There’s a reason why Tadayoshi Matsukawa’s restaurant in Akasaka, Tokyo is considered, amongst the gourmands in the know, the best in the city, and possibly the country… but he isn’t about to let anyone come into his restaurant to find out why. As an invitation-only restaurant, getting a reservation at this 22 seater is no easy feat. The lunch sitting however does seem to be somewhat less challenging than dinner. There’s also another catch with the restaurant: it’s cash only and, given a meal here sans alcohol will knock you back at least 35,000 yen a head (or more during matsutake season as we discovered the hard way), make sure you bring a wad of cash with you.
Trained classically in traditional Japanese cuisine at the two starred Seisoka in Minato-ku, Chef Matsukawa is renowned for creating phenomenal dishes from the freshest ingredients chosen personally by him every day. He is equally well known for being very shy from any publicity, perhaps explaining why this restaurant has evaded the red Michelin book to date. After all, why would you want to attract every man and his dog when you already have a steady clientele of the well connected and aristocrats? There’s no menu per se at Matsukawa – everyone gets 10 courses of the best ingredients he has chosen that day, give or take some substitutions for any allergies.
1st Course – Japanese spiny lobster / Ise-ebi (伊勢海老): Our meal truly commenced with a feast for all senses. We could smell the ise-ebi being grilled very lightly over white coal (binchotan) before it was served on a bed of pine needles. The delicate and juicy tail meat was served with the sweet meat of the head/brain and ponzu to add some freshness. A beautifully balanced dish that was flawlessly executed. It was also the best preparation of ise-ebi I have had to date.2nd Course – Rice Steamed Abalone / Awabi no imushi (鮑の飯蒸し): Generously thick but tender and juicy abalone served over mochi-gome (glutinous rice) that had soaked up the flavours of the ocean. The chef utilised the natural flavours of the ocean to season the dish and a zest of Japanese citrus sudachi to cut through the rich meat. Another simple looking but delicious dish.3rd Course – Simmered dish of Red snow crab and matsutake / Benizuwaigani to matsutake no nimono (紅ずわい蟹と松茸の煮物): We had noticed that the chef had literally a mountain of matsutake from Saitama piled over the counter and wondered when he was going to use it – this was it. The sweet simmered crab meat was served in a clean broth with a few slithers of matsutake, topped off again with sudachi rind. I’m not the biggest fan of matsutake but I thought the marriage of the sea and mountain worked well here. It was again a very subtle dish with little salt. I imagine this could divide opinions between the salt loving Kanto people and the Kansai people of Japan.4th Course – Sea bream sashimi from Awaji-shima (淡路島の鯛の刺身): An extremely delicate dish with a variety of options to go with the sashimi. There was either salt and sudachi juice or soy with a dash of mirin. I personally preferred the salt and sudachi as I could distinctly taste the flavour of the fish better than with soy.5th Course – Thawed Squid and its liver / Surumeika no kimo no rui-be (スルメイカの肝のルイベ): A meal at Matsukawa certainly showcases some of the more rare types of Japanese dishes. Dishes that foreigners may not otherwise be exposed to. A rui-be is a typical style of dish that originated from the Ainu people of Northern Japan where they thawed food that had been preserved at -20 degrees celcius. The squid and its liver literally melted in your mouth as soon as it touched your tongue. It was not too dissimilar to foie gras in terms of texture. I wasn’t quite convinced with the flavour here but loved the texture. 6th Course – Steamed sea urchin and lotus root / Uni to renkon no hasumushi (海胆と蓮根の蓮蒸し): We moved slightly south to Ishikawa prefecture for the next dish of the hasumushi. In this dish grated lotus root was steamed and covered with a thick broth. In this instance Chef Matsukawa also added slivers of deliciously melting sea urchin to the grated and crunchy lotus roots. This was yet another delicate dish that celebrated the superior quality of the best ingredients one could get their hands on.
