"First, observe the whole bowl," his master says. "Appreciate its gestalt; savor the aromas. Jewels of fat glittering on the surface. Shinachiku roots shining. Seaweed slowly sinking. Spring onions floating. Concentrate on the three pork slices. They play the key role but stay modestly hidden. Caress the surface with the chopstick tips."
I wish I'd had a Zen master around to tell me exactly what to do with my pot of dobin mushi at Kiko Japanese Restaurant a few nights ago. This 9-year-old sushi and noodle palace, tucked away in a Plantation strip mall, is owned by a couple from China, Antonio and Cathy Pau. The place was my introduction to the mystical, medicinal soup, whose name literally means "tea pot" (dobin) "steamed" (mushi), because it comes served in a clay teapot accompanied by a tiny, shallow cup. There are lots of ways to prepare dobin mushi -- the most revered is made with rare, expensive matsutake mushrooms when they're in season. But Japanese chefs might use chicken, tofu, ginkgo nuts, and pea pods, or, as they do at Kiko, a hodgepodge of fresh seafood.
Kiko's version combines whole clams in the shell, curling shrimp, squid circlets, a pink-rimmed half moon of pressed fish cake, and tiny, long-stemmed enoki mushrooms. These ingredients swim in a gently flavored broth of ginger and shredded carrot. There's only one way to eat it, Kiko's manager Paul Li tells me: You squeeze your wedge of lemon into the soup, pour the clear, clam- and ginger-flavored broth into your little cup, and sip it until you're finished. Then you fish the goodies out of the pot with your chopsticks. This soup embodies the formality and delicacy we associate with Japan; it begs for a refined, ritualistic way of beginning a meal that slows you down and gets you centered. To eat it, you must pay attention.
Kiko's dobin mushi ($4.50) is one of many reasons I'd make the drive there on a Friday night, passing up 200 sushi joints along the way. It isn't the sushi and sashimi that draws me to Kiko -- I have that closer to home (although Kiko's is very good). I'm hunting the rarer, weirder things on their menu. Like the yuke ($7.50), terrifically spicy, raw chopped beef marinated in kimchee sauce. Or the half-dozen hearty noodle dishes -- chicken yaki udon ($9.50) or a tempura version with fried shrimp and vegetables in a steaming broth ($12.95) teeming with fat, chewy noodles. I'd go for their crispy banana shrimp ($16.95) or a fried fillet of white fish cooked with sliced almonds ($16.95) or a ton katsu of fried pork loin coated in panko crumbs ($13.95).
And it's fun for two people to share a seafood ($43), beef ($43), or chicken/vegetable ($38) fondue. The Japanese call these dishes shabu shabu for the swishing sound the chopsticks make in the broth -- you dunk your meats briefly in the pot, dip them in a savory sauce, and eat. When you're finished, throw in a handful of noodles and you've got a second course.
I'd also make the drive because the place is pretty, completely unpretentious, and reasonable. It has the feel of a clean, bright, neighborhood spot but with lots of lovely touches. Call ahead to reserve one of the private rooms that line the rear walls, where you can cozy up for a long meal behind opaque shoji screens. Or you can sit at the central sushi bar to watch the three chefs put together their signature dishes -- like the lobster roll ($17.95), stuffed with chunks of lobster tail, avocado, cucumber, and topped with spicy mayo; the Roscoe roll ($8.95), lightly fried with eel and cream cheese; or the French roll ($8.95), which includes an egg crepe wrapped around shrimp, tender crab, tiny spears of asparagus, and cubes of avocado and cucumber daubed with masago mayo. Traditional low tables on tatami mats line the room; the happy addition of soft, high-backed seats are a boon for Westerners unused to the floor. The youngish Asian waitresses could use a little spit and polish, but middling service is the rule at local sushi joints.
We started with dobin mushi and a bowl of hama sui ($2.95), a clam, fish cake, and vegetable soup, apparently the poor man's version of the former. The two soups are similar, but the hama sui's broth is less intense, the soup less interesting -- I'd go ahead and shell out the extra $1.55 for the dobin mushi. Alternating hot with cold, we followed soup with a salad of chilly iceberg lettuce leaves draped in the familiar Japanese ginger dressing, in this case a perfectly balanced, pale orange coat of grated ginger, vegetables, and soy sauce. Next came eight tiny balls of warmth, the gourmet shumai ($5.50), crispy, deep-fried coatings curled around innards of minced pork, mushrooms, and onions, steaming gently when bitten into.
We wrapped up our appetizers with the steak tartare of the Orient -- glistening, deep-red yuke on a bed of salad, sprinkled with minced scallion. I haven't been able to put my finger on the exact origins of this dish. It's popular with Koreans, who eat finely slivered raw beef mixed with minced Asian pears and cucumber; sometimes, they make a hollow in the center and fill it with raw egg yolk, then mix everything together with chopsticks. In Japan, some restaurants serve raw beef -- and even horse -- sashimi tossed with soy sauce. Anybody who loves raw chopped steak will appreciate Kiko's kimchee-laced version of it -- the beef has an interesting, creamy consistency punctuated by the red-hot, head-clearing spiciness of the pickled cabbage. We ate every morsel.
A Neptune roll ($10.95) filled with octopus, crab, conch, shrimp, salmon, tuna, and yellowtail looked beautiful but, for all its wealth of seafood, didn't have much flavor. Someone had forgotten the spicy mayo, and when it arrived at our request, it wasn't hot enough to kick this roll into motion. But a deep-fried, crunchy kamikaze roll ($8.95) made with salmon, crab, cream cheese, and scallions and drizzled with eel sauce and sweet-sour chef sauce was scrumptious. Salmon and cream cheese is a combo that won't quit; somebody ought to patent the idea of deep-frying it.
Even so, in spite of all the deliciousness that had gone before it, our huge omurice ($8.95) turned out to be this meal's superstar. We scratched our heads over omurice (the Japanese say om-u-li-su) until we realized it's just what it sounds like -- an omelet stuffed with rice. Omurice is a completely bastardized Western-Japanese fast food; in the Land of the Rising Sun, they even serve them at Denny's, dousing them with ketchup the way we do our scrambled eggs. It's easy to see why the omurice has become Japan's version of the Big Mac: This silly, satisfying culinary chimera was awesome. Kiko's version studs slippery fried rice with soybeans, chopped carrots, mushrooms, peas, and juicy pieces of chicken and rolls it all together inside a crisply browned egg crepe. It has a terrifically rich mouth feel that makes it hard to stop gobbling, and probably a gazillion calories. We weren't offered the Heinz bottle, and we didn't need it. Marvelous.
The obligatory dish of green-tea ice cream ($3) arrived, its flavor reminiscent of newly mown fields, sweet and grassy, so we surreptitiously let our belts out a notch. We'd eaten enough to feed our inner armies, and the final bill was still monkishly spare. "If you eat only three-quarters full, you won't need a doctor," goes the Japanese proverb. That's tough advice to follow at Kiko.