Matsumoto, the impossible restaurant

1. Questions

Is anything new still possible?

Would we know it if we saw it?

Can a place as impossible as Matsumoto, with its menu of forbiddingly authentic Japanese dishes on a distant strip of Lawrence Avenue, survive?

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2. Louis Szathmary

The name Louis Szathmary came up during our kaiseki dinner at Matsumoto last night. From the 1960s to the 1980s Szathmary's Chicago restaurant, named with deceptive modesty The Bakery, was one of the trendsetting restaurants in the country, less for its food (undoubtedly fine as it was) than for helping establish the chef as a star who worked the room and appeared on TV promoting his books and played the genial host-restaurateur-- a position in fine restaurants which had often been filled by someone, but rarely if ever by that unseen working class tyrant, the chef.

For someone whose name conjures up an image of French traditionalism, old peasant ways and martial Parisian kitchens, Szathmary was actually much closer to the mad scientists of Moto-- he came to Chicago initially to help Armour develop packaged frozen foods, for instance. It was a short step from there to packaging the chef himself as an essential ingredient, the wellspring of authenticity from whom the restaurant's goodness flowed. Like Leo Burnett, the savvy, tough-as-nails Chicago ad genius whose greatest creation was not the Marlboro Man or the Jolly Green Giant but Leo Burnett, the guileless jes' folks ad man, Szathmary proved the truth of the old adage, "Sincerity is everything. If you can fake that, you've got it made."

As we sat down at Matsumoto, we were greeted by the hostesses with the menu for our meal-- handwritten in Japanese.

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3. The authenticity of rice and ocean

A moment later we were presented with a bottle of sake, and for the second time this year I was treated to an explanation of how many times each grain of rice from my sake had been polished.

That time, it had been amusing and novel, even as the sakes lived up to the outlandish image of little Japanese ladies polishing rice by hand with discernable levels of refinement. This time it was a glimpse of a way of life.

That is, of course, what we always want from that elusive beast the "authentic" experience-- to share, at the primal level of our most basic senses, taste and smell and touch, in the experience of being Japanese or Tuscan or Thai. There was considerable discussion, between ourselves and with our hostesses, about how they have sometimes tailored the menu (in one case resulting in disappointment, clearly) to be more or less traditionally Japanese for non-Asian customers. It had takensome effort to persuade Matsumoto that there was a market for the traditional Japanese menu among non-Asian customers. That we wanted to eat what they eat, at the deepest and least altered level possible.

Yet the first courses at Matsumoto were a reminder that genuine authenticity is equally well described as alien. The French authentically eat cheese with veins of fuzzy gray mold that would make us throw away a peach. Isaan Thais authentically enjoy a nice plate of bugs. And as the challenging first courses we had at Matsumoto proved, the Japanese make little distinction between dinner-- and a swamp.

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4. The diner who fell from grace with the sea

Our first course consisted of five glasses-- each containing something to unhinge your notions of acceptable food.

In the center, an oyster shooter with a quail egg in it. The liquid was robustly salty, like tomato juice or blood, too rich and savory to drink more than a little of at a time without feeling your senses overwhelmed.

In the cup to its left was squid parts, slippery but with a hard edge which made them turn and thrash in the mouth as you tried to chew them. Despite that unnerving sensation, as I dug into it I actually found this one growing on me, a gently briny taste and almost obscenely slippery texture delicately set off by the shavings of green onion.

To its right, a Japanese mountain yam which, boiled presumably, broke down into a sort of porridge-like goo. In this case it served as a base into which sea cucumber stomach had been Frappucino'd. I tried very hard to avoid saying what this gooey stuff reminded me of before someone at the table blurted out the inevitable comparison: "Snot." Flavor was as minimal as the texture was unappealing, and I decided that having finished the others, I could send this dish back largely undisturbed.

Next, a green seaweed in a vinegar sauce-- my tastebuds said "We like!," my sense of touch said "You're eating moss from an overgrown pond." This one, though, I could see growing on you-- delicate, velvety, subtle and seductive, like the ghosts or water spirits in Japanese movies who lure men into the water to stay with them forever.

From there the final glass was practically comfort food, and surprisingly easy to take-- a clam in a sweetish, malty-tasting red bean sauce. More like bar food than ghost food, it was almost a letdown for not making my nervous system confront the very limits of what it was willing to allow me to ingest without forcing right back up.

Having eaten most of my food so far, having tried everything, I, not Matsumoto, had passed the test of authenticity, and would be allowed to continue eating.

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5. Comfort food

Do you remember the first time you had sushi? That you ate uncooked fish?

Did you ever imagine a day when it would be like returning to the safe and comforting after something far, far stranger?

Incidentally, speaking as I was of Leo Burnett, at one point (c. 1992) one of my creative directors announced a moratorium on "sushi" as a punchline in food commercials. It was too easy a laugh. Not long after, Dick Orkin did a spot in which he got big laughs out of the particularly pungent repetition of the word "larb." Now that's staying ahead of the competition.

The sashimi, by the way, was absolutely top quality, as melt-in-your-mouth good as any I've ever had. As good as Mom's mashed potatoes or hot apple pie.

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6. Building a bridge to the 21st century-- from the 12th

I first saw the floating orange thing through the viewfinder. What an attractive slice of pickled ginger or something, I thought.

It wasn't until I looked at the real thing that I knew how fake it was.

