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We wish it were in our power to describe a certain dinner as served us in a Japanese restaurant in the days that followed the great fire. Desiring to observe in fitting manner a birthday anniversary, we asked a Japanese friend if he could secure admission for a little party at a restaurant noted for serving none but the highest class Japanese. We did not even know where the restaurant was but had heard of such a place, and when we received word that we would be permitted to have a dinner there we invited a newspaper friend who was in the city from New York, together with two other friends and the Japanese, who was the editor of the Soko Shimbun. He took us to a dwelling house in O'Farrell street, having given previous notice of our coming. There was nothing on the outside to indicate that it was anything but a residence, but when we were ushered into the large front room, we found it beautifully decorated with immense chrysanthemums, and glittering with silver and cut glass on a magnificently arranged table.
In deference to the fact that all but our Japanese friend were unaccustomed to chopsticks, forks were placed on the table as well as the little sticks that the Orientals use so deftly. At each place was a beautiful lacquer tray, about twelve by eighteen inches, a pair of chopsticks, a fork and a teaspoon. Before the meal was over several of us became quite expert in using the chopsticks.
When we were seated in came two little Japanese women, in full native costume, bearing a service of tea. The cups and saucers were of a most delicate blue and white ware, with teapot to match. Our first cup was taken standing in deference to a Japanese custom where all drank to the host. Then followed saki in little artistic bottles and saki cups that hold not much more than a double tablespoonful. Saki is the Japanese wine made of rice, and is taken in liberal quantities. At each serving some one drank to some one else, then a return of the compliment was necessary. Having always heard that Orientals turned menus topsy-turvy we were not at all surprised when the little serving women brought to each of us two silver plates and set them on our trays. These plates contained what appeared to be cake, one seeming to be angel food with icing, and the other fruit cake with the same covering. With these came bowls of soup, served in lacquer ware, made of glutinous nests of swallows, and also a salad made of shark fins. We ate the soup and salad and found it good, and then made tentative investigation of the "cake." To our great surprise we discovered the angel food to be fish and the "icing" was shredded and pressed lobster. The "fruitcake" developed into pressed dark meat of chicken, with an icing of pressed and glazed white meat of the same fowl.
Following this came the second service of tea, this time in cups of a rare yellow color and beautiful design, with similar teapot.
The next course was a mixture of immature vegetables, served in a sort of sauté. These were sprouting beans, lentils, peas and a number of others with which we were unfamiliar. The whole was delicately flavored with a peculiar sauce.
After a short wait, during which the saki bottles circulated freely, one of the women came in bearing aloft a large silver tray on which reposed a mammoth crayfish, or California lobster. This appeared to be covered with shredded cocoanut, and when it was placed before the host for serving he was at loss, for no previous experience told him what to do. It developed that the shredded mass on top was the meat of the lobster which had been removed leaving the shell-fish in perfect form. It was served cold, with a peculiar sauce.
Now followed the piece de resistance. A tub of water was brought in and in this was swimming a live fish, apparently of the carp family. After being on view for a few minutes it was removed and soon the handmaidens appeared with thinly sliced raw fish, served with soy sauce. Ordinarily one can imagine nothing more repulsive than a dish of raw fish, but we were tempted and did eat, and found it most delicious, delicate, and with a flavor of raw oysters.
Next came the third service of tea, this time in a deep red ware. Then came a dessert of unusual flavor and appearance, followed by preserved ginger and fruit.
It must be remembered that during the meal, which lasted from seven until past midnight, saki was served constantly yet no one felt its influence in more than a sense of increased exhilaration. It is customary to let the emptied bottles remain on the table until the close of the meal, and there was a mighty showing.
It was impossible to eat all that was set before us, but Japanese custom forbids such a breach of etiquette as an indication that the food was not perfection, consequently the serving maids appeared bearing six carved teak boxes, and placed one at each plate. Into these we arranged the food that was unconsumed, and when we went away we carried it with us. To cap the climax the Japanese stripped the room of its bounteous decoration of chrysanthemums and piled them into our arms and we went home loaded with food and flowers.
Proprietor and all his household accompanied us to the door with many bows and gesticulations, wishing us best of luck, and we went back to our homes in the desolated city with the feeling of having been transported to Fairyland of the Orient.
We discovered later that our Japanese friend was of the family of the Emperor and was here on a diplomatic mission.