Friday, July 18, 2008

The Apprentice of Japanese Haute Cuisine - Kappo Seafood

While Sushi continues to dominate in popularity around the world, one of the most respected cuisines in Japan remains relatively hidden (outside of its native country), even to this day. Kaiseki cuisine has been labeled Japan's version of Haute cuisine, similar to a very elaborate, focused Chef's Tasting Menu, where course-by-course comes out of the kitchen, with each course completely focused on the Art of Food, the Art of Presentation, and the Art of Meaning, amongst other things.

It's also a celebration of the season that you partake the course in and a brilliant illustration of a Chef's skills. Kaiseki is what drives Spago's Executive Chef Lee Hefter to visit Japan when he can, to learn, study and draw inspiration from.

Having been lucky enough to visit Tokyo's Michelin 2 Star rated Ryugin a few months ago (an amazing restaurant focused on "Modern Kaiseki"), as well as one of Kyoto's top Traditional Kaiseki restaurants - the 300+ year-old(!), 14th Generation-run Hyotei - I would've never thought that the Kaiseki experience could be found in Southern California. (On a side note, Urasawa is something I liken more to a hybrid Kaiseki experience, not really following the traditional layout of Kaiseki, but creating something new and wonderfully unique to Chef Urasawa.) So when I heard that Kappo Seafood in Torrance, California was serving a traditional Kaiseki meal, I was intrigued and invited a fellow Japanese Cuisine Hound to see what Kappo Seafood had to offer.

Perusing their menu, Kappo Seafood sports a massive selection of different menu items, from Sushi and Sashimi offerings, to a variety of Salads, plenty of Appetizers (commonly found in more upscale Izakayas and Kappo restaurants), Noodles, Rice dishes like Zosui, Pan Fried, Deep Fried, Grilled Items, and a variety of Combination Dinners that are pseudo-Kaiseki style. We opted for their Omakase Kaiseki (Chef's Choice Kaiseki course) and awaited the experience.

Kaiseki restaurants in Japan are usually defined by the pursuit of perfection in Presentation, refined Taste, world-class Service, and in some instances, a beautiful Environment to enjoy it all (e.g., Hyotei). Kappo Seafood wouldn't be able to replicate the amazing setting I had at a place like Hyotei (very few places could), but it actually had a decently nice interior and decor.

We began with an Amuse Bouche (Sakitsuke) of Ichijiku Yo~guruto (Fig Yogurt). It was a strange opening for a Kaiseki, but it was very tasty: The Figs were marinated in a sweet solution, and combined really nicely with the Yogurt and Radish, but it was odd to open the dinner with something that felt more like dessert.

Next up was the Zensai (Appetizer) of 5 items: Aodake Tofu (Cold Tofu), Murasaki Imo No Mentaiko Mayone~zu (Boiled Purple Potato dressed with Spicy Cod Roe and Mayo Sauce), Unagi Kimo Shigure Ni (Seasoned Eel Liver), Kamo Ro~su (Seasoned Duck Breast Meat), and Shime Saba Yakime Zushi (Slightly Baked Marinated Mackerel Sushi).

It was decently plated, with the plating itself being a simple, sleek-looking dark plate. We began with the Aodake Tofu (Cold Tofu), which was some fresh Tofu, chilled, and simply presented with some Negi (Green Onions) a touch of Umi no Shio (Sea Salt) in a Bamboo container. After having super-fresh, homemade Tofu and Yuba in Kyoto, it was hard to get excited by this Tofu which tasted fine, just not to the level I had at Komameya.

We then continued with the Murasaki Imo No Mentaiko Mayone~zu (Boiled Purple Potato dressed with Spicy Cod Roe and Mayo Sauce). This was a striking visual, using the natural purple color from the Murasaki Imo to draw the customer's eye. It was simple in taste, with the spiciness of the Cod Roe being lost and dulled by the Mayonnaise Sauce.

The next item on the plate was the Unagi Kimo Shigure Ni (Seasoned Eel Liver). I'm normally not a big Liver fan and was prepared for the worst, but the execution of this dish was very good, with the Unagi Kimo (Eel Liver) being stewed to a perfect consistency, and the stewing and house-made sauce (including a bit of light soy sauce), helped remove any heavy "liver taste" and left only a toothsome, simple taste of something derived from Unagi, but not quite.

I was looking forward to the Kamo Ro~su (Seasoned Duck Breast Meat), since I enjoy Duck, but it was overcooked, causing it to be extremely tough and chewy. The marinade that went into the Duck Breast was decent, but nothing standout.

The last piece on the Appetizer plate was the Shime Saba Yakime Zushi (Slightly Baked Marinated Mackerel Sushi). The Saba was even more pungent than usual due to the slight baking process, but the Garlic Chip on top helped to diffuse some of the oiliness of the Mackerel.

One thing we noticed from the very first dish (and throughout the night) was the strange lack of bussing of the tables (more on this later).

