I have never been to Japan. I have experienced Japanese food only through the American filter. Sushi, sashimi, and older dishes like teriyaki or even sukiyaki have been my impression of Japanese cuisine. I've watched shows like Iron Chef and seen more exotic dishes. I've heard stories of paper-thin sashimi, mushroom and miso broths and complex meals focusing on texture and a formal service, but had never experienced it, until Friday night when I dined at Matsumoto at 3800 West Lawrence in Chicago.
Lawrence and Hamlin is an unusual place to put one of the best and most expensive restaurants in Chicago, but if you think of Arun's fifteen blocks away on Kedzie as a mate, you can see an Asian haute cuisine district in the making. The storefronts are relatively cheap, giving the chefs more freedom to experiment with their food.
The experiment at Matsumoto is not in new fusion cuisine or architectural food as at Moto or Alinea, but in bringing the very traditional kaiseki style of Japanese food to Chicago, 800 miles from the nearest ocean.
Kaiseki style dining specifies that the food be served in a specific order, vinegared dishes separate from broiled dishes separate from raw and fried dishes, etc... I won't attempt to explain the style since this is my only experience with it, but the rigidity of the form lends itself to variation within its constraints, and if you have a dining companion who expresses particular pleasure in a dish, it may lead to abandonment of some of the form itself, but I'll get to that.
Matsumoto itself is a very simple space. A bar greets the customer, and beyond it, a few very simple tables. Plum is the dominant color. The sushi bar sits in the back of the main room, and that's where Seijiro Matsumoto works to delight his diners. The atmosphere is polite, but not stuffy or overly formal. We felt at home dressed in what would be considered "business casual" clothing.
When you call for a reservation at Matsumoto, you will be asked whether you would like a "traditional" or "very traditional" Japanes meal and how much you'd like to spend per person. We had opted for the deluxe very traditional menu, and were not surprised to be greeted with a paper scroll covered in Japanese characters with no English in sight. This is not a problem, since the menu is already set based on your previously expressed dietary restrictions and desires. In any case, the hostess is happy to translate and to explain each dish to you.
The meal we had broke down into 11 separate courses. These were:
1. Monkfish liver in yuzu sauce with spiced daikon. The monkfish liver had been formed into a sausage shape and sliced into rounds (I know, I got an end piece). Two thick slices were served in a sour yuzu based sauce garnished with a spiced daikon radish the hostess assured us was quite spicy. We didn't find it too spicy at all, and it combined very well with the rich liver and sharp yuzu. An excellent start to an unusual meal. The vessel this was served in was a beautiful crystal glass with a thickly carved stem.
Courses 2-4 came together . Three small glasses filled with vinegary dishes. The first was sea urchin and what our hostess referred to as tarpon shell (perhaps she meant scales?) with a sprinkle of hijike. The second, served in a tall stemmed glass with a round bowl was a thin seaweed nest in a sweet and sour vinegar with a raw quali egg on top. We broke the yolk and mixed it with the vinegary sauce to dress the excellent fresh seaweed. The final dish was eggplant in a vingary sauce with foam on top, the provenance of which we didn't ascertain. We were too busy making yummy noises and enjoying the unusual dishes to ask.
Courses 5 and 6 were paired together. For course 5, our hostess set down two teapots in front of us with the smallest teacups I've ever seen. Each cup literally held no more than a couple of tablespoons of broth. Inside the pot was a thin broth in which simmered matsutake mushrooms, small bits of whitefish, edamame, and herbs.
Course 6 was a plate of sashimi, primarily paper-thin slices of the freshest fluke I've ever had with a sweet ponzu dipping sauce. Two chunks of tuna dusted with egg powder and gold leaf along with the best and freshest raw salmon I've ever had in my life, and a piece of mirugai came along for the ride. We mixed fresh wasabi (not the horseradish mix you get in most Japanese places, but actual fresh ground wasabi with a soy sauce unlike any I'd ever had before, not nearly as salty or powerful as the Kikkoman I'm used to. We sipped the matsutake soup from the shallow teacups as we ate our sashimi until we could stand it no more and fished the mushrooms and other bits out with our chopsticks.
As we ate the sashimi my wife reacted, shall we say, very positively to the mirugai, which she had never had before. It was exceptional mirugai, and chef Matsumoto noticed her enthusiasm. As a consequence, after hearing what sounded like a spirited discussion from the kitchen, we were asked if we would like to forego the upcoming fried dish in favor of "better" sushi at the end. We quickly agreed as the raw fish had so far been better than any either of us had ever had.
