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Friday, Oct. 28, 2005 DINING  

An elegant taste of Japan arrives in Albany Park

Posted Thursday, October 27, 2005

Exquisite. No lesser word does justice to the food and the experience of Matsumoto, a new Japanese restaurant in Chicago’s Northwest Side Albany Park neighborhood. Put yourself into chef Seijiro Matsumoto’s hands and prepare to be transported to another realm.

Matsumoto is Chicago’s only restaurant offering traditional kaiseki — an elaborate, seasonal meal of small courses. The menus change daily, but all are made from fresh, premium ingredients, all beautifully prepared, artfully arranged and presented in a sequence dictated by Japanese custom.

The chef learned his art in Japan more than 30 years ago. He’s since had a long career, working at Schaumburg’s Daruma, among other places.

Owners Chiyo and Isao Tozuka, longtime friends of Chef Matsumoto, also own Chicago Kalbi Restaurant, a yakiniku (Korean-style barbecue as practiced in Japan) place a block away. They opened their new venue in August with no publicity, but two weeks afterward the first excited message appeared on LTHForum.com, Chicago’s premier food lovers’ Web site, and from there word has spread rapidly, rather surprising the restaurateurs who’d anticipated a mainly Japanese clientele.

Some of the excitement stems from the reason Chiyo Tozuka said she and her husband decided to open this style of restaurant: “There are a lot of Japanese restaurants in Chicago, but nothing serving this kind of food.” Those who’ve been there, though, are even more thrilled by chef Matsumoto’s consummate skill. The artistry of his tasting menus, with their gorgeous flavors, textures and colors, easily equals those of the city’s foremost chefs, including Arun Sampanthavivat, Rick Tramonto and Charlie Trotter.

Kaiseki, which translates as “warmed stone” and means, basically, belly warmer, has its roots in Zen Buddhism and the meals that accompanied ancient Japanese tea ceremonies. Menus progress with the seasons, and each course has a specific role. Matsumoto’s menus change daily, so your meal won’t duplicate mine, but you can expect a similar progression of courses. Friendly servers speak English and explain the dishes as they arrive.

Our dinner began with a study in orange: a crystal martini glass filled with cleverly cut squiggles of delicately chewy squid, brilliantly colored and flavored with a coating of savory sea urchin and topped with bright, jewel-like globes of salmon roe. Alongside this sakizuke, or appetizer, came the sunomono, or vinegared dish: a kind of slaw — a marvel of textures and flavors — with shreds of cucumber and seaweed and thin strips of omelet, set off by slivers of crabmeat, all sprinkled with crunchy flying fish roe in a mild rice-vinegar dressing. (Traditional kaiseki tends to be heavy on seafood; however Tozuka said that, with notice, Matsumoto could prepare a fish-free menu or even a vegetarian one.)

Mukozuke, the raw course, followed: a stunning presentation of sashimi, dusted with real gold leaf and accompanied by house-made soy sauce and a little mound of freshly grated wasabi root, almost as precious as gold. Its clean sharpness will ruin you for the green horseradish paste served at most sushi bars.

So will Matsumoto’s fish — utterly pristine, precisely cut and tasting of the sea. Our dazzling plate contained a rosette of subtly flavored flounder; a plump sea scallop bisected by a thin slice of lemon; a square of white squid dolloped with unctuous sea urchin; a tail of moist sweet shrimp, curled around its chitinous head; and several heavenly cubes of translucent pink toro, the highest quality fat tuna; the whole garnished with a fresh shiso (beefsteak-plant) leaf. I have distinct memories of the first time I tasted sashimi, some three decades ago, and this is the best I’ve eaten since. Just exquisite.

The suimono, smoky tasting, clear mushroom consomme, came in a ceramic teapot with tiny cups. Inside the pot, to be picked out with chopsticks, floated fresh shimeji mushrooms, chunks of mild white fish and a green ginkgo nut. Close behind, a hot, ceramic bowl of three large, meaty oysters — stewed in velvety white miso sauce with matsutake mushrooms and burdock — formed the hearty nimono, or simmered dish.

The hassun course traditionally offers “morsels from the land and the sea.” An oblong, black lacquer tray held four little items: thin slices of tender rare duck breast in gingery sauce; a trio of crunchy grilled moroko, sardine-like fish, in teriyaki glaze; a green cube made of faintly sweet bean paste; and a bright yellow, sweet chestnut. Exquisite. (Did I say that already?)

Things began to wind down with the wanmori, another soup: a wide bowl of mushroom-dashi broth holding a circle of tofu crepe filled with crab, and topped with spicy radish, and garnished with spongy, brilliantly colored shapes made from fu, or wheat gluten. Two lovely pieces of horse mackerel came next — the agemono, or fried course — crisply breaded in multicolored crumbs with a wedge of lemon, a deep-fried shiso leaf, a tender morsel of fried Japanese eggplant and little mounds of seasoned salt and tart, powdered dried plum for seasoning to taste.

The hashiarai (“chopstick wash”) is meant to refresh your mouth at the meal’s conclusion. We received slices of delicately flavored raw grouper in a piquant sauce made from umeboshi, Japanese salt plums, surrounded by a colorful array of fresh seaweed. Tomawan, or dessert, a warm soup made from red adzuki beans, with chewy rice-gum dumplings, formed the only course that didn’t appeal to me, though it’s a common treat for Asians. Finally, cups of hot green tea brought satiety.

Our dinner cost $100 per person before drinks, tax and tip, and it was worth every penny. Every course was revelatory. Afterward, one of my companions sighed and said, “We should have gone for $150 — I want to know what else he’d do.”

Matsumoto, a very special, special-occasion restaurant, is not for everyone, but those looking for delicious adventure shouldn’t hesitate to make reservations.

When you call, you’ll be asked how much you want to spend — the kaiseki runs from $80 to $150 for seven to 11 courses. You should also state whether you have any dietary restrictions. Reservations should be made at least a day ahead; calling earlier would be smart if you have special requirements. Also, the restaurant is small — about 40 seats — and as its reputation grows, reservations may be harder to come by. (If you can’t plan ahead, Tozuka said that if the reservation list wasn’t full, they might accommodate last-minute callers with smaller omakase — chef’s choice — meals.)

Although the kaiseki’s progression is formal, the restaurant isn’t. With its lavender walls and simple decor, there’s little in the dining room to distract you from the food. Again, I found myself reminded of Charlie Trotter’s. However, neither the staff nor patrons dress formally.

Fortunately for Westerners, given that dinners here last two hours or more, the dining room affords regular tables and chairs instead of Asian-style floor seating. Lovely tableware features at every course. The stage is set with bamboo chopsticks presented in origami paper sleeves, shaped like birds, and diners receive damp towels for their hands before and after dinner.

Matsumoto offers beer and wine, as well as a wide variety of sakes, served chilled in crystal glasses.

• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. Our aim is to describe the overall dining experience while guiding the reader toward the menu’s strengths. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.


3800 W. Lawrence Ave., (773) 267-1555

Cuisine: Traditional Japanese kaiseki tasting menus

Setting: Simple and serene, with Zen-like minimalism

Price range: Fixed-price menus $80 to $150

Hours: 5 p.m. to midnight Sunday through Tuesday and Thursday through Saturday; closed Wednesday

Accepts: Major credit cards

Also: Beer, wine and sake available; limited free parking behind the restaurant; street parking available; reservations required

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