Tasting menu protocol practically dictates that diners will advance along a predictable course that steadily builds in flavor, intensity and drama until the apogee, at which point the guest is gently returned to base camp. But under the direction of Ushabu's chef Matthew Spinner, we careen from an umami bomb of grilled fish with uni to a study on a single asparagus spear and back up the mount again to smoky yakitori.
It isn't as haphazard as it sounds; in fact Spinner is working within the very rigid framework of kaiseki, a Japanese multi-course experience that was recently unveiled at Ushabu. Our 13-course ride was a Michelin-star-worthy adventure that proved to be a hyper-seasonal expression of culinary craft and ingenuity.
"With this menu we're trying to treat Cleveland as if it were a prefecture of Japan," Spinner explains as we begin. "We are doing Cleveland things with Japanese techniques or Japanese things with a Cleveland spin."
Following an amuse-bouche of pickled green strawberries, we're presented with an arrangement that demonstrates the amount of deliberation that goes into each dish. On the preprinted, personalized menu, that course is labeled "Season Tickets."
"I thought about what spring means to me, and one thing I always look forward to after a long winter is baseball," Spinner recounts. "This is my homage to the Yomiuri Giants, who is the sister team to my San Francisco Giants."
Atop a baseball scorecard "placemat" from an actual game, the chef sets a plate that marries two popular Japanese snacks, crispy fried cabbage and battered octopus. This version features uber-crispy tempura-fried napa cabbage that's topped with sesame-pickled tentacles. To drink, there's cold Japanese lager in a plastic cup.
As proof of total disregard for conventional pacing, our third course, "Spring Break," reaches stratospheric heights. Sandwiched between two slices of soft Hokkaido milk bread is a wedge of panko-fried A5 Japanese wagyu, quite literally the highest rated beef in the world. The phrase "melt in your mouth" is often hyperbole, but in the case of this exquisite beef, it's a matter of fact. The wee sandwich is lubricated with truffle mayo and wild onion marmalade and crowned with a dollop of fine French caviar for a blast of brine.
"I grew up on a farm about 25 miles west of here and on the farm we call spring 'mud season,'" Spinner says while presenting the next course. "This dish is kind of my homage to mud season."
His epicurean interpretation of "dirty sheep standing in a muddy pasture" showcases a supple American lamb chop nestled into a springtime bed of pea shoots, chives and wild flowers. A smattering of black miso butter-poached Burgundy snails provide an earthy, "muddy" baseline.
In keeping with kaiseki code, the fifth course is always a "lidded dish," in this instance a dashi steamed artichoke, which is followed by a grilled fish course. Spinner's is a doozy, a meaty flank of grilled walleye set into a slick of truffle mayo and gilded with alternating pieces of uni and shaved truffle. It's a delicious still life that embodies forest, lake and sea.
Spinner's next dish, an asparagus salad, is subdued by comparison, designed to refocus, realign and revive our senses.
"The way I feel about kaiseki is that it is different movements in the same symphony, an ebb and flow that reels you out and reels you in," he says. "I feel that your palate has less to do with it than your attention span. Some dishes are designed to wake you up.'
It's difficult to not contemplate a dish like this one, a fat spear of asparagus that's sliced down the middle, trisected into thirds, and showered with attention. Each section is prepared differently — peeled and blanched, hickory smoked and grilled, raw — to achieve various textures and flavors.
Turkey is often relegated to Thanksgiving and ho-hum subs, but here heritage breed meat is threaded onto skewers along with smoked parsnip and grilled yakitori style — a nod to turkey season on the farm.
Spinner's last savory course is an interpretation of tomewan, a simultaneous serving of rice, soup and pickled vegetables that ensures that no guest leaves hungry. This version does that and more thanks to caramelized miso soup, foie gras with pickled wild asparagus, and a poached egg-topped bowl of rice.
There's been a quiet revolt against tasting menus taking place in America and I roundly fall into the camp of insurgents. Few diners want to plant their butts in a seat for four hours while the chef attempts to show off. At Ushabu we breezed through 13 courses in under two hours, thanks to crisp pacing that anticipated our every move. And at $150 per person, it is a remarkable value. The five-course version, which does not require advance notice, offers a more affordable taste.
It's no coincidence that the kaiseki options debuted to coincide with the arrival of spring, when shabu-shabu loses some appeal (though it shouldn't), but given the chef's passion for all things Japanese, don't expect the bloom to fade anytime soon.
"I really love the idea of introducing Japanese cuisine to the city that isn't just sushi, tempura and teppanyaki," says Spinner. "To drive home that Japanese cuisine and culture is larger than what many expect it to be."