We could see and smell over the counter the next course… 7th Course – Sweetfish with water pepper vinegar sauce / Ko-ayu tadezu (子鮎 蓼酢): The yakimono (grilled) course was sweetfish (ayu) that had been grilled over white charcoal (binchotan), served with an alkaline base sauce made from a water pepper (tade) that grows by the river where the sweetfish swims. The addition of the sauce cut down the heat of the vegetable and cut through the acidity of the fish. This was easily the best ayu fish we had on our trip, and by quite some distance. Curious to know what water pepper looks like Chef Matsukawa presented a bowl of it. 8th Course – Ōmi beef and matsutake: A slice of beef from Ōmi served with matsutake and ginnan. The meat was rather pleasant and not too fatty. Whilst this was the only meat dish of the meal, the quality of the meat more than made up for it. I wasn’t really sure whether the matsutake was necessary here other than to bump up the price of the menu. 9th Course – House Soba with grilled and shredded crispy matsutake: In comparison to the previous dish, I rather enjoyed this preparation of the matsutake. The matsutake’s crispy texture was a nice contrast to the firm noodles. The tsuyu or the sauce was well balanced and did not overpower the mushroom.For the next course the binchotan was brought to us over the counter and we were in for another treat…10th Course – Shabu shabu of conger pike and matsutake / Hamo to matsutake no shabu shabu (鱧と松茸のしゃぶしゃぶ): I was left speechless with this dish. The dashi made from the bones of the hamo (conger pike) had an amazing flavour like nothing I had ever tried before. Given the bone of the hamo are so small to the point where breaking them without piercing the skin is considered an advanced skill, I was amazed so much flavour could be drawn out of them. Unlike some of the hamo that we had tasted on our trip, I could really taste the natural flavour here due to the minimal interference in the preparation of the fish. There was also the generous slices of matsutake which was perfect to soak that deep and rich dashi. Wow. Simply, wow. 11th Course – Matsutake rice: To finish off the savory segment we were brought a bowl containing raw slices of matsutake over rice served with pickles and miso soup with matsutake. The matsutake had a slight crunch and was again very subtle in flavour with minimal intervention. It gave us some time to reflect on the meal we had just experienced (and also fear what the price tag was going to be!). This was most definitely the best kaiseki meal I have ever had the joy of eating. 12th Course – Red bean jelly / Youkan (羊羹): Even the youkan was superb! It was not sickeningly sweet and had a very silky texture to the point where it was borderline liquid. I’ve always had them quite solid and quite sweet. I didn’t know it could get this good. I certainly couldn’t go back to the other ones after this. I was ruined.Glass of green tea (matcha) to finish off.
My friend and I literally scrounged around for the last 500 yen coin as we had not anticipated our bill to come to an eye watering 87,200 yen between the two of us (including one small beer), making this the officially most expensive meal on our trip as far as food went. However, if you asked me then or now if I would return, I would say yes in a heart beat. The food here was really mind blowingly good and was on another level to anything I have previously tried in Japan. What’s more, it ridiculed the three starred kaiseki we had the day before in Kichisen on every front staring with produce, to the cooking and service. Chef Matsukawa’s eye for the perfect ingredient and produce is equally impressive as his skills in handling them. What’s more, what I really like about him was his quiet confidence in his own skills which has rewarded him with his faithful clientele. I had some hesitation writing this review because it is clear that he’s not after publicity or fame. Judging by the demeanor of some of the other diners, most of his customers are equally coming in to enjoy a delicious but low key meal. I hope it stays this way.
(Some photos courtesy of Framed Eating)
During my culinary research for Japan I came across one particular restaurant that was creating quite a buzz across several social media and restaurant rating websites. Hell, bloggers appeared to be flocking there en mass, claiming it to be one of the most exciting restaurant in Tokyo. The restaurant was of course Jimbocho Den, opened and owned by Chef Hasegawa Zaiyu in 2007 at a mere age of 29. Since then he made the culinary headlines again for getting his second Michelin star only three years later in 2011. Unfortunately, he was to lose that second star in 2014. The loss of the star, however, does not appear to have diminished the shine on the young talented chef.
My reservation at Den looked uncertain for a while as Chef Hasegawa, who has a wide network internationally, was planning his overseas trip for the period of our arrival. Luckily we managed to catch him a couple of days before he took off.
The cuisine at Den was essentially a modern and creative adaptation of the traditional Japanese kaiseki cuisine. Chef Hasegawa utilises contemporary influences that have shaped the modern Japanese culture as inspiration for his cooking. He is notorious for being creative and inventive, using seasonal ingredients to reinvent classic dishes and flavours. His vision is to create a customer friendly restaurant focused on the happiness of his diners; an inspiration from the Japanese philosophy of omotenashi.
