Halfway through a lunch of sesame-seasoned noodles and piquant-pickled vegetables, diners at the Sister City Restaurant were pleasantly surprised when the waiter placed a small dish of attractively garnished fish on their table.
"The chef thought you might like to try this," he said.
This gesture contributes to the ethos of a new restaurant where color, shape, and texture are as carefully balanced as flavor and where there is a coming-together of two cultures rather than the expression of one or the other.
The decor is simple and elegant in the Japanese manner. The clean, gray trunk of a lilac tree forms a section in one wall. There is calligraphy, a handsome wedding kimono, and Japanese music.
But there is also a warm feeling of family which centers around the owner, poet Cid Corman, and his Japanese wife, Shizumi Corman.
Mr. Corman recently returned to his home city after living 20 years in Japan and running, with his brother-in-law, Sister City's sister-city shop in Kyoto.
There they sold pineapple-pistachio and blueberry ice cream, chocolate chip cookies, pecan pie, and other sweets and an occasional meal. the bakery products were made by Mrs. Corman. Mr. Corman formulated the ice-cream recipes mostly from nostalgic memories of family ice-cream making of his youth.
The Boston restaurant serves Japanese lunch and dinner along with some American desserts and the marvelous ice cream with flavors such as black raspberry, ginger, and three kinds of chocolate. Ice cream is availalbe to be taken out, also.
But some of the finest Japanese cuisine is served on Sunday, by reservation, along with the Japanese tea ceremony by accredited master and teacher Allan Palmer. Doors are closed to avoid interruption of this eight-course menu, which changes every month to conform with seasonal foods.
The August menu includes sashimi of mackerel and seaweed, vegetable and shrimp tempura, a clear consomme with tiny, mosaic slices of okra, chicken roll with broccoli, tofu with cucumber and sesame, each course beautifully arranged to provide a delicate balance of color and form.
Seasonal food means more to the Japanese than to most Americans. The right food at the right time in the right setting is all-important. Freshness, quality, and simplicity are also important to beautiful presentation, Shizumi explained to me.
Simplicity in her case, however, is the result of talent and years of study in several arts, not only food and cooking, but silk weaving, embroidery, music, and the Ikebana school of flower arranging.
Shizumi does the baking and also prepares special food for the tea ceremony menu.
Head chef Toshiharu Mishima comes to the United States with excellent credentials as a professional chef with international standing, six years of formal training in Japanese cuisine, plus many hours in his younger years in the kitchens of his father's hotel in Gumma Prefecture, near Tokoyo.
In this country less than a year, Mishima speaks English well and shops in various ethnic markets of the Boston area, searching for the best quality and freshest ingredients for the daily menus.
Others on the staff are people who have had experience with Japanese culture or want to learn about it, according to Gerald Delcourt, the manager.
"We have a happy mixture of working, socializing, and learning from each other," he said. Although the atmosphere is relaxed and somewhat informal, it is Mr. Delcourt's job to organize schedules and daily routine.
On Sunday evening there is a regular series of poetry talks and readings by Cid Corman from 7 to 9, when the shop is closed to other customers. Desserts are available and there is an honorarium of $2.
Mr. Corman reads and talks about his own works and others of such as William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, and poets of the Manyoshu. Mr. Corman's works are available at the shop. He has plans for prose readings and guest poets.
At lunch the menu starts at $2.95 and includes such dishes as Reimen, Japanese cold noodles with shredded carrot, ham, eggs, cucumber and sesame sauce; Domburi, Japanese rice, egg, and vegetables with chicken or beef; and an especially delicious duck with scallions and rice called Ahiru.
The dinner menu starts at $7.25 and includes an excellent pork dish with ginger sauce, chicken with a special sesame sauce, and beef and fish dishes. Both lunch and dinner menus have specials which include soup and beverage.
One of the oldest written recipes in Japan is Sunomono, which is mentioned in the Nihon Shoki, a famous old Japanese history. Sunomono means vinegared things , vegetables alone or with fish or poultry in vinegared dressings.
A Japanese version of salad, it has a pleasant, sour, yet slightly sweet flavor with a cleansing effect on the palate which prepares one for the next Japanese food on the menu. The basic sauce is actually a matter of taste and is often changed slightly, according to taste, by different cooks. Vinegared Carro Salad (Sunomono) 2 cups thinly sliced carrots, about 4 medium 1 teaspoon salt 1/3 cup rice vinegar 1/3 cup dark sesame seed oil 2 tablespoons brown sugar Pinch of salt 1 tablespoon soy sauce (optional)
Peel or scrape carrots and cut into very thin strips (julienne) about 1 1/2 inch long. In a large bowl sprinkle carrots with 1 teaspoon salt and toss with hands until well-coated with salt. Set aside for 5 minutes, then wash off salt and firmly but gently squeeze out all moisture.
In another bowl mix vinegar, oil, sugar, salt, and soy if desired. If using soy, omit salt.
Combine sauce with carrots, mixing well, then cover and refrogerate 3 or 4 hours. Serve cold the same day.
This is meant to accompany main dishes and to complement them in taste, texture and color. It can be served as an appetizer at the beginning of a meal, in small portions, or as a salad or with broiled or fried meats, poultry, or fish.