As many travelers to Japan know, the tea ceremony is an intriguing but daunting prospect: a ritualistic succession of tiny artistically arranged dishes called kaiseki ryori, which sprawls into four hours of strange food, cross-legged discomfort, and potentially vast expense. But like nearly everything else in this country, kaiseki ryori—literally, "tea-ceremony cuisine"—has been modernized. Not, however, in the manner of most Japanese cooking in the West, which has fused with other culinary cultures (witness Nobu Matsuhisa's use of Peruvian flavors at the New York City Nobu). While chefs in Japan may be leaving behind the geishas and tatami mats, they aren't straying far from a centuries-old tradition; they're boiling it down to its essence and bringing it into the new century.
Fittingly, two of the best contemporary kaiseki ryori restaurants are not in Kyoto, the original home of the tea ceremony, but rather in the heart of Tokyo's swinging Ginza district. The entrance to Mutsukari, located on one of the neighborhood's busiest streets, isn't exactly promising—you walk in under a sign that reads PONY GROUP and take an elevator to the sixth floor. Once you're inside, though, the small, windowless restaurant is quietly luxurious, a kind of theater in which a dark marble counter surrounds an open kitchen where chefs construct their dishes with hushed concentration. The head chef, Toyoharu Enokizono, was trained in the traditional kitchens of Kyoto and Osaka. As a result, a dozen courses for dinner are the norm here. He combines the nibbly quality of kaiseki with the ingredients of vegetarian shojin ryori ("temple cuisine") to create an haute-vegetarian banquet, each dish presented as exquisitely as if it were modern Zen art (Enokizono even designed the tableware himself). On my visit, a plate called Seasonal Vegetables turned out to be 15 distinct fragments of lotus root, burdock, konnyaku (a jelly derived from roots), yuba (a type of tofu "skin"), and other ingredients I'd never seen let alone tasted before. Another course of broiled yuba, a meaty variety of tofu, came with black Japanese peppers.
The chef's pièce de résistance arrived roughly halfway through the meal (course No. 7 and still counting): a platter of 16 "canapés" that were as diverse in texture and form as the concoctions of any pâtissier. Among them was something that resembled a fried quail's egg but was actually a salty yellow disc made from potato and vegetable starches. Elsewhere on the plate was seitan (wheat gluten) disguised as pork belly and dressed in Chinese-style sauce.
Meat and dairy are nowhere to be seen at Mutsukari—and none is necessary, so diverse are the dishes. A few rules of traditional shojin ryori have been broken, however; for example, Enokizono uses stock made from bonito (tuna) instead of seaweed, along with freshly cut wafers of dried bonito as a garnish on top of sansai, the wild vegetable dish. Though hardly radical, the substitutions are nevertheless unusual in a culture that normally pays the highest respect to the old way—that is, the right way—of doing things.
At Ginza Kamiya Kobikian, the new restaurant on the fourth floor of the Barneys building, nouvelle kaiseki ryori is served in a calm and orderly dining room with white leather chairs, next to an open kitchen. The only thing that disturbs the peace is when the staff greets diners with a chorus of "Irrashaimase!"
The centerpiece of a meal here is soba, or buckwheat noodles, and it would be difficult to find any better than these: handmade, slightly rough in texture, and served cold with various sauces and stocks. Still, other sections of the menu offer a bit more intrigue, as most Western palates have become accustomed to soba by now. There are plenty of ingredients and dishes, in fact, that you can't find anywhere outside Japan, such as ebi-imo, a type of yam (known as a Kyoto potato in English) prepared with a sauce made of grated daikon and served in an earthenware bowl. My lunchtime platter of delicate grilled morsels included a sea snail and some unidentifiable vegetables that had me reaching for my copy of Richard Hosking's excellent Japanese-English reference book, A Dictionary of Japanese Food. Myoga, I learned, is "a type of ginger scarcely recognizable as such." And I thought I was eating tofu again.
Mutsukari: dinner, $300; 6F Ginza Pony Bldg., 5-5-19 Ginza, Chu-o-ku; 81-3/5568-6266. Ginza Kamiya Kobikian: lunch, $120; 4F Kojun Building, 6-8-7 Ginza, Chu-o-ku; 81-3/5537-7700.