Credit: Darrow Montgomery

This is embarrassing—for Y&H and for many other sources that have consistently equated the dishes served at Makoto to the more formal kaiseki dining found in Japan.

For this week’s cover story (page 18), I spoke with Michiko Lecuyer, a manager at Makoto, who assured me that the tiny Palisades restaurant does not specialize in kaiseki. Rather, after consulting with the kitchen, Lecuyer says Makoto prefers to be known as an omakase house, where the chefs prepare a free-form, multicourse menu based on their own tastes and the whims of the season.

I pressed Lecuyer on this because so many food outlets refer to Makoto as a kaiseki or kaiseki-style house. Y&H has committed this sin. So has the Washingtonian (sometimes even in passing in another review). Ditto Capital Spice, Chowhound, Food & Wine, Fearless Critic, and no doubt countless other writers who have temporarily escaped my attention.

Lecuyer acted surprised by this information, as if the folks at Makoto had never read any of these sources. But she insisted that the tiny restaurant is more accurately described as an omakase house, even if, like with kaiseki cuisine, Makoto’s chefs are strictly tied to the seasons. “The spring has to be the spring,” Lecuyer tells me.

I asked Lecuyer to help me understand the difference between Makoto’s omakase and the more traditional kaiseki meal. She put down the phone and made a trip to the kitchen, where I could hear the chefs giving her rapid-fire answers in Japanese. She returned to tell me it’s complicated to explain, but one difference is that kaiseki cuisine is more hidebound. Certain vegetables must be served during the spring, for example, or certain fish. Or certain vegetables with fish. “We don’t have that kind of a rule,” she says.

Y&H doesn’t pretend to be an expert on Japanese cooking and culture, but he’s enough of a journalist to know when to turn to an expert. Trevor Corson, the Sushi Concierge and the author of The Story of Sushi, first mentioned the word “kaiseki” to me in connection with Makoto. It was when he was giving me a lesson in nikiri (“Boss Sauce,” Young & Hungry, 8/20/2008).

So I recently e-mailed Corson to help me better understand all the confusion about kaiseki — and whether Makoto does or does not specialize in it. Here’s what he wrote back:

Kaiseki is one of those culinary concepts that has a sort of mythic status but about which there’s not a great deal of agreement as to what exactly it means — or rather, there are a variety of interpretations, the two basic of which are that it’s a) elaborate and sophisticated courtly tea ceremony food or b) ascetic temple dining for vegetarian mountain monks. When it’s used by laymen in an average context, people often are simply referring to an elegant, multi-course tasting menu of small dishes, like at Makoto, but to a traditionalist and purist, real kaiseki would be defined by the following of a variety of rules having to do with the order in which things are served, how they’re prepared, and certain types of arrangements of ingredients.

Based on Corson’s comments, it seems fair to me to call Makoto a kaiseki-style restaurant, even if the owners would balk at that description. Clearly, Makoto follows some of the principles of kaiseki—its soup starter, its seasonality, its multi-course format. But to say it specializes in kaiseki…well, that’s dead wrong. Y&H humbly apologizes for perpetuating this falsehood.

Interestingly enough, Corson believes that the tasting menus at the revamped Sushi Taro near Dupont Circle “are possibly a bit closer to real kaiseki than Makoto now, but still I wouldn’t say they’re like what’s served at a traditional kaiseki house in Kyoto.”

carman says something nice about zagat

I’m pretty tough on Zagat this week, in part because the company’s way behind online competitors such as Chowhound and Yelp in terms of readership and relevance.

What’s a moribund print-bound company to do? Well, among other ploys, Zagat has launched an application, called nru (pronounced “near you”), for T-Mobile G1, MyTouch 3G, and Samsung Galaxy phones.

The app is killer cool. You can stand on just about any street corner, and nru will tell you where the hidden-gem restaurants are (along with the crappy ones, too). Of course, those hidden gems will based on current Zagat ratings. The app also gives you access to Zagat’s database entry on each restaurant, including the eatery’s special amenities and the very latest reader reviews on the place.

The only problem? It’s not available for iPhones. At least not yet.

smokin’ news

The owners of Urban Bar-B-Que plan to open a third location of their small smokehouse chain in the former Willoughby’s Market in Sandy Spring, pitmaster David Calkins confirms.

The lease has been signed, and since the space won’t require a massive build-out for the restaurant, Calkins expects to open the latest Urban within a month, if not sooner. Even better, Urban will install a Southern Pride XLR-600 smoker in the Sandy Spring spot; the giant machine, able to smoke hundreds of pounds of meat for 12 hours with split logs, was in large part responsible for Y&H’s recent re-evaluation (“King Brisket,” 3/4) in Rockville. (The lack of an XLR-600 at the Urban location in Silver Spring also explains its inferior meats.)

At the time of my re-review, owners Calkins and Lee Howard said they were thinking about expanding the Urban mini-empire. But they thought they would do it with a centralized smoking operation; in other words, they thought they would smoke the meats at one location and then quickly truck them to the outlying Urban dining locations. I asked Calkins why the change of plans.

“It’s important to have an on-site smoker,” Calkins says. “People want to smell the aroma.”

I couldn’t argue with that, given how often I have been sucked into ’cue joints merely by the smell of smoking meats. Calkins said the menu at Sandy Spring will be exactly the same as the one at the other locations. He did float the idea that he might add some items, like salads or buttermilk fried chicken but emphasized that if you like something at the old Urban, you’ll find it at the new one.

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