It was essentially a sandwich of foie gras, guava paste and white miso which created a delicious combination of a rich, salty and sweet flavours. The guava worked ever so well against the rich foie gras. It was all gone too quickly…
… the skin and meat of the softshell turtle inside. The clear soup, made from ginger and turtle meat, had a surprising depth in flavour and a very clean aftertaste. The rice cracker scattered on the soup provided a nice textural crisp. This was my first suppon and it was surprisingly pleasant.
3rd Course – Dentucky Fried Chicken (DFC): We were entertained with another thoughtful and playful dish from Chef Hasegawa. Aside from the obvious humour, the box contained other elements of a personal touch.
… another personal touch for each diner. I recalled at the time of making the reservation that I was asked about where each diner in my party was coming from. As I was coming from Australia I received an Australian flag and a sponge chicken!
Finally on to the food itself. A piece of chicken was nestled under all the prop. The chicken had been de-boned and stuffed like a Brazilian faijoada (beans) but using instead cashew nuts and purée. It was then cooked in a stock made of various meats (including pork) and subsequently deep fried, dried, to wipe off the excess oil, and finally quickly grilled last minute to crisp up the skin. It was a lot of effort for fried chicken… but it was worth it. It was one of the best chicken I’ve ever had.
4th Course – Yellowtail / Buri (鰤) with spicy (karami) daikon: It was a surprisingly oily piece of fish and possibly the best preparation of buri I have ever had. Buri is normally served in the colder months where they become fatter to insulate themselves from the cold water so I was surprised to come across one of this quality in September. The spicy daikon made from soy sauce and wasabi was a clever component to cut through the oily fish.
5th Course – Pacific Saury / Sanma Houbayaki: Houbayaki originated from the Gifu prefecture in the mountains. Traditionally a combination of meat, vegetable and miso paste is wrapped in magnolia leaves (houba) and then grilled.
At Den, Chef Hasegawa used Pacific Saury (Sanma) with its liver, miso paste, cous cous, ginko, roasted buckwheat. The combination of the miso and the leaves scent was particularly appetising and the fish was very representative of autumn. Sanma is my favourite grilled fish in Japanese cuisine and this one was just phenomenal. The cous cous, which replaced the rice, was a clever adaptation as it soaked up the flavours better than the rice would have.
6th Course – The ‘Garden’: This was a similar dish to Michel Bras’ famous Gargouillou. All the elements on the dish was supplied by Chef Hasegawa’s sister who is a farmer. The vegetables were prepared in various ways, some raw, grilled, fried and poached but what made this dish amazing was the sheer quality of the produce. There was rocket, red chard, nasturtium, spinach, begonia and mustard leaves as well as a carrot poached in sweet vinegar (amazu) and covered in houji-cha powder, tomato with a hint of vanilla, mountain yam (tororo imo), burdock (gobo), potato from Hokkaido, pumpkin, edible flowers, radish, turnip, peppers and gingko.
7th Course – Matsutake Soup: Made from Matsutake dashi, conger pike (hamo) with yuzu. It was good, as far as matsutake went, but again I am not the biggest fan of matsutake. I think there are mushrooms that cost a fraction of the price which taste better.
Chef Hasegawa wasted no time in mixing the ikura into the rice before serving each of us a bowl of the mixture. As I looked at him serving the last bowl for me he caught my eyes staring at the donburi and chuckled saying “don’t worry, there’s plenty more for seconds.”
I absolutely destroyed this dish and devoured the first serve in seconds. The rice had soaked up that lovely dashi stock and the the gooey juice from each salmon roe went ever so well with the rich dashi stock. I loved how the texture interchanged between the occasional chewy Japanese rice and the pop from the salmon roe, not to mention the generosity of the chef with the portion size.
10th Course – Moss from the Garden: More humour from chef Hasegawa. This time he served the dessert course on a garden spade complete with ‘used garden gloves’. This was a tiramisu in a deconstructed fashion made of cheese mousse, green and brown teas and charcoal. I loved the humour in this interpretation of a classic dish.
