Kaiseki in the Rain

My friend Brian, he of raw milk and smuggled French cheeses, lives in a Japanese-influenced mid-century modern home in Pasadena. Approaching the house from the street, you come up a few steps to a large door framed by stained glass windows. Inside the door is not the interior of the house, but a raised, covered wooden deck bridge through a Japanese garden that connects front entrance and front doors.


A couple years back, upon our first visit to his house, I commented that I wanted to do a winter kaiseki dinner on the bridge during a rainstorm.

I often present friends with interesting home situations with my wild ideas about dinners I want to do there (such as the winter storm seafood dinner I wanted to do at our friends’ Steve McQueen Malibu beach house), but rarely receive more than a polite nod. But Brian seemed enthusiastic. Then — now! — a couple years later, I receive a text from Brian. “We missed the storm! But there’s rain in the forecast for next weekend. Shall we do our dinner?” He didn’t have to ask me twice.

It was pouring in Topanga, as if someone had taken a knife and split open the swollen belly of the black cloud above, when we left for Pasadena. But sometimes the rainclouds get stuck on our coastal mountains, and the sky was blue by the time we reached Pasadena. Nonetheless, Brian had set out his traditional kotatsu table onto the bridge surrounded by paper lanterns and plum blossoms, I had brought a bag full of ama ebi, striped bass, wagyu beef, simmered duck and other delights, and we would eat well.

The kotatsu on the bridge

The kotatsu on the bridge

The front door was opened not by Brian, but by his new friend Makkie, a very giggly and beautiful Japanese woman. This was a trap, I immediately concluded — like some domestic version of “Iron Chef,” a test of my meddle. You think you’re a Japanese chef, hot shot? I imagined Brian thinking to himself. Try cooking for a REAL Japanese person! But I didn’t shrink from the challenge — it was ON! I’d cooked French food for French people, Italian for Italians, Mexican for Mexicans… I’d even done chicken Kiev for our Ukrainian friends. I wasn’t easily intimidated.

We drank Japanese beer in the kitchen and then moved to the kotatsu. The blue skies had clouded over, and it was drizzling. The first course was raw ama ebi sweet shrimp and striped bass sashimi with herb flowers and a salad of greens — miner’s lettuce, sour grass and mustard greens — I had foraged that morning in Topanga.



Oishi!” Makkie giggled, covering her mouth with her hand. Delicious, Brian translated. One point for the challenger!

Next we moved on to duck legs and thighs that had been long-braised in apple cider, sake and dashi broth, cubes of kabocha pumpkin lightly cooked in the finished broth. More “oishi,” more points for the chef.

Simmered duck and pumpkin

Simmered duck and pumpkin

Leslie, Brian and Makkie

Leslie, Brian and Makkie

From our beer, we had also moved on to sake. Makkie had brought a good bottle, and Brian had several to contribute as well. I once did a post on the evocative names the Japanese give their sakes — “Wandering Poet” or “Mansion of Dreams” — and while I didn’t catch the names of these particular sakes, each was more delicious than the last.

The kaiseki dinner, for those not in the know, is a formal and highly ritualized occasion in Japan. It is sort of the Japanese version of — and, I would hazard, the precursor to — the popular Western “chef’s tasting menu”: a series of small, seasonal dishes exquisitely prepared and presented. Some of the formality less typical of a Western meal comes from the prescribed ordering of the dishes. I’ve never been able to quite unravel precisely the rules and regulations, but it goes something like this: you begin with sashimi, followed by a simmered dish, followed by a grilled dish, followed by a steamed dish, followed by…

Tempura — sorrel leaves, wild mushrooms, shiso leaf with sea urchin

Tempura — sorrel leaves, wild mushrooms, shiso leaf with sea urchin

Fried ama ebi with sea urchin noodles and Chinese fermented bamboo shoot

Fried ama ebi with sea urchin noodles and Chinese fermented bamboo shoot

By nature, I like to break with tradition. So I took the spirit of kaiseki, with its attention to detail and season, and abandoned the formality. My tempura course — sorrel leaves, wild mushrooms, shiso leaf with sea urchin — might’ve jumped ahead of my grilled course. And where in the instructions does it say anything about a noodle course!??

Oishi” was my guiding principle for the night.

During my preparation of one of the courses, Makkie came into the kitchen carrying plates. She wanted to know how I learned Japanese cooking, where I got my ingredients. She wanted to watch and learn. Yes, I believed, the challenger had won the competition.

Wagyu steak — the "grilled" course

Wagyu steak — the “grilled” course

The promised rain still hadn’t come. We’d had a beautiful dinner, and after the final course of wagyu zabuton steak with broiled eggplant and fresh wasabi raw butter, we sat luxuriating under the heated blanket that covered our legs. The roar of rain pouring down all around us while we ate was not to be.

“It was a test run,” Brian said.

The kids were tired, it was time to go home.

Imogen under the kotatsu

Imogen under the kotatsu

It was, of course, still raining when we got home to Topanga. The clouds had gotten stuck. But then I received a text from Brian:

“Began raining just after you left. Makkie and I just chilled out on the deck and enjoyed the rain.”

