Once and For All, Makoto Does Not Specialize in Kaiseki Cuisine
This is embarrassing — for Y&H and for many other sources that have consistently equated the dishes served at Makoto to the more formal kaiseki dining found in Japan.
I spoke with Michiko Lecuyer, a manager at Makoto, who assured me that the tiny Palisades restaurant does not specialize in kaiseki. Rather, Lecuyer says after consulting with the kitchen, Makoto prefers to be known as an omakase house, where the chefs prepare a free-form, multi-course menu based on their own tastes and the whims of the season.
I pressed Lecuyer on this because so many food outlets refer to Makoto as a kaiseki or kaiseki-style house. Y&H has committed this sin. So has the Washingtonian (even in passing). Ditto for Capital Spice, Chowhound, Food & Wine, Fearless Critic, and no doubt countless other writers who have temporarily escaped my attention.
Lecuyer acted surprised by this information, as if the folks at Makoto had never read any of these sources. But she insisted that the tiny restaurant is more accurately described as an omakase house, even if, like with kaiseki cuisine, Makoto's chefs are strictly tied to the seasons. "The spring has to be the spring," Lecuyer tells me.
I asked Lecuyer to help me understand the difference between Makoto's omakase and the more traditional kaiseki meal. She put down the phone and made a trip to the kitchen, where I could hear the chefs giving her rapid-fire answers in Japanese. She returned to tell me it's complicated to explain, but one difference is that kaiseki cuisine is more hidebound. Certain vegetables must be served during the spring, for example, or certain fish. Or certain vegetables with fish. "We don't have that kind of a rule," she says.
Y&H doesn't pretend to be an expert on Japanese cooking and culture, but he's enough of a journalist to know when to turn to an expert. Trevor Corson, the Sushi Concierge and the author of The Story of Sushi, first mentioned the word "kaiseki" to me in connection with Makoto. It was when he was giving me a lesson in nikiri.
So I e-mailed Corson again this morning to help me better understand all the confusion about kaiseki — and whether Makoto does or does not specialize in it. Here's what he wrote back:
Kaiseki is one of those culinary concepts that has a sort of mythic status but about which there's not a great deal of agreement as to what exactly it means — or rather, there are a variety of interpretations, the two basic of which are that it's a) elaborate and sophisticated courtly tea ceremony food or b) ascetic temple dining for vegetarian mountain monks. When it's used by laymen in an average context, people often are simply referring to an elegant, multi-course tasting menu of small dishes, like at Makoto, but to a traditionalist and purist, real kaiseki would be defined by the following of a variety of rules having to do with the order in which things are served, how they're prepared, and certain types of arrangements of ingredients. Check out this guy's take on the topic, which is pretty involved, yet points to the difficulty of precisely defining kaiseki:
Based on Corson's comments and those buried within the link above, it seems fair to me to call Makoto a kaiseki-style restaurant, even if the owners would balk at that description. Clearly, Makoto follows some of the principles of kaiseki — its soup starter, its seasonality, its multi-course format. But to say it specializes in kaiseki....well, that's dead wrong. Y&H humbly apologizes for perpetuating this falsehood.
Interestingly enough, Corson believes that the tasting menus at the revamped Sushi Taro "are possibly a bit closer to real kaiseki than Makoto now, but still I wouldn't say they're like what's served at a traditional kaiseki house in Kyoto."
Guess where Y&H will be going soon?