Monday, May 23, 2005

Ichigo Ichie: the Spirit of Japanese Cuisine


I'm feeling pensive. Maybe it's because I'm finally done with the rough draft of my prostate cancer proposal... Thank goodness grant season is over until the new season begins in October and I can actually focus on work I am already funded to do... Three proposals in five months make for a cranky Alice.

I was going to post about the Yuzu One Year anniversary today, but I got a little bit pensive after reading Responsibility thread at Food Blog S'cool. I've been thinking about this some since reading this post.

As you guys all know by now (as evident by the fact that my sister was going to treat me to a Yuzu dinner for my b-day, even though she lives in NYC and has never visitied Yuzu herself!), I talk about Yuzu a lot. I write about them a lot because I really like the place and enjoy the food there. But I'm also a regular there, who never orders anything and only gets the dishes directly recommended by the Chef, Armia-san. So, would someone else, esp. a non-Japanese speaker, get the same dishes I get and have the same experience as I do on their own there? I'm not sure. I speak Japanese and the Chef asks me a whole lot of questions as he prepares my food. And no doubt he'd do that for anyone else, but someone who dropped in for the evening might not know to push themselves to the counter seats or to express their sincere desires for good sushi like I do.

To really enjoy a sushi restuarant, sitting at the bar and getting to know the Chef is the ONLY way for me... If you go to Yuzu and order off the menu without talking to the Chef once, you'll probably have a very different experience - so much so that you'd probably think that I was pumping up the restaurant just because I'm a regular there and get special treatments!

But my relationship with Yuzu is one that developed as a result of my frequent patronage. It's not because I knew the Chef before hand, and it's not because I get any kind of kick-back for writing about it or bringing my friends there. I write about Yuzu because I think it's a really good Japanese restaurant with an authentic atmosphere. Yuzu has had ups and downs in the food quality, but do I write about my less than perfect nights of dining? No. Does that make me a dishonest reporter? I don't know.

Why I don't think I am dishonest is because I always - I mean, ALWAYS - have a good time there. Sure, some days the sushi rice is a little bit too hard. Or the fish is a little less smooth. Or the salt is a little bit too strong in the soup. On those occasions, I let Arima-san know. I also let Arima-san know when the shima-aji is stellar. Or the egg is done just right. Or the salt in the grilled scallops is perfect. Do I report every exchange I've had with him? No. Besides, how do I really know if what I consider good is really good?! Maybe I just didn't sweat as much during my run that day and didn't need as much salt, or I was just too tired to appreciate food appropriately...


Do I think my readers visiting Yuzu on my recommendation will be disappointed? I hope not. Yuzu is definitely a very authentically Japanese restaurant with solid food. And any Japanese person understands that the quality of every fish can't be perfect every night - particularly in the summer when fish are a lot less plump. But Arima-san will take the strengths in his kitchen on that day and present to you his best effort if you allow him to do so by ordering 'omakase' (Chef's recommendations).

And no omakase menu at any restaurant worth eating at is set in stone. I always add or subtract whatever I want, asking the Chef about his recommendations and how to best enjoy certain ingredients they have that day. The goals of a Japanese chef is to accommodate their guests to the best of their ability. This spirit of doing the best - Ichigo Ichie (一期一会) - is rooted in the thought that each time a hosts has a guest, that may be the last time for that opportunity. It sounds to me like an awfully Bushido (the Way of the Samurai) spirit of ephemeral life, but it is a spirit that every Japanese chef is expected to have. And chefs and restaurant owners who have forgotten the spirit are unfortunately no longer serving authentically Japanese food, lacking the spiritual backbone.

Yuzu is one of the few Bay Area restaurants that I feel really lives up to the Ichigo Ichie spirit. They recently celebrated their one year anniversary, in which Arima-san prepared a lovely omakase dinner combining the best of his fish components with the cooked dishes from the kitchen. The anniversary dinner was the first time I tried the dishes by their new backroom kitchen chef. I was impressed. I could feel the attention and focus - what we Japanese call 'kiai' - in each dish. (By the way, that word doesn't mean the unnecessarily loud screaming insisted upon by many US martial arts schools... It simply means focus. And when we focus on power, we naturally let out an exhalation with a exclamation mark. That's what a 'kiai' originally is in Japanese...)

And the final product of his kiai? This picture speaks for itself. His tempura was smiling with delight, joyous with deliciousness. Yuzu has gained another member to tackle the daily challenges of providing Ichigo Ichie every day.

Happy One Year Anniversary, Yuzu!


Sam said...

Alice. This post is a gem. It expresses feelings I have sometimes, too.
I think the majority of foodbloggers wrestle with the same issues. The very fact you return there again and again speaks volumes for your opion of the place and I can't wait until we can find a time to go there together one day and you can educate me more about the fascinating subject of eating Japanese like only a Japanes person can.

Alice said...

Thanks, Sam! We definitely should get together for a nice dinner at Yuzu soon!!