11th Course – Star Comebacks: A deliciously humorous finale to end a great meal. The adapted logo of starbucks was used to express the chef’s humour in trying to get back his second Michelin star he lost in 2014. I liked the fact that he was happy to poke fun at himself. The content of the mug was what appeared to be a cappuccino at first glance but was actually pudding and sugarcane.
Short of 15,000 yen for a tasting menu, Jimbocho Den was definitely value for money in the fine dining scene in Tokyo. Add that to the consistently high calibre of dishes that came out from the kitchen and you can understand why Den was so popular. What personally attracted me equally was the professionalism and focus of the team in their disciplines as they effortlessly managed to make each diner feel personally welcome. This level of omotenashi was definitely not something I found readily in other establishments, even as a Japanese person. Den to me represented a new generation of Japan.
For the true aficionados there’s no denying that Japan is the holy grail when it comes to the best quality beef in the world. Whilst premium quality beef in Japan may be better value than having it overseas (and certainly is often fresher), it is still an expensive affair, usually beyond the reach of the average person including myself. That is why Steakhouse Satou in Kichijoji should be on any beef loving carnivores itinerary. Whilst they primarily operate as a butcher through a number of other branches, the Kichijoji arm in Tokyo also has a restaurant on the on the second floor above the ground floor butcher. When we arrived there was a 50 people solid queue. Luckily they were locals, queuing up for the butcher. A good sign none the less.
What makes Satou attractive is their affordable price. There is a slight catch, but they are very transparent about it. Prior to August 2002 there were very strict criteria around the catchment area in the Mie prefecture that permitted the use of the name “Matsusaka beef” (otherwise known as Kurogewagyuu or black haired wagyuu – 黒毛和牛). Naturally, as with anything exclusive, that meant a hefty price tag. However post 2002 the catchment area expanded to include surrounding regions now commonly known as the “triple prefecture of black haired wagyuu” (三重県産国産黒毛和牛). That being said, the beef originating from the original exclusive catchment area continues to be considered superior and this is reflected in the price. You’ve probably guessed the catch by now. Satou sources their beef from the new catchment area, although they claim their quality is not inferior to the “real deal”. They focus instead on female breeds between the age of 30 to 40 months.
As with any steakhouse there was a choice of different cuts that dictated the price. As we had purposely come to Kichijoji for the best quality we could afford, we decided to opt for the more expensive dinner menu option (which is also available at lunch after popular demand from diners) and get their regular fillet steak (150g) for 5,000 yen and their high grade fillet sirloin steak (200g) for 10,000 yen. We thought it would be interesting to compare the quality of the cuts.
The restaurant itself was tiny and could only seat about 25 diners at any time including six seats at the counter (and you don’t really get a choice of the seat unless you are the first in line). A word of warning though, as the place gets packed very quickly, if you’re not early (preferably ahead of their opening hour), you may end up standing in their ridiculously steep and narrow stairway for half an hour as butchers run up and down bringing the cuts of meat to the restaurant.
As we had ordered their most expensive cut, the chef behind the counter came to present us the beautifully marbled high grade sirloin steak. It looked absolutely magnificent but I was did wonder whether this was going to be too fatty? As they say, the proof is in the
I was genuinely amazed with the quality of the cheaper 5,000 yen fillet steak. The cooking was spot on and served medium-rare, just the way I like it. The balance of the intramuscular fat to the lean meat was just right, making this steak not overly fatty but mouthwatering juicy.
In comparison, you can see the marbling on the right from the high grade 10,000 sirloin steak which had a far higher intramuscular fat content. I enjoyed the first two bites but I must confess that overall I found it rather too oily and fatty. The texture in fact for me was less pleasant due to the high fat content. This is probably considered blasphemy in Japan, but my dining companion Fine Dining Explorer agreed wholeheartedly. We focused on enjoying the fillet steak before we slowly worked our way through the high grade sirloin; after all we couldn’t let it go to waste. It could simply be a matter of taste so don’t take my word as the gospel. I’d honestly advise you to try them side by side. Who knows? You may disagree. Either way, you are in for a treat!
I’ve got a confession to make. I’ve always been embarrassed by the fact that despite my Japanese heritage I’ve not had many opportunities exploring the fine dining scene in my own country. This naturally had to change and September 2014 was my opportunity (Note that the significant delay in my write-up has been due to the arrival of my first daughter in November 2014). Over the recent years I’d managed to create a long list of restaurants I planned to visit when I returned home and that included Narisawa. I was curious about its reputation for being unorthodox in a country that was deeply rooted to its tradition.