The Tsukuri course was Sashimi with 4 Types of Fish. The Uni (Sea Urchin) was disappointingly old, about a ~50% Fresh rating, which is the level one might expect at a low-end, mainstream Sushi restaurant. It was a disgrace compared to what Fresh Uni should be (usually 90% or higher at the top Sushi restaurants around town); instead of lightly sweet and creamy, this Uni was extremely briny, had a slight tang, a bad aftertaste and tasted old.

The Mirugai (Geoduck) on the other hand, was strangely soft and extremely tender. It tasted more like Hotategai (Scallops) instead of Mirugai, which usually has some crunch and slight chew to each bite. The cut even looked different and was a pallid white color.

The Chutoro (Medium Fatty portion of Tuna Belly) was rife with Tendon/Gristle throughout each bite, very disappointing and a telling sign that this Kappo restaurant's Sushi Chef had limited skills. Finally the Tai (Red Snapper) was extremely chewy with some Tendon/Gristle in there as well, basically reducing it to typical Tai you'd find at many average Sushi restaurants.

The next course was the Suimono (Soup): Ebi Shinjyo no Osuimono (Soup of Fish and Shrimp Cake, Shimeji Mushroom, Water Shield, and Spinach). The Soup was nice and delicate, with the aroma of the Shimeji Mushrooms, enticing you with each sip of the Soup. The Hourensou (Spinach) added some nice earthy tones, but the Ebi Shinjyo (Shrimp Meatball) overpowered everything. It tasted like a cheap, premade Shrimp Ball normally found at Asian supermarkets, being extremely fishy in taste. Strangely the highlight - Kuri (Water Shield) - was nowhere to be found. My companion couldn't find any Kuri as well, so it melted away in the cooking process, or they just forgot it, either way it was disappointing.

Continuing on, the Takiawase (Simmered Dish) course was next: Zenmai Shinoda Bukuro Ni (Simmered Royal Fern wrapped with Fried Tofu Skin), Nasu Inaka Ni (Simmered Eggplant), Kokabu Ni (Simmered Baby Turnip). This course and part of the last course, started to really show some of the skills of the kitchen. This dish had a beautiful presentation that started to echo the Kaiseki spirit in Japan.

The Zenmai Shinoda Bukuro Ni (Simmered Royal Fern wrapped with Fried Tofu Skin) was delicately prepared to look like a little "purse" - very cute (^_^) - and taking a bite of it, the Tofu Skin gave way to a nice herbally center that blended well with the Tofu "purse."

The Kokabu Ni (Simmered Baby Turnip) was simple and pleasant, a nice complement to the Tofu and other ingredients. But the Nasu Inaka Ni (Simmered Eggplant) was positively *divine*! Eggplant can be really hit-or-miss, but the Simmered Eggplant here was bursting with a rich, heart-warming broth that it soaked up during its long-stewing process: Lightly sweet from the Mirin, a touch of Soy Sauce, it was truly wonderful, recalling the flavors of a good Buta no Kakuni (Long-Stewed Pork) but within delicate Eggplant! It was the highlight of the evening.

The Yakimono (Baked Dish) course came next: Chirian Shiibasu Lemon Yaki (Baked Chilean Sea Bass, Lemon Flavor), Anago Sansho Yaki (Baked Sea Eel, Japanese Pepper Flavor), Asupara Butaa (Sauteed Asparagus with Butter).

The Chilean Sea Bass was overcooked, being really dry and tough. For something like Chilean Sea Bass to turn out the way it did showed gross oversight by the chef, to turn a fish that's normally so moist and delicious due to its high oil content, into a block of dried fish meat.

The Asupara Butaa was fine, with the Asparagus being perfectly cooked through. Finally, the Anago Sansho Yaki (Baked Sea Eel) suffered the same fate as the Chilean Sea Bass, being really tough and chewy as well. Clearly Baked/Broiled items don't seem to be this restaurant's strong point.

We moved onto the Agemono (Deep-Fried Dish) course next: Shako no Ujiage (Deep Fried Mantis Shrimp, Green Tea Flavor). Mantis Shrimp is pretty rare in Southern California, and having just had it at Maki Zushi (albeit in a different preparation), I was curious to see how this version would turn out.

The Fried Mantis Shrimp was nicely cooked, with a good crispy exterior giving way to a nice, rich flavor of the Mantis Shrimp itself, which like the previous version I had, tasted like a cross between a Shrimp and a Lobster, with a denser meat than Shrimp normally has, with a sweeter taste as well (the Green Tea leaves helped to add to that). The only problem was that the Shako pieces were very small and half of the pieces in this dish were Okura (Okra), cut in the same size and shape as the Shako. It felt a little misleading since the Okura wasn't mentioned on the menu anywhere (in Japanese nor in English).

The Sunomono (Vinegar Dish) course came next: Saamon no Marine (Marinated Salmon dressed with Kiwi Vinegar Sauce). The Salmon was tender and the Kiwi Vinegar Sauce worked pretty well with the saltiness of the Salmon meat itself.

Our final savory course, the Tome (labeled as "Rice or Noodle" in English) came next. I opted for the Jyako Gohan (Steamed Rice with Seasoned Young Sardine), Akadashi Jiru (Red Miso Soup), Ko no mono (Japanese Pickles), while my dining companion opted for Cha Soba (Cold Green Tea Noodle).

