Only a ten minute walk from The Inn On First is a fine dining Japanese restaurant called Kenzo Napa. Tucked away in a corner, away from the hustle and bustle of 1st and Main Streets, I couldn’t understand why they chose this location…until I dined there.
First, a short history lesson.
Did you know that there is a Buddhist tradition that believes enlightenment comes through food and dining and not through meditation? Think of enlightenment as simply being present to the NOW, that place where you are completely in your self and yet you are connected to more than yourself at the same time. The concept is termed “kaiseki”, literally “warm bosom stone”, based upon the tradition where the monks would ward off hunger by placing a warm stone in a pocket near the stomach to ward off hunger until the next meal.
Presently there are restaurants that follow this same tradition; some are so careful as to not allow just anyone into the space. You must be invited into the space by the chef or manager who is responsible to the dining community to preserve the enlightened space they have created.
We are so fortunate to have such an experience here in Napa with Kenzo Napa.
As you enter the space you are aware that all the windows are covered with rice paper. “So as not to interfere with your enjoyment of the food and your dining experience,” we are told. There are two sushi bar counters that are 3-tiered, long graceful steps that become the stage for the presentation of the food. There are some tables to be found- but seriously, ignore those. Go for the counter if possible! It is much more engaging to watch the chef in action. The decor is simple, carefully chosen so as not to distract your attention from what is right before you, yet just enough to bring warmth and comfort to the environment.
We chose the sushi menu which also included precursors to the main meal. One of those was a beautiful lacquered bowl with lid which, as you lifted the lid, carried you to a place far, far away. The aroma was smoky with a hint of the sea, and on the inside of the lid was another design that captivated the eye and pulled you back into your seat. I spent minutes smelling the aroma, asking questions about the dish. The chef pulled out his tools, explained how the broth took 4 days to make, the seaweed (tasted like none other I have eaten) was chosen from a small island not far from Japan, and the red snapper was unique to Japan where the fish dwell where two currents meet and it imparts a unique and sweet flavor to the flesh. To say the least, I was enraptured with the meal; and it had only begun.
The sushi was made to order and each bite was so distinct with layers of flavor between the rice and the fish. No soy sauce, no ginger; it wasn’t needed. We finished with a matcha-pudding, which they specifically made dairy-free for me, and topped with red bean curd. OMG. Yes, I was in heaven.
I knew then, as I know now, I had found my people, my faith renewed in the simplicity of eating with pleasure and relishing each moment as it happened. This is an experience of dining that only Kenzo Napa can offer, and is the reason the Kenzo’s wanted to bring this restaurant to Napa- to give people a taste of what Japanese food can be at its very best.
This is not a restaurant you drop into off the street, but rather you choose it, or maybe it chooses you. The location is perfect. Everything about it is sublime. It brought me to a deeper appreciation of each bite as I giggled and laughed at the flavors that swirled around in my mouth and made me smile for more than 3 hours. That’s right. This is not fast dining. This is fine dining, a 3 to 4 hour experience, of being in the NOW, enjoying the presence of food, loved ones, and great wine. If food is FUEL for you, keep walking. Go to 1st and Main Streets and you will find plenty of options to fill your belly. If food is LIFE for you, then go. You won’t be disappointed and be prepared to be enlightened and deeply satisfied by the experience.