anticipation after this beginning...)
    2. soup with matsutake mushroom (I was very excited about the matsutake although it was a more subtle experience in the soup. From what I've seen, if you grill matsutake whole, it has the texture of string cheese and is supposed to be wonderful. but this soup was great)
    3. can't remember... maybe we went straight to sashimi?
    4. sashimi plate (Incredible fatty tuna, the best, moan-inducing)
    5. pork belly in creamy edomame bath (large pieces of fat literally melted in our mouths -- this was the highlight dish for me...)
    6. hot clam flan (deeply flavorful eggy type of thing with clams that was brought out bubbling in a hot lid)
    7. crunchy fish balls
    8. blow-fish gel with vinegar/soy (agar type of dish -- palate cleansing, reminds me of the Korean agar/petri dish stuff my mom eats)
    9. asian custard with red beans -- (very satisfying, subtle sweetness)

    I'm sure I'm forgetting something, all apologies for the less than subtle non-culinary descriptions. I never thought I'd actually post here but the meal was just so good that I felt like I should register and give at least a hasty report. We've experienced other degustation menus like TRU, but Matsumoto was really just a standout, and totally unique. A friend of mine was saying that (Iron Chef) Morimoto in Philly has a great 8 course for $85 but it sounds relatively Westernized -- i.e. Wasabi tiramisu, etc. Anyway, we hurriedly thanked the chef and staff after 2 1/2 hours, completely satitated and stuffed and feeling like we were keeping them since we were the only ones there at 10:20 pm. In retrospect, I think we should have taken more time to tell the chef how much we enjoyed the meal. I hope this restaurant thrives -- it's a great addition to Chicago's slightly pretentious (I'm exercising restraint) haute cuisine scene. thanks again to the forum for all your help over the past year and a half.
  • Post #21 - September 24th, 2005, 4:35 pm
    Post #21 - September 24th, 2005, 4:35 pm Post #21 - September 24th, 2005, 4:35 pm
    There isn’t really much more I can add to the above accolades for Matsumoto. A dinner here borders on a spiritual experience as it should since kaiseki is historically the light pre-tea ceremony meal taken in by Buddhist monks. In Japan, it is often thought of as the ultimate cuisine. This is as close to monkdom (obviously unearned) as I’ll ever get in my life.
    I would specifically like to mention one of the many highlights of our recent meal, that being his sashimi. Everything from his chu toro to the squid had characteristics that I never knew existed in fish. The squid took on a wonderful creaminess and lush richness. The chu toro was velvety and absolutely pristine. But best of all, though, was the horse mackerel (aji). When at other places, mackerel never seems to be a serious choice because of its lack of refinement. It’s going to be extremely difficult to enjoy eating at my usually sushi haunts after eating fish of this quality.
    I have been waiting for a restaurant of this integrity to come to Chicago for some time. The combination of textures and flavors in every dish I tried truly made sense. I felt that I wasn’t being used as a lab rat for experimentation, which is so often the case in many progressive high-end establishments. I’m not here to insinuate that many great Chicago restaurants don’t have their moments of harmonious brilliance in specific dishes, I just feel that Matsumoto’s ability to capture the essence of the combinations of flavors and textures was total. He gave me a sense as though his offerings were age-old, well-tested recipes and I was nothing more than a child being shown a few basic lessons. I was honored.
    Matsumoto-san has elevated the bar substantially for both Asian cuisine as well as fine dining here in Chicago. I put this up there with one of my all-time favorite dining experiences anywhere. Bravo!
  • Post #22 - November 7th, 2005, 11:49 am
    Post #22 - November 7th, 2005, 11:49 am Post #22 - November 7th, 2005, 11:49 am
    I took the Lovely Dining Companion to Matsumoto on Saturday evening, a little apprehensive about the experience: what texturally, olfactorily, or culturally outre item would I be forced to eat to maintain face? Indeed, the notion that I as gaijin—outsider—would even think about saving face is precisely the kind of cultural inversion that makes dining like this so challenging and so much fun. But I get ahead of myself.

