Thursday, March 25, 2010

Hashimoto Kaiseki Yu-zen


6435 Dixie Rd., Unit 10
Mississauga, Ontario

This review is in response to Ms Kates' review published in the Globe and Mail. I have been putting off writing a review of Hashimoto; I feel I'm obliged to describe the food and the experience as a whole at the same artistic level as the art-form/meal presented to us. Ms Kates' review is certainly the catalyst of this post.

We have been to Hashimoto's Mississauga location several times until it became outrageously expensive. First we went there two years in a row to celebrate my birthday - there are few things in the world better than an intricate, beautifully-crafted meal. Since Kaiseki Ryori emphasizes bringing out the most flavor of seasonal ingredients as possible, we then realized that we should visit Hashimoto at different times of the year. Although the chef promised that he would email us the pictures, we only received pictures for ONE of our visits. A picture is worth a thousand words, without further ado, here are the pictures sent by Hashimoto.

I won't bore you with the origin of Kaiseki Ryori; abundant information is available on the Internet. In short Kaiseki represents the most sophisticated form of Japanese cuisine. Each dish is a painting, a miniature landscape, a self-inclusive cosmos. It is like poetry on the plate, intriguing you with its brief yet immortal beauty. Kaiseki is the Japanese interpretation of food enlightenment.

With perfectionism deeply programmed in the genes of the Japanese, Kaiseki is, naturally, the quest for perfection. What is perfection? How can it be achieved? Where can you get the BEST ingredients? How was it handled? How fresh is it? How should it be prepared? In Kates' review, she suggested that Hashimoto should use local ingredients to lower the costs. I don't think she understands the integrity of Kaiseki Ryori. The chefs take pride on offering nothing but the ultimate. I wouldn't be surprised if Hashimoto decides to use acupuncture-treated fish to retain the best flavor. Some chefs achieve near perfection based on their classical training and working with familiar ingredients sourced from trusted suppliers. Their mission is to extend the tradition. Using foreign ingredients is, simply put, unacceptable. In their eyes, Iron Chefs Michiba and Morimoto are radical.

However, it is almost sad to see Kaiseki Ryori going down this route. Originally created as a light meal consumed prior to tea ceremony or as its name "Holding Stone" suggests, a monk pressed a heated stone on his (empty) stomach to keep warm during meditation. The emphasis is on the harmony of man and nature. In today's language: sustainable slow food. How it deviates from philosophical enlightenment to elaborate materialism really puzzles me.

If a Kaiseki restaurant uses local ingredients instead of luxury imports, will it lose its aura (as fancy Japanese food)? This leads to another question: how much should Hashimoto charge for his creations? How do you assign a monetary value to such craftsmanship? With the intensive labor for small number of guests, there's a reason that Hashimoto has to charge so much. But that's about as expensive as dining at Fat Duck, one of the most highly-rated restaurants in the world, and I'm not sure I would place Hashimoto at that level. But it is true it will be a "once-a-lifetime" dining experience.

That being said. If you are willing to spend $500+ to experience the ultimate form of Japanese cuisine, I'll say you should visit Hashimoto. This saves you a trip to Japan. (And there's no guarantee you'll get satisfying experience in Japan; the really high-end ryotei (restaurants) might not welcome foreigners in fear of being labeled as a "faux-Kaiseki" restaurant which only attracts tourists who know little about Kaiseki, or simply afraid that they cannot provide the level of service they're known for.) The quality of food at Hashimoto is unparalleled even by the Japanese standard. Unless you're Japanese or at least fluent in Japanese, this is as close to (traditional) Kaiseki Ryori as you can get.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Bauer Kitchen

The Bauer Kitchen
187 King St. South
Waterloo, Ontario

I really wanted to like this restaurant. It has a long and successful pedigree (Charcoal Group - owner of Charcoal and Wildcraft, amongst other local places), it's participating in the urbanization of Uptown Waterloo which I heartily support, and it has a great industrial chic vibe to it inside. The decor is interesting and it seems to have less of a focus on the bar compared to Wildcraft; however, after a couple of visits I was ultimately disappointed with the single most important aspect of a restaurant - the food.