Dish 7 was served very hot in a shallow clay bowl with a stand. A rich miso broth bubbled around kumamoto oysters, what I think were called "shiziki" mushrooms, and thin shavings of a parsnip or carrot-like root vegetable our hostess did not know the English name of. The broth was sweet and earthy, tasting almost like a sweet winter squash soup. My only regret was that we had no spoons to finish off the sauce.
Dish 8 was much more like Japanese food I'd seen, but that was deceiving. A piece of teriyaki grilled salmon was served with a pair of tiny Japanese river fish in a sweet glaze that my wife referred to appropriately as "candied minnows". Served with this was a ginger-like vegetable that was primarily pink, a candied chestnut that was sweet and flavorful, and a small sweet radishy vegetable with many strands that had been soaked in sweet vinegar. The salmon was perfectly grilled, and even the candied minnows were quite tasty, heads and all.
Dish 9 was the one that filled us up, I think. On a small stand inside which burned a flame, a wire basket sat containing a spiky piece of thick metal foil. In that foil, in a boiling orange broth simmered large chunks of fish, cabbage, enoki mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, and one piece of fish spine with bits of spongy meat clinging to it. We served the boiling hotpot into traditional bowls to let it cool as the flame beneath kept the rest very hot. Also in the hotpot were vibrant pink stars of a spongy wheat gluten called Fu that held its testure very well.
Dish 10 is when we enjoyed the fruits of our fried dish sacrifice. Five pieces of sushi were presented to us. The fish was incomparable and generous. We started with a whitefish we couldn't identify, but that melted in our mouths. Next, I sampled the scallop, which might as well have been still alive, it was so fresh. The seocnd piece of mirugai we'd sampled that night was next, and we both agreed it was outstanding. We'd been asked before if we ate sea urchin, which is challenging to many raw fish neophytes. We tried it now and the urchin was smooth and rich, lingering nicely. A fien piece of mackeral was next and thencame the best piece of fish I've ever had in my life - a long slice of very fatty tuna.
The fatty tuna was like butter. I don't mean that in a Michael Myers Saturday Night Live sense. I mean the tuna's texture and the way in lingered was like a piece of butter, but with much more flavor. I let the flavor linger for a long while before tasting anything else. Um. Wow.
The dessert was excellent, but after that fish, it was merely a coda to the meal, not the big finish. Course 11 was an asian persimmon and japanese pear in japanese pear juice with a sweet chestnut gelee and sweetened black beans. It cleaned the palate nicely and complemented all the preceding flavors.
We discussed the sourcing of ingredients with the hostess. Although certain items like the mirugai are brought in occasionally from Washington state, almost ALL the fish and the more unusual vegetables and fungi are brought in straight from Japan. This is no faux, Midwestern interpretation of Japanese food - this is the real deal.
Now that brings us to the bill. Flying top shelf ingredients in from Japan daily is not an inexpensive proposition. I want you to keep in mind that I've eaten at Charlie Trotter's, Tru, Topolobampo, Arun's, and many many other great four star restuarants. So, here it is - Matsumoto was possibly the most expensive meal I've eaten in my life. And I'm not upset about that.
Now, was it the best meal of my life? That's very hard to say. It was a true life experience meal and I feel like a richer person for having eaten there. What Matsumoto is doing is unique in Chicago, as far as I know. I can say I've never had better fish anywhere. I'm not sure the fish I caught in Lake Michigan and ate two hours later seemed as fresh as the fish at Matsumoto. If it was not the best meal of my life, it was definitely in the top five, and I'm still not sure it's not #1.
I particularly liked the atmosphere. It wasn't stuffy. It didn't feel like hordes of expense account diners had yet discovered the restaurant, and we overheard Japanese being spoken by two diners who were friendly with Matsumoto-san. It was calm, friendly, and polite all night long. I don't know how lon git can stay that way with food this good. If you want to try this style of food, go now before the press gets hold of it in earnest.
I told my wife that I do think I need to go back to Arun's to see which of the two is the Northwest Side Asian Haute Cuisine champion, but I'm not sure she bought it. Once we go to Arun's again, I'll be agitating for another trip to Matsumoto, I'm sure.
3800 W. Lawrence
Chicago, IL 60625
$80-150 per person plus drinks
Call three days ahead for vegetarian meals.
Outstanding service and food and very good atmosphere.