    By way of introduction, I recount LDC's conversation yesterday with her mother about the meal. Her mother was born and raised in Kobe but has lived here now for about 40 years. She lives in Torrance, a city within the greater Los Angeles area that has a large Japanese population. In any event, LDC explains to her mother that I had taken her out for a kaiseki meal for her birthday. Her mother says, "Oh, what kind?" Hello? What kind? What kind of a question is that? we chortle to each other. And then her mother explains: in LA, it seems, kaiseki has been adopted. Or perhaps the better word is transmogrified. "American" restaurants, she says, have adopted the concept and are now advertising kaiseki meals. Using the word kaiseki, no less. One can't help but wonder about cultural context and symbolism of the Japanese kaiseki.

    Given the extraordinary and detailed reporting from others about the food, I will not go discuss our individual dishes except to say that many of the things that have been described by one or another poster were delivered to us as well.

    Our fears about the effect of Phil Vettel's review proved unrealized. We worried about fighting off hordes of thrill-seekers. In the event, a table of three sat down just before us and a table of four followed us. (Our reservation was for 7:30 and for the "traditional" meal.) As we were wending our way through the meal, about 9 or so, another group of four arrived and were escorted to the private room. That was it. No screaming hordes, no crowds, no pullulating throngs of kaiseki aficionados. Matsumoto is for most of us, I imagine, an alien experience to a greater or lesser degree. It is the symbolically rich, culturally context-dependent, presentation of food that is, for the most part, things we have rarely, if ever, had. In that regard, Mike G's extraordinary narrative (which is perhaps the single most impressive and engaging piece of critical "food writing" I've seen in a long time) proved to be wonderfully illuminating and most helpful in any one of a number of ways. What struck me early on was his observation:

    Do you remember the first time you had sushi? (Yes, I know this is sashimi, we didn't know the difference then.) That you ate uncooked fish?

    Did you ever imagine a day when it would be like returning to the safe and comforting after something far, far stranger?


    Although I am a reasonably adventurous eater, nice Jewish boys growing up in western New York in the 1960s did not encounter, much less willingly imbibe, monkfish liver in ponzu sauce (though I imagine things have probably changed). And if they were raised in a kosher home, as I was, much of what followed that introduction would have been seriously beyond the pale (pun intended). And to find that I was discussing the quality and nature of the ponzu sauce itself (ignoring for the moment that I don’t even eat liver, of any sort, even now) with my wife was, in retrospect, a statement on the road(s) I have travelled since then. Still, it was a well-chosen introduction: vaguely familiar and yet challenging on several levels.

    By the time we reached the sashimi course (for me; LDC doesn’t do raw fish), my mind immediately returned to Mike G’s comment. It was, by now, about four or five courses in. The blend of tastes and textures was always intriguing; if some dishes were less to my taste than others, that only means that Matsumoto is just like any good Italian or Thai or __________ restaurant. Food need not be completely out of one’s experience to find it off-putting. I have ordered or tasted more than a few dishes in “familiar” cuisines that I did not like and would not finish. At Matsumoto, presentation was always exquisite but my first substantive observation of the evening is that Matsumoto is a restaurant where you not only need but must have the complete attention and assistance of your server. We were waited on, at least initially, by a very sweet young woman whose English was quite limited. We were never shown the menu and so felt a bit at sea from time to time. That was not a real concern; we were simply surprised to see the menu upon entering but not have it introduced or commented upon in any way. At one point, however, our waitress must have been otherise occupied and our course was served by Chiya, one of the owners. Her English was much better than our original server’s and her interest and enthusiasm clearly showed. Where our initial server identified, Chiya explained. And the more questions I asked, the more animated and enthusiastic she became. Her participation—and there is really no other word for it—changed the tenor of the evening.