After all, wouldn’t you be curious to find out the culmination of modern French cooking techniques with fresh seasonal Japanese produce? After receiving their second Michelin star in 2010 and successfully retaining the title of best Asian restaurant in San Pellegrino’s 50 Best Awards over the past few years there was no way I could pass this opportunity.
Yoshihiro Narisawa opened Les Creations de Narisawa (now known simply as Narisawa) back in 2003 on his return from Europe after training under the likes of big hitters like Frédy Girardet, Paul Bocuse and Joel Robuchon. The cuisine here was however difficult to label. It was decidedly modern and drew on French techniques yet was not tied down to one particular style of cuisine. What’s more, Narisawa departed from the traditional focus on agriculturally cultivated produce. Instead he favoured natural ingredients and produces from the wild forests and mountains like nuts, berries and the wild animals that fed on them.
The theme of our tasting menu reflected the season we visited, autumn. Unlike many of the restaurants we had visited on this occasion, the front of house was well versed in English which made the meal more interactive for my non-Japanese speaking companions. We left ourselves in the capable hand of the front of house and kicked off our meal with a glass of their Vilmart et Cie, Grand Cellier, Brut, Premier Cru which had been bottled specially for the restaurant.
As we sipped on our glass of bubbles our friendly waiter prepared the Bread of the Forest 2010. The bread was proved at our table. It was made using wild yeast from the Shirakami ranges, one of the most serene and beautiful UNESCO natural heritage sites of the world located between Aomori and Akita prefecture, and was gently heated over a candle. The bread mixture contained ao-yuzu (green yuzu) and ki no me (木の芽) leaves from the Japanese Prickly Ash tree, which added a citrus scent and peppery note.
The wait was finally over. What a way to start the meal; an amuse bouche of the Essence of the Forest and Satoyama Scenery. It consisted of a “forest floor” of soy pulp or okara (御殻), bamboo and green tea powder and soya milk yoghurt paste. It was served with the “bark” of mountain vegetables (山菜) such as deep fried burdock skin, sourced from Ishikawa prefecture, which had been brushed with a syrup. We were instructed to eat with our hands and wash it down with…
… “spring water” infused with oak and served in a cedar cup. The flavours were very clean, evoking childhood memories of hikes through moss-covered mountains in Japan. Everything worked in harmony and I felt truly depicted the essence of the Japanese forest. I particularly loved the crispy texture of the burdock root. What I found truly remarkable was that no additional seasoning had been added to this dish, nor did it need any. I could see why this dish had stayed on their menu for over five years.
Our second amuse bouche of Sumi (炭) was essentially braised onion coated in a mixture of charcoal and leek powder. It had been deep fried and served on a magnolia leaf. The sweetness of the onion was an unexpected surprise.
Our bread was finally ready after 12 minutes of baking and was served to us with chestnut tree powder. I had no particular expectation for the bread as I had assumed this was predominantly to provide theater to the meal. I was, however, mistaken. Whilst it wasn’t the best bread I’d ever eaten, it had all the hallmarks of a good bread. It was soft, fluffy and warm. What’s more, the yuzu added an inviting scent yet remained subtle on the palate.
All the ingredients were sourced from Okinawa. The most important component of this dish was the broth that was made over six hours of using a bonito flake dashi, dried and smoked sea-snake and pork from Kagoshima. A slither of crunchy winter melon, taimo (a sticky Okinawa variety of taro which is normally used for dessert) and a crispy pork skin was added to complete the dish. The broth had a great depth of flavour and the textural contrast of each element worked very well. A deceivingly simple looking dish that worked very well with a glass of the 1981 Chateau Gen Brown Rice Sake, Mie, Japan.
A Moss butter made from dehydrated black olives, chlorophyll and Hokkaido butter was presented prior to the next course. It tasted how it looked – mossy! Not that it was a bad thing but certainly different to anything I’ve tried before.
