A trip through Japan in 12 courses

monkfish liver with sea urchin and pickles

I was glad I’d purchased a fast, new smartphone before I got to Blind Pig’s Rising Sun dinner in Raleigh. In a lot of cases, it was the only way to know what The Hub and I were eating.

Kenchin-jiru? The Google told me that was Buddhist vegetarian soup. Furikake? A Japanese seasoning that often contains seaweed. But it failed me on “yukke hato,” which turned out to be ground chicken heart. No matter. The remarkable experience of dining on 12 courses of Japanese-themed food made by six top North Carolina chefs needed no translation.

Blind Pig Supper Club is based in Asheville, and calls itself an underground supper club. It organizes culinary events that bring top chefs together to step outside their usual styles of cooking. I think this is the third dinner the group has organized in Raleigh. Find out more here.

The chef for this meal were Jason Smith of Raleigh’s 18 Seaboard; Scott Crawford, formerly of Heron’s at the Umstead Hotel in Cary, now opening Standard Foods in Raleigh; Drew Maykuth of Stanbury in Raleigh; Matt Kelly of Mateo Tapas and Vin Rouge in Durham; Kyle McKnight of Highland Avenue in Hickory; and Brian Canipelli of Cucina 24 in Asheville.

kohii zerii (coffee jelly), condensed milk, caramelized peas

kohii zerii (coffee jelly), condensed milk, caramelized peas

Each chef prepared two courses, and did it without an actual kitchen – the meal was served at Clearscapes downtown. Smith prepared the yukke hato with radish and pear, and the final course, a dessert using coffee jelly – which my phone told me was popular in Japanese coffee shops – condensed milk and topped with crunchy caramelized peas. (“Peas? That’s a very Japanese thing to do,” said my friend, Linda, who lived in Japan for several years, when I told her about it. Linda is hotly anticipating the new ramen shop opening in Durham, so they need to step on it. )

Crawford made the gentle first course – scallop sashimi with ginger juice – and a version of chawanmushi with cucumber and a touch of roe. Chawanmushi is a kind of custard that, in Japan, is savory, not sweet.

Maykuth created a course that made one of my least favorite fish, mackerel, appealing. It was pickled with seaweed and some other things I had to use my phone for. He also made a combination of tofu and bacon dashi.

McKnight offered a course of three kinds of mushrooms with garlic (one was had a little too much moisture in it) and another with a delightful bit of pork belly and peach vinegar next to a tempura-fried whole okra pod.

A fried round of monkfish liver topped Canipelli’s 11th course, accompanied by sea urchin. He also made the delightful kenchin-jiru soup, studded with different crunchy root vegetables.

Kelly combined cherry tomatoes and grilled shishito peppers with burrata (an Italian cheese) for a twist on caprese salad. His other course was wittily labeled “JFC”: Japanese fried chicken, with cabbage.

A standout for The Hub and me was the soup, which was refreshing halfway through the meal. I can’t say I’ll wake up one morning craving monkfish liver, but it was quite good and the little plate’s flavors were nicely balanced. Hub liked the chawanmushi, but I’ve never cared for the texture on that dish. Pork belly…what’s not to like about that? Each dish had it’s own qualities, and played a role in the unique theater that was this meal. Quite an experience.

A night in a strange and beautiful land

soup course in yamazushi’s kaiseki

I am fond of novels that I can crawl into and arrive in another land. Rarely can I achieve the same teleportation experience by watching a movie, and it has never happened in a restaurant. I’ve had many great meals in wonderful environments. But I’ve never, in a restaurant, had that same experience of visiting another world, until now.

Yamazushi in Durham has been around for years as a sushi bar and Japanese restaurant. Then The Hub and I read a review of a revamped Yamazushi. The sushi bar is gone, as are menus. The chef/owner, George Yamasawa, now serves five- or eight-course kaiseki. Kaiseki began as simple meals served during tea ceremonies, but the tradition has evolved into multi-course dining events. Each course is served singly, carefully timed. Kaiseki traditionally includes a rice

chestnut rice and japanese pickles

dish, a sashimi course, a fried dish and a grilled dish, among others.

Not only did the chef create the gentle procession of eight dishes to our table, but they were served in and on pottery he made himself, so I felt we were completely in a world the chef created.

The website advises emailing for reservations (essential) and someone will call to confirm. When she did, I was able to make some requests: no dairy or pork, per The Hub (vegan and vegetarian meals are possible). But, besides that, we had no idea what we’d find on our plates.

The experience was like a culinary version of the Japanese prints that show a winding trail up a mountain through forests and streams. North Carolina

marinated black cod on asparagus

scallops bathed in white miso. A dashi-based soup in a bamboo-handled teapot. My first taste of sea urchin, on the sashimi plate, which I ate without fear; the land I was in did not harbor fear. Crispy fried soft-shell crab with green tea salt. Black cod marinated for 48 hours in sake and miso, then grilled and perched on bright green asparagus. A bowl of rice with chestnuts, the nutty sweetness balanced by a plate of tart-salty Japanese pickles.

The Hub and I spent three hours in this lovely land, sipping sake between courses in ceramic cups we selected from among the chef’s handiwork. We had only to focus on each other, the food, and the gentle, pleasant passage of time.