I was glad someone got to.

*    *    *

Braised duck with kabocha pumpkin
serves 4

2 legs & thighs duck
1 tsp. vegetable oil
salt & pepper
1/2 cup dashi broth
1/2 cup apple juice
1/2 cup sake
1 cup cubed kabocha pumpkin

With a cleaver, remove the knobby bone from the end of the duck leg (chop it off) about 1/2 inch from the end. Chop the leg/thigh into 2 or 3 sections, depending on preference. Season liberally with salt and pepper.

In a small saucepan, heat the tsp. oil over medium high until it begins to smoke. Sear the duck, skin side down as applicable, until brown, about one minute. Turn over and sear the other side.

Reduce heat to medium and add three liquids. Bring to a simmering boil, lower heat to low, cover and cook for 90 minutes.

Remove from heat. Let cool, then remove duck and strain stock. (This can be done the day before serving.)

Place duck pieces under a broiler and broil until golden brown, 5 to 10 minutes depending on heat and proximity to heating source. While duck is broiling, place stock in a small saucepan over medium heat. When it begins to simmer, add pumpkin cubes and cook until tender, about 5 minutes.

Scoop some stock and pumpkin cubes into each of 4 shallow bowls. Top with 1-2 pieces of duck and serve.

23 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lori Koefoed
    Mar 13, 2015 @ 15:25:32

    Wow, that looks amazing!


  2. Cheryl "Cheffie Cooks" Wiser
    Mar 13, 2015 @ 15:48:24

    Great meal! In Florida with the rain it is a hit or miss too. One area it will be pouring 3 minutes down the Road sunshine-Go figure? Have a great weekend. Cheryl


    • scolgin
      Mar 13, 2015 @ 16:15:54

      I was in Florida for one of those rainstorms once. It was around Halloween, we were walking around in our shorts with beers. All of sudden it started pouring. We went up on my friend’s porch and watched it for like 5 minutes. And then it stopped. And that was it. 🙂


  3. timoirish34
    Mar 13, 2015 @ 16:13:33

    What a brilliant creation, SC. Your setting was perfection, as was this menu. I only know Kaiseki from my reading; I’ve always found the formality of what the dinner must be (in theory) pretty daunting. I’d say you did it just right. I did live for a few years in LA’s Little Tokyo, though not even the best restaurants in that tourist mecca served such an intricate meal (though I suppose the Otani/DoubleTree could whip one out for a sufficient stack of cash and a large enough party). Getting praise from a true Japanese for your cuisine is quite an honor. The only way I’ve even come close is receiving compliments from Japanese nationals on my manners—which I guess is something.

    I’ve always been partial to ama ebi, though many of my most adventurous dining friends recoil in horror at eating fried shrimp heads (which I’ve always considered the best part–sort of a piquant, mid-course dessert). I am sorry about the rain. I’ve always dreamed of attending a cha no yu in a real tea house during a rain shower, but that may have to wait for my next lifetime. Best, Tim


    • scolgin
      Mar 13, 2015 @ 16:18:32

      Thank you Tim. It took me awhile to warm up to eating the shrimp heads. But yes, they are the best part. Actually, the combo of the cool, fresh tail followed by the crunchy salty head is something akin to food ecstasy. I went to Japan once on business, and studied up on business etiquette before I left. It was quite the education!


  4. Andrea Cleall
    Mar 13, 2015 @ 17:28:45

    Wow! That was all so beautiful.


  5. pal-O
    Mar 13, 2015 @ 20:03:08

    Agreed with Andrea–beautiful dinner and a well written, entertaining telling. One day we eat al fresco by the pool under the overhang in the rain in Winter Park FLA mi amigo. Local source the meal and you chef it and I’ll gladly be your kitchen second hand.


  6. andreathompson2
    Mar 13, 2015 @ 21:48:30

    That was a beautiful post. His table looked AWESOME and of course, your food was amazing!


  7. marielfernandes
    Mar 14, 2015 @ 03:29:57

    Nice! Good vibe from Brazil!


  8. Ella
    Mar 24, 2015 @ 21:48:45

    It’s such a joy to read your posts. You have a great writing style. What a fun night!


  9. thejameskitchen
    Apr 03, 2015 @ 07:51:50

    Impressive and awe inspiring, totally delicious, too. I always cook Italian for Japanese guests, who are absolute mad about authentic Italian food here (in Germany, go figure), would not have dreamed of trying this. Wow. Nicole


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  11. Eli
    Dec 31, 2015 @ 02:21:38

    Nice to see you have enjoyed the company of Brian’s new friend Makki! Thanks for sharing this dinner with the world. The sting is very sharp… Gulp…


    • scolgin
      Dec 31, 2015 @ 02:28:30

      It was merely a passing association, Eli… And we weren’t nearly as fond of her as we’ve been of his past girlfriend(s). But a fun opportunity for me to test my Japanese chops on a real Japanese person.


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