Emphasis on crab and other Hokuriku specialties makes dining at Kataori a sublime experience


Clarity, quality, purity and simplicity: The refined refinement of kaiseki, the high-end traditional cuisine of Japan, is too often described as formal or minimalist. Yet in its deepest form, the alchemical synergy of ingredients, technique, season and setting can be close to transcendence.

This is the level to which chef Takuya Kataori aspires every day. And that’s why he likes to open each meal at his intimate restaurant in Kanazawa by preparing dashi, made from scratch in his narrow open kitchen.

In the age-old style, it only uses three ingredients. He starts by getting old konbu (kelp) from Rishiri Island, north of Hokkaido. He soaks it for almost two days in spring water that he collects himself from a well-known source in the hinterland of the nearby Noto peninsula. Once the water is up to temperature, he adds a mound of katsuobushi – chips of smoked and salted fillets katsuo (skipjack tuna) prepared in Makurazaki, at the far end of Kagoshima prefecture, in southern Kyushu.

The process isn’t complete until her patrons have arrived and settled into their seats along Kataori’s immaculate six-seat counter. The sound of hard blocks of finely shaved katsuobushi on a traditional kezuriki airplane; the floating scent of the dashi pot; and finally the taste, comforting but assertive, and the deep oceanic floors of umami. With your senses fully prepared, now is the time to jump into dinner.

In pursuit of perfection

Kataori was born in Himi, a port town overlooking the fertile waters of Toyama Bay. From the age of 20, he completed an 11-year apprenticeship with Tsuruko, a former Kanazawa ryotei (exclusive upscale Japanese restaurant) which was revered for the quality of its cuisine. Rising through the ranks, he became a chef while still in his twenties and, under his tenure, he won two Michelin stars.

Chef Takuya Kataori himself goes to the fishing ports of Toyama Bay to find the best ingredients for his menu. | TAKEFUMI HAMADA

Even before Tsuruko’s closure in November 2018 – like many ryotei hosting expense account nights hosted by politicians and captains of industry, he fell out of favor – Kataori had taken his next step. After several years of planning, finding the right location, and acquiring the necessary accessories and tableware, he and his wife Hiromi opened their own restaurant.

The little house sits discreetly on the left bank of the Asano River in a quiet corner of Kanazawa, a short walk from the historic Higashichaya district but overall less touristy. Inside and out, it has been completely renovated and remodeled with sober wooden furniture furnished by carpenters trained in classical art. sukiya style.

More than a fresh start in a different location, the new restaurant represented a major change of scale and direction for Kataori. Now, he could direct his attention more intensely than ever to his calling: to uplift and give a platform to the exceptional food ingredients of his native Hokuriku region, especially Ishikawa and Toyama prefectures.

All the best chefs look for the best ingredients, but Kataori takes this quest to the extreme. Rather than relying on city middlemen, he heads straight to the fishing ports of the Noto Peninsula, or to his hometown, Himi, where he rigorously selects the pickax landed by the fishermen, even before ‘it is not put up for auction.

This requires a very early start. Most of the time he leaves before dawn to arrive at the docks at 5:30 am His goal is not only to buy the best seafood available, but to make sure he can pack and pack them. transport with the greatest care. An essential aspect of this is to prepare the fish as early as possible using ikejime, a technique that stops the rigor mortis process and preserves the flavor until it is ready to serve.

There are often other stops on the daily route to Kataori. He stops to pick up vegetables he has grown for him by organic farmers, to search for wild herbs in the hills, and to fill his cans with pure mountain water at the sacred Fujinose spring.

During the brief period of late September when the precious matsutake pine mushrooms appear, he drives to Suzu, at the end of the Noto peninsula, where he picks just enough musk and aromatic mushrooms for his needs that day. Because the round trip takes him six hours in total, during this season – it usually lasts until October – Kataori only serves one client session (he usually has two for dinner). For him, that extra expenditure of time and effort is essential if he is to deliver this much-vaunted delicacy at its best.