    My interaction with a server, or even an owner, would ordinarily be limited (the key word, of course, being “ordinarily”). I would not ordinarily seek to engage in a lengthy discussion about the food unless there was something so unusual, so unexpected, or so intriguing that it warranted that conversation. (That observation, in and of itself, undoubtedly says something about my dining habits and expectations that is worthy of a tangent—just not here.) But at Matsumoto, such participation I found to be not only desirable but nearly essential for every course. Perhaps it is simply a matter of the individual items being alien and the symbolic (and cultural) context unfamiliar, but the change in atmosphere was noteworthy and immediate. Previously, we were having a beautifully presented, gustatorily unique meal. Now, thanks to Chiya’s involvement, we were enjoying an experience, one that was fun, that engaged us, and that contributed far more pleasure to the evening. (It is not a parenthetical comment except of necessity: LDC being raised by a Japanese mother and a Nisei father, having spent a year in Japan, and having family there, was familiar with much more of the meal. Even so, some of the dishes were quite new to her and, more to the point, she derived as much pleasure from Chiya’s involvement as I did, even when she was familiar with the dish.) If we had been one of the only tables there, I expect the experience would have been heightened even more. And to the extent that they become “successful” as measured by bodies in the door, I suspect that the experience will not translate for many people. In fact, I don’t know how happy I would have been with the experience had we left without having her involvement.

    One last note: I was given a copy of Victoria Abbott Riccardi's "Untangling My Chopsticks" for my birthday. I read it recently. I unequivocally recommend it to anyone going to Matsumoto. Ms. Riccardi writes with verve and style about tea kaiseki. She spent a year in Japan learning about it and hers is a remarkably observant book. She can go into great detail about the preparation of a single dish and manages not to lose sight of the cultural context, symbolism, and practicalities (such as taste) of what she's doing. Although it does NOT speak to restaurant kaiseki (which she is at pains to distinguish) except for a very few pages, it is an enlightening book and one that helps put the kaiseki experience into a greater context. I enjoyed it and urge you to drop by your local library.
    Gypsy Boy

    "I am not a glutton--I am an explorer of food." (Erma Bombeck)
  • Post #23 - April 14th, 2006, 7:11 pm
    Post #23 - April 14th, 2006, 7:11 pm Post #23 - April 14th, 2006, 7:11 pm
    Does anyone know if Chef Matsumoto is still working in the chicagoland area?

    Thanks!

    J
  • Post #24 - May 2nd, 2006, 10:26 pm
    Post #24 - May 2nd, 2006, 10:26 pm Post #24 - May 2nd, 2006, 10:26 pm
    Just wanted to check once more if anyone knows where chef Matsumoto is at now?

    Thanks!

    J
  • Post #25 - June 12th, 2006, 8:40 am
    Post #25 - June 12th, 2006, 8:40 am Post #25 - June 12th, 2006, 8:40 am
    There has been a recurring thread within this thread about the use of disposable bamboo chopsticks at Matsumoto. Even Phil Vettel of the Trib mentioned their use prominently (and disparagingly).

    Frankly, I don't get the problem. But even though Matsumoto is now gone, I wanted to add a little note, fwiw.

    Lovely Dining Companion and I were in LA over the weekend and for a celebration dinner and we went out to Matsuhisa. It is perhaps the premiere Japanese restaurant in LA, consistently highly rated, not only among Japanese restaurants but among all restaurants in LA. Nobu Matsuhisa has been written up all over the world for his place and, sadly (at least to me) has turned his place into a marketing enterprise, not to mention a number of places in New York, London, Tokyo, etc. Still, no matter what your yardstick, his food always rates quite highly.

    I will save the review for another post (we had the most expensive--$120--omakase). The food was exceptional by any standard I would use. Truly top-notch ingredients, beautiful preparation, etc. And bamboo chopsticks.

    I don't think anyone bothers to check the maker of the silver at Everest or Le Francais. Still, agree or disagree, I thought it was worthy of note that a restaurant more "high-end" than Matsumoto would also use them.
    Gypsy Boy

    "I am not a glutton--I am an explorer of food." (Erma Bombeck)

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