This one is for you Bay Area and visiting foodies. The rest of you just get to be envious.
Bay Area fans of Japanese kaiseki cuisine have had the wonderful, but crowded, Kaygetsu restaurant off Sand Hill Road to feed their addiction. Now there's a new choice in town: Kaygetsu's head kaiseki chef has turned entrepreneur and opened up Wakuriya in a small San Mateo shopping center just off highway 92. My wife and I tried it out yesterday evening, to celebrate my 50-somethingth birthday. (Thanks to my partner Mochio Umeda for clueing us in ahead of the crowd.)
The restaurant is nicely decorated but tiny, only three tables plus eight seats at the bar, perhaps 20 patrons at a time. This allows very attentive service, but requires taking their 'reservations recommended' suggestion seriously. The place was 3/4 full, on a mid-week evening two weeks after opening, so the word is already getting around. One lucky couple managed to walk-in while we were there, but don't count on it!
Wakuriya is open for dinner only, and offers the set kaiseki menu only; no separate sushi or other orders. The choice is between the full 9 course meal, or 3 and 6 course subsets. We went for the whole deal. We were unfortunately restricted to a table since I'm still on crutches, so we'll have return another time to watch the chef at work. Expect to spend at least two hours if you do the full experience; but you'll not notice the time passing.
As usual with this style, presentation was immaculate and diverse, ranging from a heated stone to support the beef course, to Japanese style earthenware to appropriately decorated glazed pieces. This extends down to the accessories: a bamboo coaster laser-cut in the shape of a lotus root, for instance.
As you might expect given Wakuriya's genesis, the food is also impeccable. We believe we detected an overall difference in themes - which my wife characterized as 'earthy' - in comparison to the Kaygetsu style. Whether this was an artifact of the particular menu is hard to tell. We'll just have to return to get more more sample points!
I'll pick out two of the courses for special mention: The Zensai plate has a "Slow cooked mountain potato and snap peas with sesame sauce, sliced almonds, Kukonomi (Goji Berry)" selection that takes a potentially bland base vegetable and makes it dance with flavor. The shiso leaf dressed vegetable dish on the same plate is also exquisite. Definitely grab this one if you're doing the sampler menu.
Second, the Age Mono plate has a "Cherry Blosson flavored Ebi-Shinjo (deep fried minced shrimp cake) wrapped with cherry leaf", with macha salt for extra taste. You've never considered eating a cherry leaf? Trust me, you should! The same plate came with a fried lotus root that nicely echoed the table setting.
The restaurant is so new that it doesn't yet have its liquor license. Denied our usual recourse of throwing ourselves on the mercy of chef and server for appropriate sake pairings, we decided to dig into our own cellar. We came up with a dry, floral 2005 Saucelito Canyon sauvignon blanc. It paired well with all the courses but the beef, and dessert. Considering the latter included a layer of sauvignon blanc jelly, perhaps we were on the same wavelength as the chef.
For those already into kaiseki, you know why you need to go to Wakuriya. For others, there's nothing on the menu that would be considered too 'challenging' to an American palate already acclimated to sushi and sashimi. Give it a try and discover one of the great secrets of world cuisine!