Japan- Cá Sento- ✪✪✪

With its Spanish-influenced style and refined atmosphere, Cá Sento is a fascinatingly beautiful oasis in the hum-drum normalness of Kobe. Only a few blocks away from some pretty seedy red-light-ish districts and "all you can eat Kobe beef, $40" restaurants is this little beauty: 

 Ca Sento Exterior

Ca Sento Exterior

KOBE, JAPAN

SERVICE: 7.0/10

FOOD: 9.0/10

PRICE PAID: $180 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

 Ca Sento Interior

Ca Sento Interior

 Ca Sento Dining Area

Ca Sento Dining Area

A 3-star since 2010, the head chef Shinya Fukumoto is an alumnus of Mugaritz, a famous San Sebástian-area restaurant that pioneers new preparation techniques. It's a much longer story, but San Sebástian itself is the center of Spanish "pinxto" culture- also commonly known as tapas. The heavy Spanish influence on this restaurant is most easily detected in their application of pinxto-like dishes.

The restaurant has a gorgeous, tasteful interior decor. Place settings are immaculate. Service is soft-spoken, sweet, attentive. There are only a handful of neatly-aligned tables.

 Ca Sento Silverware

Ca Sento Silverware

 Wall Decor

Wall Decor

Spanish/Quixotian/Whimsical touches abound. Northern Spain more or less has a lock on the bizarre as stylish - just ask Picasso - and this place fully cops said style, to the extent reasonable. 

 First Bites: Karasumi + Radish, 8/10

First Bites: Karasumi + Radish, 8/10

First, my heart plummets into my stomach as I see that our first dish is karasumi with Kyoto radishes. The crunchy texture and the earthy flavors of the radish actually offsets the condensed egg texture and fishy flavor of the karasumi perfectly, and in a real accomplishment I can actually say that I really enjoy this karasumi. 8/10

 Course 1: Green Vegetable Soup, 9/10

Course 1: Green Vegetable Soup, 9/10

Next, some Japanese green vegetable soup. Multiple textures going on here. Yellowish egg-like custard at the bottom, thick and creamy layers. Lots of different flavors to pick apart but still amazing. 9/10.

 Course 2: The Smorgasbord

Course 2: The Smorgasbord

Japanese multi-plates are super fun- they're meant to bring together a wide variety of flavors and textures and start to tell a story. Many of these (especially the fish dishes) are pinxto imitations. I'll start in the lower right with that green dish and go clockwise. 

 Course 2A: Snapper + White Bean + Pesto, 9/10

Course 2A: Snapper + White Bean + Pesto, 9/10

This first dish has a pasty look- snapper in a white bean sauce with parsley, cumin, a pesto-like sauce, and almond. It tastes like eating someone's garden that has been through a Vitamix- crisp high notes of vegetable, with a nice smooth texture from the snapper. 9/10.

 Course 2B: River Fish, 8/10

Course 2B: River Fish, 8/10

A nice break from the earthiness of the pesto and vegetables- "river fish," in a red sauce is fresh and quite spicy. 8/10.

 Course 2C: Squid + Bean Sprout, 9/10

Course 2C: Squid + Bean Sprout, 9/10

Next, some squid and bean sprout with a white miso sauce. The bean sprouts add a wonderful crunch to the squid's soft textures- strong flavors of vinegar and cayenne, which go together surprisingly well. 9/10.

 Course 2D: Mackerel + Garlic, 8/10

Course 2D: Mackerel + Garlic, 8/10

Another strong-flavored pairing: mackerel with sliced garlic. The mackerel is slightly oily and very fresh- there's some olive oil layered on there to really drive the oily point home. The strength of the flavors match but they don't harmonize as well as the last fish combination. Mouthfeel is oil-soaked. 8/10. 

 Course 2E: "Blood Sausage," 8/10

Course 2E: "Blood Sausage," 8/10

Next, a clever little dish of "blood sausage" made of duck from Osaka. Very soft and rich, tastes exactly like blood sausage as the name suggests, with a rich egg-yolk sauce on top. Some heavy hitters in this plating group. 8/10. 

 Course 2F: Focaccia Bread, 8/10

Course 2F: Focaccia Bread, 8/10

Some focaccia bread- heavy with oil and rosemary- is a delicious snack bite. 8/10.

 Course 2G: Anchovies + Radish, 9/10

Course 2G: Anchovies + Radish, 9/10

Lastly, a deliberate copy of the pinxto style found in San Sebastián- sliced anchovies with a circle of radish. Strong flavors from both- the anchovies have that briny, ocean-fresh taste that matches up perfectly with the earthiness of the radishes. 9/10. 

 Course 3: Literally The World's Best Salad, 10/10

Course 3: Literally The World's Best Salad, 10/10

Behold: this is the best salad in the world. I found it. 

Let me start by saying that this salad was good enough to change my mind on the entire genre of salad, writ large. We start with a lovely base of farm-fresh vegetables like potatoes, taro, turnips, Brussels sprouts, red peppers, flowers, snap peas, carrots, red and white onion, butternut squash, radicchio (purple stuff), frisée, red chard, spinach, and arugula. Then, we add some magic:

A piping hot Emmental cheese sauce is poured over, and it is the best thing ever. As she poured, the server explained that this salad is totally unique to chef and is one of their signature dishes. 10/10. Go to Kobe expressly for this salad. I'm not joking. 

 Course 4: Kobe Veal, 9/10

Course 4: Kobe Veal, 9/10

I would have been pretty sad if I had to leave Kobe without some Kobe beef... And thankfully, the next course was Kobe veal with black truffle, polenta, and broccoli. The veal is soft and decadent as all get out, and the black truffle is actually a bit over the top- the protein would have done just fine on its own. Texture is pliable and easy, 9/10.

 Course 5: Fish + Tomato + Rice Soup, 8/10

Course 5: Fish + Tomato + Rice Soup, 8/10

As we get to the wrap-up courses, a lovely bouillabaisse fish soup with rice and a fresh tomato base. Rich and smoky, with very fresh fish. 8/10. 

 Course 6: Mousse of Orange + Beer, 9/10

Course 6: Mousse of Orange + Beer, 9/10

Dessert is a mousse of orange and smoke flavor, made with orange beer. A delightful and creative finish. 9/10.

 Last sip: Coffee, 9/10

Last sip: Coffee, 9/10

A rich and gorgeous serving of coffee- a really nice break from the roasted oat tea that finishes most fine dining meals in Japan. 9/10.