The Jyako Gohan featured nicely cooked Rice with tiny Whitebait fish throughout. It was wonderfully light and fragrant, with the aroma of the Whitebait fish pervading each bite, but only subtly so. Excellent.

The Red Miso Soup tasted pretty straightforward (like something store-bought).

Finally their Ko no mono (Japanese Pickles) were pretty disappointing. They were limp and tasted as if they had been sitting around for a long time, a shadow of the excellent, fresh crispness found at Hyotei and even at some non-Kaiseki restaurants in Japan.

The Cha Soba (Cold Green Tea Noodle) was simply presented, with a properly cooked Soba Noodle, with just enough chew to each bite.

The final Kashi (Dessert) course was: Suika Zerii (Watermelon Jelly), presented in the same bowl design as the Sashimi course earlier. It featured a dual-layer block of Jelly with a standard Vanilla flavor on top, and Watermelon Jelly on the bottom, paired with cubes of Watermelon Fruit. It tasted pretty underwhelming (not bad, but not great), just simple Vanilla and Watermelon flavors combining together. The Watermelon Fruit sadly, wasn't very fresh, tasting as if it was sitting in the refrigerator for a few days.

As aforementioned, for a Kaiseki experience, I've found that it's a truly focused dining experience of the Art of the Food, Presentation and Meaning, complemented by outstanding, focused Service and if possible, the Environment you dine in (such as the Private Garden I had at Hyotei). Kappo Seafood achieved none of these things, but most disappointing was their Service. If a restaurant doesn't have the Environment, then they strive even harder to perfect the other facets such as the excellence in Food preparation/taste, the Presentation and Meaning, and especially Service (such as Ryugin).

Kappo Seafood's Service was simply horrendous for a restaurant in general, and even worse for a Kaiseki meal: They had a full staff of multiple waiters and waitresses dressed beautifully in Kimonos, and even the restaurant was only at about 50% capacity, Service was wanting. Our tea was never refilled unless we flagged down a waiter or waitress, and that took multiple attempts to get their attention. We noticed other tables were desperately trying to get the attention of the waitstaff as well, to get their checks or change, or other requests as well.

Even worse is that for the Kaiseki meal, which the manager told me was their "pride and joy of the restaurant," they showed no pride in the experience: They let our finished plates sit at the table and stack up. For a Kaiseki experience in Japan, every plate is removed when finished and the server is constantly attentive to your needs. Here, they let multiple finished plates stack up, and even when they presented the next course and I tried to ask for them to remove some of them, sometimes they left our table so fast, that our requests fell on deaf ears. It was only when so many finished plates flooded our table and the servers had no room to put down the new course, would they actually remove our finished plates (almost begrudgingly so). We also noticed that on every table around us, they had multiple empty plates stacked up and nothing was removed as well. It's just gross oversight and a sign of a restaurant that takes zero pride in customer service. Finally, our total came out to be ~$120 per person (including tax and tip).

Kappo Seafood is a disappointment as a true Kappo-style restaurant, let alone its Kaiseki / Japanese "Haute cuisine" experience. From the hit-or-miss Food Preparation, to the Plating (usually for Kaiseki meals, each course's Plating Design has a meaning to complement the food, with beautiful aesthetics), to the Service, let alone the limited Decor, it's something that falls extremely short of the world's best Kaiseki experiences. Still, for Southern California, there are very few restaurants that offer up a Kaiseki course, and if you're curious what a Kaiseki experience is like, Kappo Seafood offers up a beginner's take on the whole experience. I would hope that Kappo Seafood would be able to improve on its terrible Service and execution of its dishes, in which case, it would be a much more palatable Kaiseki experience, however, considering it's been in business for over 7 years, I somehow doubt it's going to be improving anytime soon. Kappo Seafood is merely the underachieving Apprentice in the Kaiseki Court, showing a few flashes of potential, but never striving to improve.

Rating: 5.2 (out of 10.0)

Kappo Seafood
1757 W. Carson St.
Torrance, CA 90501
Tel: (310) 782-0530

Hours: Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 1:45 p.m., 5:30 p.m. - 9:45 p.m.
Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 9:45 p.m.
Closed Sundays.


Charlie Fu said...

Horrible! Thanks for the review

EILEEN said...

I remember reading about this restaurant in one of those free Japanese magazines. I wrote down the name & address on my to-try list. I'm going to cross it off now after reading the review. If I go to a restaurant and don't like the food, I am willing to go back for another try. But if the service is bad, even if the food is good, I will not go back.

Looking at the pictures, they remind me of Wakasan in West LA.
I came here with BF a while back. We had the 10 courses dinner for $35/person. The food and service was both great. And definately a lot cheaper than Kappo.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Eileen,

Thanks. Yah, I totally agree - if you have mediocre food but great service, I'm more inclined to return, instead of a great food and bad service.

Here at Kappo Seafood, they had mediocre food (a few items good, some not so good), and bad service, which is even worse for a Kaiseki experience (it shouldn't happen).

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