The Uni Sea Urchin, amaebi, yuzu was another example of a perfectly balanced dish. The amaebi (spot prawn) and sea urchin sourced from Mikawa, Aichi prefecture, was very creamy and sweet. The katsuodashi jelly (set and infused for six hours) gave depth to the dish and the yuzu and tomato hiding underneath cut through the rich flavour, leaving only a fragrant aftertaste. I could also sense a slight peppery heat that contrasted against the cold dish. Beautiful. The dish was matched with a glass of the 2012 Chateau Lestille, Entre Deux Mers, Bordeaux.
… a juicy Japanese langoustine (Akazaebi) from Suruga Bay. It had been very lightly seared and served as a warm sashimi. The creamy langoustine was cooked perfectly and the scallop jus served over the dish intensified the crustacean flavour. The only issue I had was with the portion size. I wanted more… The matching 2009 Chassagne Montrachet Les Caillerets, Bourgogne, France was a perfect match with its buttery flavour.
The next course was a Pigeon which represented the animals that fed from the forest. The pigeon was basted at a constant temperature of 57 degrees celsius to ensure a pink finish. It was accompanied with charred beetroot and wild berries also foraged from the forest. The plump pigeon was cooked perfectly with a beautiful texture. I particularly loved the reduced salumi sauce that seasoned the dish. Exquisite! The accompanying wine was a rather smoky and oaky 2001 Lynsolence, Saint-Emilion, Bordeaux. Only 20 cases had been imported into Japan. What a treat!
The Kamo nasu was truly a celebration of the native Kyoto variety of aubergine. This vibrant dish consisted of a bed of soft sautéed aubergine, topped with an aubergine purée and pickles. The shiitake mushroom provided a meaty texture whilst the sheet of acidic tomato jelly and cleverly hidden shiso leaves inside cut through the oiliness of the dish. A special dish like this required a rather special glass of a 1977 Toriivilla Imamura Koshu, Yamanashi, Japan which was not too dissimilar to that of a dry sherry. It was very dry and nutty with a hint of honey and lemon. I had never heard of this Japanese winery and was even more surprised to hear they have been around for over 150 years. I knew the Japanese made a small batch of great wines but this was the first time I had come across so many.
We had a fair share of Hamo (conger pike) on our trip and the one at Narisawa was one of the best ones. The Conger pike, white peach, string bean had a lovely sweet, sour and salty undertone driven by the creamy su-miso (white miso vinegar) and kabosu foam, a citrus related to the yuzu family. The hamo, which is traditionally prepared through the fine art of honegiri (a technique that requires years of practice to efficiently break the vast number of small bones in the fish without damaging the skin), instead had, against convention, removed painstakingly each bone, one by one, by hand. I did not envy the chef but it was definitely worth the effort! Matching the dish was a glass of Shizen no manma unfiltered and undiluted sake, Terada Hoke sake brewery, Chiba.
The next seafood course, the Rosy seabass, matsutake mushroom, was presented in a what was described as a “sustainable wrap” which was supposedly environmentally friendly (admittedly I wasn’t sure how). The waiter proceeded to cut the bag…
… and the delicious earthy smell of the matsutake mushroom immediately hit the olfactory senses. The contents had been cooked in a rich duck essence for eight minutes at 180 degrees celsius which enhanced the flavours of the fatty fish. It was served with another delicious sake of 5 years aged, unfiltered and unpasteurised junmai daiginjo, Chikurin Taoyaka, Marumoto Sake Brewery, Okayama. The aka musu (rosy seabass), known for it’s similarity in fattiness to the o-toro was beautiful cooked with a raw texture and was definitely one of the best preparations I’ve ever tasted.
For the next course a rump cut was used for the Kagoshima beef, beef essence, ichiban dashi. The ichiban dashi made from a matured konbu dashi was added to an essence of beef broth and complemented the tender lean meat, providing the umami. I particularly loved the ginnan (ginko nuts) with their nutty sweet-sour flavour that subtly reminded me of the autumn season. Accompanying the dish was a rather lovely 1994 Alain Verdet Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits, Bourgogne.
Narisawa’s take on the classic champagne cocktail of the Bellini was simply divine. White peaches were in season and the chef made sure to make the most out of them. The same house champagne served at the start was poured over slices of white peaches neatly stacked over a brioche and layer of cream
The flavour of the peach was very distinct and provided a fresh fruity note. At first sight I expected it to be a very sweet dish but, contrary to what I thought, surprisingly the dish was very light and refreshing. The matching wine was a chenin blanc, 2004 Quarts de Chaume, Domaine des Baumard.
