An Industrial Take on Zen Dining

BY CHEF ROBERT MCGEE | PHOTOGRAPHY BY LACY MATSUMOTO

Nanzan Giro Giro

THERE ARE MANY REASONS TO EAT. For some, it’s about the need to satiate. Others look for something more, be it an escape from boredom, a vehicle to learn about a particular culture or a crazy need to test the boundary of our palate.

I went to Nanzan GiroGiro to taste.

Walking by, you might mistake it for a tiny art gallery (which it also is) or a boutique. Nanzan is tucked away on a part of Pensacola Street that is as industrial as any here in Honolulu, where pool supplies and car repair shops are the norm. Nothing in the area screams “Kyoto-style kaiseki dining-here,” which only adds to the pleasant surprise once you cross that plane inside.

On the “other side,” you are removed. It’s different-quiet, clean, simple-nothing to distract you from your company and the matter at hand.

The small and square open kitchen is flanked on three sides by dining counters. You actually sit at the height that the chef is standing, bringing you to eye level with those crafting your food. The most striking design element resides on one side of the dining room, where Nanzan ceramic pottery is placed on narrow podiums, under glass.

Adjacent to the kitchen, a small lounge is separated by long, lime green curtains that somehow (and masterfully) fail to distract from the plates that arrive in steady succession.

Chef Yoshihiro Matsumoto dreamt of moving to Hawai’i so much that it happened shortly after a get-together with the GiroGiro restaurant group owners, in Japan, who decided that Matsumoto would helm the third outpost of their group. (The first is in Kyoto, the second in Paris.)

Matsumoto-san is learning more and more English every day. In an effort to show respect for the language, he tells me, he thinks about every word before it comes out. Kind enough to sit with me before dinner service-the madcap hour before a restaurant opens-Yoshi, as he preferred I call him, was cool as a cucumber. His manner of responding to my questions was, quite honestly, relaxing. Zen-like.

He waxed poetic about the importance of local ingredients, although there are some that he cannot bear to be without, most of which are Kyoto-specific.

“In kaiseki…which is about the relationship between me and the dinner…” he starts, “the quality of the ingredients must never be doubted.”

So what happens is this. You walk in and sit down. If you are in the mood for the wine pairings or a sake, you say “yes.” Otherwise, you’re off the hook as far as decision-making. You talk to your date, people/chef watch, and before you know it, someone is putting a seven-course dinner in front of you.

One thing I enjoyed about “over the counter” service here is that there’s no dodging of sizzling plates; you always see your dishes coming. Over there, chef is cooking your Wagyu over an open flame. On that side, someone is meticulously hand-washing every piece of art that your food will be served on. Another person is hand-whisking hot matcha tea. The kitchen is spotless, everything is in its place.

The team works in a fluid manner, not quite choreographed, but very aware of their surroundings. There are five cooks behind the counter in addition to Matsumoto-san, yet it never seems crowded. All of the staff are very willing to engage, all of them able to explain ingredients and dishes very effectively.

My first plate is Chawanmushi, which translates to “steamed in a tea cup,” typically a custard of eggs and dashi stock with soy. At Nanzan GiroGiro, you’re not going to get something that pedestrian. This one is delivered in a chilled teacup, yellow with a bold, red fish on the side. Looking from above, there is a dollop of chive puree floating on the custard. Inside I mine for small, poached oysters and chestnuts, which majestically seem to have the same texture. Biting into either starts the same, only giving way to explosions of flavor as their distinct nature is revealed. The dish is comforting- something you’ll feel with frequency at this eatery. It’s a gentle yet thoughtful way to begin a meal.

In silence, a lidded, black lacquer bowl exuding a bit of steam appears. I’m smelling miso soup, as Matsumoto explains that this dish is all about the croquette-a Japanese version of matzo ball soup. This croquette is made with crab and a Japanese root that chef says is akin to taro. It has a dense, but giving texture. The white miso broth is lightly spiked with mustard powder, which works to heighten the flavor of the baby tatsoi nestled inside.

When he starts slicing raw scallops, my excitement piques. Slivers of pristine ‘ahi tuna are placed on a pastel blue square plate-it’s the ocean as a backdrop. Two sauces-one a red beet purée, the other, a “new season” rice sauce-arrive. But wait, there’s more: With a white china soup spoon, chef doles a nori sauce. It is sticky and thick, like toasted ocean.

In a corner of the plate he places a little yellow bowl with dashi gelee sitting atop a few leaves of steamed mizuna, a palate cleanser.

The dish works on so many levels. There is audience participation, you have the ability to mix and match flavors, and they all work. (It helps that the ‘ahi was alive and swimming yesterday.)

Another plate arrives as swiftly as the last. This one is hot, and by comparison, much more simple. That is to say, fewer components. It’s steamed ‘opakapaka served in a little black box with a gilded night sky scene painted within. Chef braises monkfish liver into red miso, creating an earthy, tangy zeal. A piece of dashi-braised daikon gives the dish some dense resistance, which is garnished with thinly sliced scallion and chicory. Again, comfort. My mouth knew that I was eating seafood in Hawai’i, but my brain was feeling beef stew on a cold day back in western New York.

Next up is the Kobe course. Chef Matsumoto stands over a jet engine-like burner with meat on nothing more than a stick. As the meat rests, he shapes a piece of grilled eggplant, placing it on a chilled, slightly concave, golden disk. Next to that he places a 1-inch cube of crispy fried kabocha squash. Slicing five slivers of the beef, he drapes them around the vegetables then sauces it with a kudzu starch-thickened dashi broth. This all gets garnished with a few shimeji mushrooms and, for crunch, little arare crackers. The dish comes together with different levels of grilled and smoky flavors that complement each other.

Soon, a little chilled ceramic turtle arrives. It has a lid. Inside, an artistic display of uni (sea urchin) served in a purée of shingiku stem, with steamed shingiku leaves all atop a tiny daikon “vermicelli.” Like a good amuse, it did what it was supposed to do-but I wished that I had more!

Time for the rice course, in which Chef stirs gingko nuts and salmon into the rice, and tops with ikura (salmon roe) that he marinates himself. A few slivers of mitsuba leaf finish the dish. The rice sits beside a bowl of shiro miso broth garnished with fried tofu, and a tiny bowl of pickled vegetables. Simple, the way it should be. All perfectly balanced and perfectly seasoned.

Dessert courses can be all over the place with kaiseki. Chef Matsumoto does not underestimate the importance of a pleasant finish. Tonight, it’s a small plate with three bite-size treats: A cube of strawberry panna cotta topped with strawberry and mint; a tiny azuki bean “mochi” wrapped in sesame seed leaf; and a sweet potato and citrus macaroon.

The matcha tea, hot and freshly whisked, was a sublime way to leave the dinner table. Slightly smoky and very earthy it, too, served its purpose in returning me back to earth.

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