Ok, I’ll admit it, Wakuriya only hit our radar after it received its first Michelin star. I have a horrible fault of usually turning a blind eye (with a few exceptions) to anything south of San Francisco, preferring to focus on wine country or Oakland/ Berkeley instead. DD had tried to get reservations before, but had called too late for a birthday dinner.
We wish we had gotten to Wakuriya sooner. I’d go every month if we could.
Its location is in an nonedescript strip mall called the Crystal Springs Shopping Center. One upside, however, is that this part of San Mateo appears to be quite bucolic, and filled with tall looming Monterey pine trees - friends of mushrooms and DD's favourite.
It’s a tiny place, and reservations appear to be difficult to get, especially for weekends. I followed the advice of one of my Flickr friends and called at midnight a month before the date I desired, leaving a hopeful message. I received a response 3 days afterwards - sweet success. When they called back to confirm I was asked if I wanted an earlier seating of 6pm or something later - 8pm - I vaguely recall. I chose the 6pm seating.
When we approached the door we saw the sign - communicating very clearly to deter the would-be walk-in.
The restaurant can seat around 20 people - 22 if one of the two tops could be turned into a 4-top. Their largest table can seat 6; one such party arrived around 7pm. There were 4 counter seats when we arrived, and having requested that very location, we found ourselves the only couple there that evening.
Wakuriya is run by 2 people (the only other kitchen staff we saw that evening was a dishwasher, who came out on occasion to collect plates already collected behind the counter). Chef Katsuhiro Yamasaki-san and his wife Mayumi-san hail from the Kyushu region of Japan - they both met at Kitcho - a legendary Kaiseki Kyo-ryori restaurant originating out of Kyoto. After doing stints at Kaygetsu in Menlo Park (another restaurant DD and I have heard about for a long time, but have yet to visit), the Yamasakis opened Wakuriya in April of 2008. Barely 3 years later, they found themselves with their first Michelin.
There is one set menu, which changes every month, and is warmly presented to you when you take your seats. Mayumi-san presides as the front of the house and chief server. Your experience begins with a complimentary cocktail - tonight, it was a lovely blend of ume plum wine and sake that had been doubly fermented and tasted a bit fizzy. I wanted more of it when I finished.
The meal is exquisitely choreographed by just the Yamasakis, and it's clear that they've got schedule, service and timing down. As always, we love the counter as it gives us a glimpse into the kitchen process - we saw Chef sauteeing foie; removing the mushimono from a great, giant steam-oven; peeked at him skimming crunchy bits from the tempura fryer in the far corner.
Our first course, or Sakizuke starter, was a morsel of foie gras, served with a seared King mushroom from Sun Smiling Valley Farms. The "oroshi" sauce -- traditionally grated daikon radish -- was mixed with fuji apple and teeny, perfectly round grapes the size of tapioca balls.
Then came a platter of exquisite tiny bites - the Zensai, or appetizers. In the immediate foreground are Madai nigiri, topped with homemade and marinated konbu; clockwise to the immediate left, a mince of Big Reef ika covered with some creamy spicy mentaiko (fish roe). At the apex is a tiny cup of simmered "Hisui": jade-coloured eggplants, topped with katsuo-boshi; and finally on the right was a Kurobuta pork tonkotsu, a roll wrapped around a bit of sun-dried tomato and served with a smear of Hatcho barley miso.
The lidded, or steamed dish followed: a mushi-mono that contained a mixture of Canadian King Salmon and almost crunchy yama imo, or mountain yam. The yam treatment was the most unusual we've encountered yet; it's usually grated so fine that it turns into a slimy, gooey mass traditional in Japanese cuisine. But the yama-imo here was chunky and crunchy - almost its own potato salad, DD observed, with just some of the potato chopped or grated so fine that no other binder was needed, but still had enough texture for an interesting bite. The dish also contained some heavenly ichiban dashi, and a scattering of vegetables: oyster mushroom, carrot and negi; wasabi and bright orange ikura topped the dish.
The Tsukuri, or Sashimi course came out as a salad, delicate slices of Kanpachi (amberjack) hid under a scattering of greens: endive and bitter frisee; shaved radish and spicy cress and herbal shiso. Proferred was a dressing made with Kabosu - a Japanese citrus endemic to Kyushu in Southern Japan. We told Mayumi-san that we were familiar with the fruit, having encountered it when we visited Beppu earlier in the year. To me, Kabosu tastes a little like the Philippine lime, Calamansi.
Tempura followed the sashimi, in what was clearly becoming a nice alternating between lighter and heavier dishes -- here, a luscious ebishinjo, or shrimp dumpling, was sandwiched between crunchy lotus root and fried. Accompanying these pieces of tasty were some kobocha squash and shishito pepper. We were offered shiso shio (salt) to sprinkle over our dish.
After the richness of the fried foods, we were excited to receive a palette cleanser -a delicate and light granita made of white grape and yuzu and topped with candied ginger. It echoed the grapes we consumed with our first amuse - the foie gras with oroshi sauce.
The final savoury course of the evening arrived in tiny Le Creuset cocotte - not quite an authentic nabe pot, but similar in sentiment/ execution nonetheless. (Which is probably why they named the course "On Mono" - hot dish - rather than Nabemono - cooked in a nabe pot. In this case, we had tiny duck meatballs: kamo no dango in a wonderful broth, simmered with tofu, buna-shimeji mushrooms, a bit of gooey wheat fu, and pieces of duck thigh. Again - this dish seemed to tie thematically back to the foie we consumed in our sakizuke. Mayumi-san indicated that there was also a bit of grated sansho pepper on top of the stew - she wanted us to lift the lids and inhale.
Though Mayumi-san had told us in the beginning that we would not need to make any decisions about the menu, we ended up being provided with a choice for the rice course. My good husband, ever the galant, asked me which dish resonated with me most, and when I responded "Chazuke," he chose the other rice option.
I love Chazuke. It may seem a little odd at first: hot, cooked rice swimming in a dashi broth mixed with tea. But it's soooo delicious and comforting. This would be my chicken soup of choice if I were ill. Heck, I'd make any excuse to eat/ order it. Chef's rendition was exquisite and elegant - thin slices of tai sashimi (similar to our tsukuri course) were mixed with a subtle sesame sauce and layered on top of a rice ball. You mix up the rice and fish and wasabi with that fantastic dashi and scoop up that savoury goodness.
We loved watching Chef make the kani-tama donburi (almost like an oyako-don, but with crab) a la minute. Beaten egg is cooked into a savoury, silky mass with dashi, shoyu and sake; crab is added, and the entire, quivering mass is served over hot rice. Delicate mitsuba (Japanse herb) tops the bowl.
And dessert? Total finesse in a Bodum cup: fresh pear and azuki red bean mousse, topped with matcha meringue cookies. Refreshing, lightly, playfully sweet.
The whole experience was fantastic from beginning to end. Though staffed with only 2 persons, we didn't feel neglected, or that we had to wait too long for any course or drink. It was perfection, really, in service and timing and in the deliciousness of the food. And the price? Definitely inexpensive ($90 each, excluding drinks) for the quality of the experience.
115 De Anza Blvd.
San Mateo, CA 94402-3988