Lee Hefter, Wolfgang Puck's right-hand man and the executive chef at Spago Beverly Hills and the steakhouse Cut, visits Japan for a week every year for inspiration and goes home with new ideas on how to prepare the food at his restaurants—on a previous trip, a meal at a Tokyo restaurant where a steak can cost $1,400 gave him the idea for the ultra-high temperature plus wood smoke process he uses on his steaks back in Los Angeles. This March, two LA Times reporters tagged along to document the experience; Hefter gets tips on where to eat from chefs like Nobu Matsuhisa and Masa Takayama and does a lot of research, so if you're visiting Japan anytime soon do your tastebuds a favor and take the list of restaurants from his trip along with you!
Fans of Japanese food, take note: One of Hefter's favorite places is a small tempura bar, where the chef treats the frying like art. Hefter says, pityingly, "It's amazing how many people go through life thinking they've had tempura," and I believe him. From the sounds of it, I've never really had tempura myself, and I've been to Japan. Perhaps more surprisingly, he only had sushi once on his trip, at an eight-stool sushi bar without a glass case or a list of fish to choose from because the chef only serves seafood that are in season.
This reverence for the freshest of ingredients is perhaps most truly expressed in Kaiseki, Japan's haute cuisine, a formal meal served in fourteen courses. Not only do Kaiseki chefs only use ingredients that are in season, but the seasons only last two weeks each! Hefter times his yearly trip around the cherry blossom festival, and so one dish he receives during a Kaiseki is a savory mochi "wrapped in a cherry leaf, in a bowl of thick dashi broth with bamboo and a cherry blossom. We bite into the leaf, and it tastes intensely of cherry — we can taste the wood, the fruit, the leaf in this single bite. Buried inside the mochi is creamy, explosively flavored sea urchin." He says, "This kind of cooking, a lot of foreigners never see."