Chikara is a traditional kaiseki restaurant north of Ena, Japan. Head chef Ozeki prepared a special menu using giant hornets, but remaining faithful to traditional kaiseki aesthetics and techniques. While skeptical at first-he had never before cooked with hornets-he was a convert in the end, praising their versatility and flavor. The meal catered to a small but passionate group of hornet devotees, including members of the Nordic Food Lab who were in town to learn more about Gifu’s edible insect culture.
Charlotte and I had previously met with Ozeki to test out a few of the dishes, but I was still unprepared for his zealous perfectionism. Not only had Ozeki added new courses, but his attention to every aspect of presentation made for a truly memorable evening.
Upon arrival, after the warm welcome of a hornet-infused shokuzenshu (aperitif, described in a previous post), we were greeted with the sakizuke, a tantalizingly colorful collection of appetizer-like confections. As we waited for the rest of our party to arrive, I jiggled the dish and wondered what a wasp encased inside agar-agar (kanten) jelly would taste like. Luckily, the others arrived soon after and the meal began. My chopsticks dove first for the yellow mound of jelly. I was delighted as the sweet gelatinous substance slowly disintegrated in my mouth, leaving behind a single gooey wasp.
Despite my best efforts to go slow and savor each bite, the rest of the hebo appetizers were calling out to me. I quickly gobbled up the piece of sushi topped with gingery sweet wasps, followed by the suzumebachi-iri dashimaki tamago, (a rolled Japanese omelette flavoured with fish stock and filed with wasps cooked in soy). Last I tried the small square of gomadofu (tofu made with sesame seeds - and in this case, wasp larvae) with wasabi and, my favorite of all five, the delicate kiku (chrysanthemum) flower salad with marinated wasp larvae.
As I soon learned, kaiseki meals are rather quickly paced. If you sit in raptures over what you’ve just tasted, you’ll soon wind up with a backlog of dishes to eat!
The waitress appeared with a tray of little pots, left, and placed one in front of each of us. As we removed the lids in unison the room filled with a distinctly earthy smell.
Dobin-mushi is a traditional autumn broth made to showcase seasonal flavors, especially the famed matsutake wild mushroom. The broth's contents are steamed and served piping hot with a piece of citrus. Ozeki's version included roasted hornet larvae and adults in addition to the usual elements.
The dish quickly spawned two table-wide debates: Did the citrus enhance or hide the flavor of the broth? And, more importantly, did the aroma of the roasted hornets overpower that of the matsutake? I was solidly pro-citrus and pro-hornet, though admittedly I have never tasted a traditional dobin-mushi for comparison.
Setting aside the question of flavor, I really enjoyed the multi-step process of eating dobin-mushi: breathing in the fragrant steam, slowly sipping the broth, and, finally, eating the mushrooms and hornets one by one. The process reveals something about kaiseki dining that is cliched but true: it is as much an experience as it is a meal.
This next dish was my favorite of the entire night (photo below): leeks, enoki mushrooms, miso and hornet larvae flame-broiled at the table atop a large dried magnolia leaf. The effect of watching the leaf darken and shrivel as it heats up is almost as dazzling as the cheesy, creamy flavor of the hot filling. Charlotte and I had sampled it previously, and yet despite having tasted this dish twice, I’m still not sure how Ozeki manages to achieve such an incredible texture.