A talent for pleasuring all of one’s senses. A realm of surreal delights, of colors, textures, sensations and tastes beyond the norm. A seductive offering of guilty pleasures. Refinement and virtuosity that titillates and excites in sublime ways. A play upon one’s palate, eyes and mouth feel. Welcome to the world of the Geisha Modern Japanese Cuisine.
Stroll along Bonifacio High Street and enter a world as enchanting as “the floating world” of Japan inhabited by geisha musicians, kabuki actors and sumo athletes, where nightly pleasures starkly contrast with the austere and regimented daily life of feudal tradition. In the same way, Geisha Restaurant is the exact opposite of the stereotypical Japanese restaurant with their tired, pseudo-Zen simplicity.
Instead, what greets the gourmet are walls of ornately patterned textiles in lilac and lavender—reminiscent of a geisha’s elaborate kimono—and backlit LED lighting in magenta and electric blue—a bold proclamation of its modern and innovative approach to the Japanese dining experience. But these are but the set design for the ensuing gustatory procession that is nothing short of theatrical. The Japanese after all, are highly ritualistic in all aspects of life.
A feast for the senses
Waitresses dressed in modernized kimonos offer both the warm comforting feel of creamy kabocha (squash) soup alongside the shocking presentation of salmon sashimi on a bed of crushed ice backlit from underneath with blue light. Before one can taste or even smell the food, it already excites the senses. “We tend to eat with our eyes first,” explains Nameeta Dargani, vice president for marketing of Geisha Restaurant, adding, “The Japanese give a lot of importance to aesthetics and presentation – and the name Geisha conjures up ideas of art form, beauty, sophistication, elegance and perfection. We wanted that to come through in the food that we serve.”
She reveals, “Our interior designer is Japanese so she could really guide us as to what is authentic. Typically Japanese restaurants tend to have a Zen look—very minimalist. But with a name like Geisha, we had the creative license to explore a different approach. A Geisha’s kimono is never plain. It is always colorful, layered with patterns, colors and details. It’s a more stylized look, using a lot of fabric, creating a softer, more feminine feel.”
Such a visual feast is a hard act to follow, but the food’s taste and mouth feel do not disappoint. The succulent fresh salmon smoothly slithers into one’s mouth. The rich texture of the kabocha soup warms not only the belly but also the heart. Even for virgin palates, it becomes instantly a comfort food. And each dish that follows these builds upon the excitement.
Spider rolls, so called for the limbs of deep-fried soft-shelled crab that sprout from the sushi, offer an exquisite balance subtlety sweet and nutty flavors and delicate crunchiness. “It’s our best-seller,” notes Nameeta.
Skewered pork 72, so named because it has been marinated for three straight days, is drizzled with sweet teriyaki sauce. Succulent, rich and no rubbery rind to deal with, it melts in the mouth. Rice rolled in sesame seed complements this mouth feel. “This one people liken a lot to lechon kawali (Filipino crispy pan-fried roast pork),” observes Nameeta.
As scrumptious and as filling as the pork and the soft-shelled crab are, Nameeta confesses that her favorite dish is another. “My favorite dish is the vegetarian gyoza (ravioli). Our gyozas are a little different. Typically, gyozas are served with a Kikkoman-based sauce. But we serve them with a tomato-based marinara sauce. We’ve had a great response to our twist on the traditional gyoza.”
She reveals, “We’ve got the usual Japanese favorites that people look for as well as some unusual items. Our menu includes the top-of-the-line Wagyu (beef), tempura, chicken teriyaki, all of that. But we’ve also got a whole selection of vegetarian items too. Being vegetarian, I wanted to ensure that we service that segment of the market as well.”
She explains, “Geisha serves modern Japanese cuisine. It’s still very much Japanese and not fusion. What makes it modern and innovative is the way we put things together as well as the presentation. We’ve been very experimental but we’re still using mostly traditional Japanese ingredients.”
“For example, we have this sauce which is a wakame (seaweed) pesto. It’s not your typical pesto. It doesn’t have the basil, the parmesan cheese, the pine nuts and the olive oil. It uses Japanese ingredients to create a pesto sauce. It’s got shiso (perilla) leaves, wakame, and sesame oil. We use it for our edamame (soy bean) risotto. We have one which goes with our gindara (black cod) that uses fish stock and one that’s vegetarian.”
True enough, even a meat eater finds himself swooning over edamame risotto topped with wakame pesto, complemented by fried baby spinach chips and young bean sprouts that perfectly balance savory and saltiness, the savory smooth texture of the rice with the crunchiness of the edamame and the asparagus. The dish offers nothing less than a climax to this experience.
Even as hunger is sated, thirst is quenched in equally unique fashion. Geisha offers sake drinks and teas.
“Sakehito” is a mojito (cocktail flavored with sugar can juice, mint leaves, lime juice and sparkling water) made with sake (Japanese rice wine) instead of rum. “With cocktails you can pair them with anything. But when you go for the straight up sake, there are certain things that combine well. There are so many different types of sake. Some are fruity. Some are drier. Some are sweeter,” explains Nameeta.
“This tea is called Fatima Sola, it’s a combination of green tea, jasmine dragon pearl and peppermint. We get our teas from the only certified tea master in the Philippines,” Nameeta proclaims proudly. Sniff jars are available to help you choose from a selection of six aromatic, flavorful and organic tea varieties.
From Italian risotto to Cuban mojito, Geisha enriches its distinctly modern Japanese menu with global influences. So it is no wonder that people from all corners of the globe seek out their cuisine.
Word travels fast
“We see a lot of expats here. I guess word of mouth travels fast within the expat community. We also see a lot of people who work in the area of Bonifacio High Street and in some of the corporate buildings around. We get a lot of families on the weekends. It’s quite a diverse crowd – mostly people who appreciate good food, good service and attention to detail,” Nameeta reveals the restaurant’s clientele.
More than a business, for Nameeta and her husband Michael Dargani, proprietor of Geisha as well of the Red Kimono chain of restaurants, it is a passion. “We love Japanese food. We love the freshness of it. It presents a lot of healthy choices. Generally, if you ask people what their favorite cuisines are, you’ll find that Japanese figures in the top three most of the time. There’s a certain perfection to Japanese cuisine, a certain elegance and ritualistic flair,” she enthuses.
Travel as inspiration
Nameeta and Michael traveled the world to achieve the rich epicurean adventure that is Geisha. She expresses, “We both enjoy eating so when we travel we feel we have a license to go crazy just because we’re in the food business. We just write off all the dining to R & D! The whole time we were in Europe—we were going to different restaurants to get all kinds of ideas. And it didn’t have to be an Asian restaurant. We got ideas on presentation, service, design—all that. We were taking notes everywhere. And when you come back from a vacation, you are at your most creative, so that really helps in putting together a strong concept,” she shares.
Present and future perfect
Today the savvy restaurateurs run a flawless establishment. “With my husband’s passion, business acumen and 13 years of experience in the food business, things are running pretty smoothly. We have also been blessed with a great management team and service staff.”
Despite their success, Nameeta reveals that they have no plan of duplicating it. “We want to keep Geisha unique,” she confides.
“In the future we want to have themed nights like sake (rice wine) tasting and pairing it with different types of food. We’ve already had some themed evenings and they’ve been very successful so we are thinking of doing that on a more regular basis.”
With such astute culinary and design taste and brave choices in flavors and colors, Nameeta and Michael Dargani continue to explore new ways of expressing modern Japanese cuisine. With Geisha Restaurant, Manila’s gourmets can share in their epicurean adventures.