This was an amazingly delicate mushroom broth, served most attractively like tea, with bits of fish at the bottom to be picked out and eaten. In many ways this was the dish that most fit my preconception of what a kaiseki meal would be-- subtle, ascetic, contemplative, harmoniously drawn from the most basic ingredients and served with artful simplicity.

And then, like a Ginza neon sign suddenly blasting over the temples of Kyoto, there was this aggressively pink spongy thing floating in the middle of it. The sort of rice flour artificial-dyed shaped product you find in plastic bags at Mitsuwa and buy not knowing if it's candy or seaweed crackers. At Avenues they'd crush and sprinkle them over foie gras, at Moto they'd make them themselves in a cyclotron, a postmodern comment on the whole business of authenticity. But this was the natural postmodernism of Japan, instinctive, happy to use the modern and see no contradiction. The only inauthentic thing would be to pretend it didn't exist and serve a kaiseki meal that pretended to belong to the past alone.

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7. Arun Sampanthavivat

I wrote not too long ago about how some new restaurant was practically guaranteed the top spot on Chicago magazine's list of the 20 best restaurants in town, just because of its pedigree, which boasted two of the most visible and talked-about chefs in town, Roland Liccioni and Arun Sampanthavivat. In other words, the establishment magazine was anointing an establishment restaurant from two establishment chefs. And thus did the tight little food community stay tight-- and little.

The irony of my saying that is that calling Arun part of the establishment by itself calls into question the very idea of an establishment. Love his place or think it's wildly overrated, there's no denying that his ascendancy is a triumph for the idea of global cuisine-- and a shattering of the old ideas of what constituted haute cuisine. 25 or so years ago, when the most popular dish in town was Louis Szathmary's Armour-plated beef wellington, Arun opened a little restaurant in an obscure, probably scary part of the city, and devoted his energies to showing that his native cuisine could be as flavorful, as complex, as artful, and (that ultimate validator) as expensive as any in the world. And to the enormous credit of many hundreds of Chicagoans with discerning taste buds and expense accounts, they took him up on it, overcame their obvious reservations, and made reservations for such bizarre things as meat dishes containing coconut milk and fish sauce (it's got what? How the hell do you ferment a fish? Isn't that called rotting?)

My question is, will people do the same someday for a dish like the crab tofu at Matsumoto?

The crab tofu with tofu skin arrived resting in a pool of the mountain potato or yam porridge-like stuff sampled earlier in the night. This time it was warm, savory with little rust-colored mushrooms and salmon roe. The texture was less off-putting, the subtle flavor of crab and salty roe was likable, and yet-- I could not make this dish come together for me. Take a slice of tempura maki and put it in warm runny Malt-O-Meal and then wish for them to cohere into a single balanced and logical dish-- but they didn't, for me. Not only the dish itself but the language it was speaking in remained alien to me.

Yet I cannot dismiss the possibility that the fault was mine, rather than the dish's. The question is, are people adventurous enough to try such things often enough to find out if they can like it, ever? More to the point, are they adventurous enough to venture up to Lawrence Avenue and give Matsumoto the chance they once gave Arun? Or has the globalization of the upscale downtown restaurant's idea of cuisine paradoxically made customers less willing to escape the cocoon of the upscale parts of town?

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8. The Impossible Matsumoto

I read an article in The New Yorker 8 or 10 years ago about a novelist who had written an impossible novel-- an epic, Tolstoyan account of life between the wars, aristocratic and cosmic and philosophical and dense and resolutely uncommercial. The problem was that he had a temperament to match-- asked to cut 50,000 words he turned in a manuscript 100 pages longer; prodded to make the speaking voices of his characters more easily distinguishable, he returned with even longer speeches about the nature of man in the cosmos spoken between two Cockney privates in the trenches. His book was a failure at the ground-floor level of commercial acceptability, which was meeting certain basic criteria of naturalism in speech and action, shared alike by everyone from Saul Bellow to Dan Brown; yet the author of the piece suspected at the same time that the book was a work of genius all the same, and that it was the world of publishers and readers, not this author, who were being difficult and stubborn in refusing to open their conception of what a good book was-- to admit this potentially great one.

That's how I feel about Matsumoto in certain ways-- without question this was one of the great meals of my life, yet the greatest things about were the things that challenged me the most; the sashimi was lovely, but I can have that elsewhere; what captivates me, what fascinates me now, are the things that resisted my attempts to understand and love them, the briny, offputting cocktails of pond scum and invertebrates, the mysterious combinations of tofu and yam goo and crab balancing and working in some way that remains as opaque to me as a conversation spoken in Japanese.

And without question this is one of the great new restaurants in the city (it goes without saying that it will deserve to make a certain magazine's list of such things next year more than all but one or two of the more commercially savvy spots that actually will), yet the very fact that, like that author I read about, it's incapable of completely meeting the commercial idea of what a great (aka expensive) restaurant should be, in decor, in table accoutrements (the cheap disposable chopsticks), in incongruously homey service (not in any way to slight the immensely warm and friendly welcome we received), mean that some people will write it off as amateur night, as an average ethnic restaurant getting ideas above its station, before they ever have a chance to discover the artistry and challenges and, yes, authenticity coming from the kitchen.

Alas, I fear that Matsumoto may be so authentic that it will never learn to fake sincerity well enough to be the hit it deserves, on food alone, to be.

Matsumoto closed and reopened as a different restaurant a few months later.