My first visit (sorry, no pictures from this one) was quite acceptable - duck confit spring rolls with a spicy orange sauce were fried crispy and had a generous filling of shredded duck, and the braised short rib gnocchi was also a generous and flavourful meaty offering. It was the aftermath that wasn't so nice - a severe case of food poisoning that had me up all night. Now, one can never be 100% certain of the cause but I had nothing else strange that day so it seems that it was the likely culprit.

The second visit was a lot better from my stomach's perspective, but not for my tastebuds. (Apologies for the dark pictures - it is difficult to take good pictures by candlelight with a point and shoot - but in this case it's somewhat appropriate as the flavours match the lighting).

To start off, we were offered the usual bread. It was purported to be freshly baked that day, but judging from the texture, it seemed at least a day old. It set the tone for the evening though, as what followed was almost a complete disaster.

First appetizer: Hand made beef short rib ravioli, truffled leek cream, red wine jus and fried shallots. ($11.95)

This was literally one big ravioli and looked a bit odd especially with the sauce running all over the plate. It was under seasoned and bland. Beef ribs should have a deep, meaty flavour but this was just completely flat and a touch dry. Same with the red wine jus, which added no punch to the flavour. The best part was the pasta which was fresh and cooked properly. I should have stuck to my vow never to order pasta at a restaurant, but was fooled by the promise of the beef short ribs this time.

Second appetizer: Steak tartare with quail egg, shallots, lemon zest, capers, garlic and crostini. ($9.95)

Sapphire had the steak tartare. It had a fairly unique presentation with the spices laid out separately on the side and the egg on top, so one could presumably mix them together in a proportion that would please their palate. It wasn't a very generous serving of steak and Sapphire said the spices reminded her of the flavouring packet from instant noodles. Although considering she sometimes eats the dried noodles straight up, that might be a compliment.

First main: Duck confit pizza with honey roasted pears, thyme, caramelized onions, stilton cheese and roasted garlic ($14.95)

On paper this seemed to be a fairly straight-forward flavour combination, but the duck was dry and tasteless, the pears tasted like styrofoam (and not even honey roasted styrofoam), and there wasn't enough cheese to pick things up. The crust was crispy and well done though, and it appears they have a stone oven to cook pizzas in.
Second main: Pan-seared Ontario duck with grilled sweet potato medallions, red pepper, wilted spinach, thyme and pear relish. ($23.95)

We'll often try to order dishes that we wouldn't normally cook at home - and as you might guess, duck is one of them. So we've had a lot of experience eating duck in restaurants, and this dish missed on many aspects. A well seasoned and properly seared duck breast should have a meaty, smoky flavour. This one was missing all of that, plus the fat wasn't rendered off sufficiently, ruining the texture as well as the flavour. As with all the other dishes, this was under-seasoned. We thought perhaps this was for health reasons - cutting back on sodium? But alas, the spinach was swimming in butter. Other items were unremarkable, although I'm not sure quickly grilling thick slabs of sweet potato was the best idea.

Dessert: Chocolate walnut brownie with silken chocolate mousse and raspberry sorbet. ($7.45)

There is a separate pastry chef listed on the menu, and the dessert reflected it. While it was not particularly outstanding or innovative, we were simply happy at this point to be served a well executed dish. The brownie was rich, dense, and very chocolately. It paired nicely with the mousse for texture, and the raspberry sorbet for flavour contrast. It was, unfortunately, the highlight of the evening.

Service was up to the standards we expected from a place like this. The front desk was overstaffed (a good thing) and we didn't have to wait for our jackets to be taken or our table. The kitchen was a little on the slow side (might explain things drying out?) but nothing outrageous.

Overall, I have very mixed feelings about the dinner we had and this review. I'd really like to chalk it up to a bad day (by either the kitchen or our tastebuds) but there were so many things wrong with both visits that we'll have a hard time going back to give them a third chance. I'm sure many customers and readers will disagree, judging by the buzz and the crowds they are still attracting, but with all the options available in Waterloo now I have a hard time wanting to return.