The shell of a female crab is filled with a generous helping of two types of crab roe.  |  TAKEFUMI HAMADA
The shell of a female crab is filled with a generous helping of two types of crab roe. | TAKEFUMI HAMADA

The local smorgasboard

Kataori’s menu consists of 11 dishes which generally follow the traditional kaiseki order. However, there are some notable differences from the much more common Kyoto style of cooking. This is mainly due to the remoteness of the old capital and the way seafood in particular is served.

In summer, hamo (conger pike) is an essential part of Kyoto cuisine; but in Kanazawa there is no tradition of raising it or using it. Likewise, while tai (sea bream) is considered almost sacramental in kaiseki, especially for its festive connotations, it does not flourish in the Sea of ​​Japan. Rather than buying these fish elsewhere, Kataori would prefer to substitute other species more readily available and part of the local ecosystem.

Toyama Bay, which is just an hour’s drive away, is famous for the range of seafood it offers – from shiro-ebi (small tender white shrimp) to hotaru-ika (one-bite ‘firefly’ small squid, named for its natural bioluminescence). Bigger Sea of ​​Japan fish are also available from Himi and other fishing ports including kue (consolidator), nodoguro (black perch) and kanburi, the rich, oily winter amberjack that is coveted in the cold months.

The claws and legs of the crabs are dipped in a rich sauce made from tomalli.  |  TAKEFUMI HAMADA
The claws and legs of the crabs are dipped in a rich sauce made from tomalli. | TAKEFUMI HAMADA

A remarkable celebration

In winter, however, the meal revolves around one particular ingredient: zuwaigani (snow crabs). Females, with their abundant eggs, are called kobako-gani (literally ‘flavor box’ crab), while the males are kanō-gani (a coat rack with the place names “Kaga” and “Noto”). At the height of the season, in December, the two play memorable roles on Kataori’s menu.

Kataori's sublime interpretation of a regional specialty, daikon
Kataori’s sublime interpretation of a regional specialty, daikon “furofuki”. | TAKEFUMI HAMADA

Dinner opens with a few appetizers. First, maybe, furofuki daikon (steamed white daikon topped with salty miso), a rustic staple transformed here into an exercise in understated elegance. And a clear soup of this steaming and fragrant dashi bathing a small piece of lightly steamed white meat fish. And then the main event begins.

The shell of a large female snow crab is placed in front of you, filled with a pile of lint sotoko (crab roe) and the same volume of uchiko (immature crab eggs). The contrast in texture and temperature is perfect; superb flavor.

This is just the beginning. Kataori then brings platters loaded with fierce-looking male crabs. Their long legs are gently roasted over charcoal just enough for them to give up their tender white flesh. Tomalli (the rich internal juices) are cooked in a thick sauce that you use as a dip for the thighs and the claw meat prepared in shabu-shabu style.

Later, interspersed with side dishes of vegetables, seafood and even duck, the shellfish will also appear in sashimi, “risotto” of plump crab tomalli. mochi rice and even crabmeat in a thick, transparent sauce served over rice as a closing dish.

It is a remarkable celebration. But that will be the case regardless of the season of your visit, according to Takefumi Hamada, one of Japan’s foremost foodies who documents his travels on his umamiholic Youtube channel.

“When it comes to ingredients like crab or matsutake, there is no restaurant to compete with Kataori, even in Tokyo,” says Hamada. “But whatever the food, it gets the essence of it. He developed his own style in a subtle yet profound way. It is a cuisine that perfectly reflects the seasons and the local ecosystem.

This is an assessment that also seems to be shared by Michelin inspectors. In their latest Hokuriku guide (May 2021), Kataori received two stars. Needless to say, this is now one of the most sought after reserves in all of Japan.

Namikimachi 3-36, Kanazawa, Ishikawa 920-0928; 076-255-1446; kataori.jp. Open every day, two services: 5 p.m. & 8 p.m. also lunch 12 midday Wed & Sun .; menus from 35,000 (varies according to season and ingredients); nearest station Kanazawa; Smoking is not allowed ; main cards; no menu; little English spoken.

The Japan Times Cube’s annual Destination Restaurant Selection showcases the abundant food culture on offer outside of Japan’s big cities.

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