30 Courses and Lots of Leftovers

By David Nakamura
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Photo by David Nakamura


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"Please arrive super-hungry," Tomoko's email advised. "The dinner will include about 30 dishes. It's a lot of food (all of it amazing)..."

How does one prepare for a 30-course meal?

You start by skipping lunch and instead hitting the gym for 45 minutes on the treadmill and an hour of weight-lifting. Then, even as your dining partners are delayed and you sit impatiently on a tatami mat around a low rectangular table at a traditional Japanese restaurant called Motomachi Bairin in Yokohama, you try as hard as you can not to eat the bag of peanut M & M's that you have in your backpack--though maybe you sneak just one for the sugar rush that your lunch-free body is craving.

Bairin, it seems, is the Cheesecake Factory of Japan.

Or at least that's what I did on a recent Saturday evening, though my stomach was still no match for Bairin's feast of feasts.

Tucked on a dark, quiet side street near a lively shopping district, Bairin is renowned for its generous portions. Its philosophy runs directly counter to the conventional wisdom that the Japanese remain slimmer than their western counterparts largely because of portion control. Bairin, it seems, is the Cheesecake Factory of Japan.

But this restaurant is no nondescript chain; it has been in business 35 years and was said to be a favorite of famed film director Akira Kurosawa, who took his staff there to celebrate after wrapping production. As a memento, he left a hand-carved wood block of Bairin's name in Kanji characters, which translates to "plum grove." The artwork greets visits as soon as they enter through the traditional noren curtains.

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As soon as our full group of eight is seated, a sliding wooden door opens and in comes a waiter bearing a tray of teacup-sized bowls containing a mixture of sliced mushrooms, fried tofu, and sesame seeds. This opening course is small enough that I have a rush of hope that I will indeed be able to finish all 30 courses. But that dream is dashed when the waiter returns with a giant ezo ibara gani (King crab), with foot-long legs that are pre-sliced so we can easily spear the meat and dip it in a Japanese ponzo sauce with a vinegar and soy base.

The crab is so impressive that Tomoko, a Tokyo reporter for a Western news service, lets out a half giggle and half squeal, which Christine, a communications director for a large Internet company, later calls a "squiggle." Tomoko is the reason we have been served the crab, which is a special entrée; she discovered Bairin with a group of friends and, upon her return, the Bairin management is thanking her with a special treat.

The rest of us whip out our cameras and start taking pictures of the crab. "This will be the most documented meal I will ever have," jokes Colin, a lawyer.

The rest of the evening is a race through course after course. The thing about this much food is that the waiters do not stop serving and, if you aren't careful, you can easily fall behind, which I did several times. The table begins to resemble a Tetris game, plates, bowls and cups fitting together at right angles or clashing awkwardly.

The food ranges from small and delicately prepared (Course No. 11: a boiled, skinless tomato that is sweet like a grape eaten with a shiso leaf) to fried and rich (No. 12: mochi sticky rice tempura served in a warm broth with spring onions) to large and filling (No. 24: four large hanadai fish, with small scary fangs, but moist and tender flesh.)

Course 13 is a huge plate of thick cuts of sashimi, including, in the center, a lobster whose eyes and antennae are still moving even though his flesh has been cut up and is resting in the shell. The waiter removes the shell and it later returns flavoring a miso broth (No. 27).

"I'm beginning to feel like less is more," Colin says.

"It's almost too much food," agrees Ken, a Bangkok-based editor. "You can't really enjoy it."

At this point, the wooden door slides open again and a tiny elderly woman with gray hair is sitting before us seiza-style. This is 79-year-old Reiko Hirao, the proprietor. She oversees seven cooks and six waiters, who serve four private rooms on the first floor and a banquet room that can hold 50 people upstairs. Restaurants like Bairin are mostly used for company parties or special family gatherings. She smiles, then thanks us over and over, bowing so low that her forehead touches the tatami mat.

No, Hirao-san, thank you, we say. But there is little time to talk. The food just keeps coming. We skip Course 22, unagi (fried eel), and ask the waiter to pack it up to go; unlike most Japanese restaurants, Bairin does doggie bags. (Since the meal costs about $130, not including drinks, people want their money's worth.)

The final course is four large Wagyu beef steaks, extremely tender and moist. This was said to be Kurosawa's favorite, and it probably is mine too, which is a bummer since I was so full I could hardly eat it. We do the best we can, though my side of the table gets heckled by the other side for leaving more on our plates. The meal has turned into a competition.

It is at this point that I notice that in my haste, I have completely forgotten to eat a tiny thimble of pumpkin soup (No. 17), the cup lost in a sea of dishes.

"That was one and a half hours ago!" Ken exclaims.

"It is supposed to be chilled, not room temperature," says Angie, an editor at a publishing house. Everyone guffaws.

"Don't make me laugh," Christine says, "I'm too full."

So am I. Fortunately, the waiter brings dessert at last: a simple slice of honeydew and a cup of hot green tea. After more than three hours, the eating is over.

Or so we think. One more time, the door slides open. A waiter. A tray. A mound of our leftover food in plastic containers. Eight paper shopping bags.

At Bairin, even the doggie bags are enormous.

Motomachi Bairin is at 1-55 Motomachi, Naka-ku, Yokohama City, Japan. Phone: 045-662-2215

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/10/30-courses-and-lots-of-leftovers/27803/