It’s unlikely that grilled black-bear bacon wrapped around asparagus spears and topped with tasazu (sweet vinegar) and glistening spheres of orange salmon roe would have been on a traditional Japanese kaiseki menu. Nor would loin of grilled venison stuffed with cream cheese and bathed in a peppercorn demiglace. But both appear on the version served at Heat. “Our kaiseki menu isn’t far from what you’d find in Tokyo today,” says Kee Chan, who owns the restaurant with his brother Macku. “We follow many of the traditional principles, but not all of them. The cuisine in Tokyo today has a large French influence.”

The French weren’t in the picture back in the late 15th century, when shogun Yoshimasa Ashikaga built a small teahouse in Kyoto and served the earliest documented kaiseki, a multicourse progressive meal not unlike the French degustation menu. Designed to accompany the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, the meal was simple, seasonal, and mostly vegetarian, consisting of dishes that were steamed, simmered, and grilled and incorporating courses of raw fish, tempura, and noodles.

The name comes from the legend that Buddhist priests would put warm stones (seki) in their kimono pockets (kai) to distract themselves from their empty stomachs during strict Zen training. The meal melds Zen principles of serenity and balance with Shinto beliefs in the primacy of nature, hospitality, and art, incorporating exquisite utensils and elaborate serving dishes. It’s supposed to be a spiritual experience, feeding the soul and the gut equally.

While Heat’s kaiseki bows to tradition in certain aspects, simplicity is not one of them. Dishes are generally complex, with dots, drizzles, and multiple layers of flavors. “We have to cater to the American palate,” says Kee–an odd statement coming from a restaurateur bold enough to include on his sushi menu fish so freshly killed it still twitches as it’s served. But simply offering kaiseki could itself be considered a calculated risk. “We want to expose our clients to our cuisine, not just sushi,” says Macku, who’s the chef in charge of hot dishes while Kee oversees the sushi preparation. “I’m pretty sure we’re the only ones currently serving the meal in Chicago,” says Macku.

The 11 courses served by the Chans do follow the classic kaiseki progression from subtle flavors to strong ones. The meal offers a feast for the eyes as well: colorful garnishes, contrasting colors, shapes, and textures, and even serving dishes in varying shapes and sizes. Traditionally, “hot dishes generally come on ceramic plates or bowls while cold ones come on glass,” says Kee. But “today’s chefs don’t pay as much attention to the plate as they do to the artistic value of the food.”

On October’s menu, the brothers’ artistry was apparent. The kobachi, or “small bowl,” was set on a slightly larger square ceramic plate, elegantly cushioned with a long tea leaf. Inside were several tiny sweet prawns in a creamy taro sauce topped with flecks of seaweed. Next up was the zensai (“appetizer”): a narrow 12-inch oval dish dotted with three small tuna preparations meant to be consumed from right to left–mildest to most pungent. First was a simple tuna tartare topped with sauteed baby white mushrooms; then a mound of raw diced tuna mixed with avocado and shrimp; and last, thin slices of smoky seared tuna with a pickled onion counterpoint. A red shiso leaf rested on one corner of the plate. “The garnish represents the season,” says Kee. “Green leaves reflect spring and summer; brown or red represent fall and winter.”

Salad was next in the lineup–charred grilled squid with baby greens, tossed in a piquant yuzu dressing with oba, a Japanese herb–followed by a sashimi course in which three thick slices of madai, or snapper, were set in a pool of ponzu sauce.

Five courses in, it was time for the hot food: grilled, fried, steamed. The yakimono (grilled) course consisted of the venison-and-cream-cheese combination, impossibly tender and wrapped around a pickled onion spear–a rich combination made even richer by the meat-based peppercorn sauce. It was followed by another stretch of tradition: tempura of flounder. Unlike the lightly battered type found in typical Japanese restaurants, this one had a heavy, crunchy crust. Served on a coil of squid ink noodles, it was topped with another rich sauce, this time garlicky and white.

The nimono (steamed) course was a composed dish of cubed eggplant and fried spears of Japanese herring in fish broth, garnished with mild ground radish spiked with hot chilies and a frilly mound of dried bonito flakes. Then came a sunomono (vinegar-based) course–the bacon and asparagus with sweet vinegar and salmon roe. This course’s high point was its garnish, the cross section of a lemon topped with a layer of pickled seaweed and a sunny-side up quail egg, which balanced the heaviness of the fatty bacon.

Finishing up the meal were a sushi course–a spicy tuna hand roll that guests were instructed to consume immediately so the jet-black, smoky nori (seaweed) remained crisp–and a small bowl of udon noodles in kani (crab) broth, perhaps the most traditional dish in the batch. The finale was an overly complicated combination of deep-fried litchi in melon juice with a scoop of mango-and-lemon-skin gelato. The gelato alone would have been just right.

Traditionally a kaiseki menu changes with the seasons, and Heat’s is no exception–it’s revised every month. Custom has it that the cycle starts in November, when the year’s first tea is ready for grinding. Instead of tea, the Chans offer wine pairings, which are included in the dinner’s $95 cost. With the October menu came a French white, a Spanish rose, a rioja, and a sake.

“With time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown,” goes the proverb. And it’s precisely these two requirements that are critical to enjoying this meal, which can take between three and four hours when served properly, says Kee: “The meal is meant to be served slowly for the enjoyment of nature and the harmony of the food.”

Heat is at 1507 N. Sedgwick, 312-397-0668.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.