The finale was Chocolate. It was perhaps a little disappointing given the caliber of the meal we had just experienced. The fondant, ice cream and foam incorporated the rather luxurious Domori chocolate from Italy. I found the flavour to be rather one dimensional despite the occasional bitterness of the darker chocolate contrasting against the milkier one. It was after all chocolate.
The number of mignardises presented with our coffee was staggering. Starting with a piña colada macaron, cream puff, canelé, passion fruit, cheese cake tart, warabi mochi as well as nine flavours of chocolate macarons, there was plenty more which I could sadly not fit in my stomach. What was truly remarkable was the skill that went into preparing these flawless sweet treats. By no means an easy feat.
As we looked over the kitchen we could see Chef Narisawa assessing each dish as it came to the pass. Nothing appeared to escape his focus, something that was very evident from the dishes we had just devoured over the last three hours. I could see why this place was so popular amongst those who sought after culinary excellence. Not only was the food delicious here, it was also eco-conscious and sustainable. I particularly loved the marriage of foreign techniques with ingredients typically engrained into traditional Japanese cuisine. By breaking the norms and boundaries, Narisawa was able to bring a whole new dimension to both French and Japanese cuisine. This wasn’t French or Japanese. This was “Narisawa cuisine”.
Buddhist cuisine, better known in Japan as shyoujin-ryouri (精進料理), is a cuisine of devotion that follows the Buddhist philosophy of persistency to incorporate austere practices. Ask anyone making a culinary trip to Japan and I can guarantee you that they would have a list of restaurant dominated by sushi, kaiseki, tempura, beef and even contemporary cuisine, but Buddhist cuisine is certainly not one of them. And who can blame them when it is literally on the opposite end of the spectrum to fine dining? It therefore didn’t surprise me that there was little information available in Japanese let alone English in the public domain on our next destination, Daigo. If it wasn’t for the insistence of @Framed Eating to try this Two-Michelin starred restaurant we would have missed out on one of the highlights from our entire trip across Japan. Yes, you heard me correctly… it was unbelievably good and personally I thought they deserved the almighty three star status.
Nomura Yoshiko, who founded Daigo restaurant near Daigo-ji temple in 1950, remained as the okami (female lady of the house / supervisor) of the establishment until the restaurant relocated to a more modern location next to Seisho-ji temple at the foot of Mt. Atago in Tokyo. The current premises of the restaurant works perfectly well and you still get that genuine feeling of entering an old temple despite the modern surrounding. Daigo continues to be a family affair where Nomura Satoko oversee’s the guests arrival as the current okami, supported by her husband Nomura Masao (president) and three sons who run the restaurant that are Nomura Yusuke (restaurant manager), Nomura Tadasuke (office manager) and Nomura Daisuke (head chef).
Unlike traditional shyoujin ryori which can often be very basic and modest in portion, Daigo offers three alternative kaiseki-styled menus – the dearest being a mere 19,000 yen – with carefully selected ingredients directly from the farmers / producers and Tsukiji Vegetable Market. This concept appears to be paying dividends as they have started to attract new devotees across Japan who return during different seasons. The menu here is also designed in a way that allows you to appreciate the tanmi (淡味) or the subtlety of flavours, progressing from lighter preparations to much bolder flavours, allowing you to distinguish the essence of each main ingredient.
Word of warning though for those who are not used to Japanese customs. You will be required to take off your shoes at the entrance before you are shown to one of the eight private rooms available on the premises. All the rooms have tatami floors with a view over their own private Japanese garden. Impressively there was an almost complete absence of any noise from the neighbouring rooms given there were only a couple of shōji’s (rice paper wall) separating us.
Our reservation fell on a rather hot and humid September evening and the ice chilled apperitif or shokuzenshu (食前酒) of the Umeshu plum wine (梅酒) with a scented wet napkin to freshen up was a very welcomed gesture to our arrival.
Soon after settling in and absorbing the environment the shoji slid open and Nomura-san personally came to pour us some sake in a ceremonial wide-mouthed cup, also known as Sakazuki (盃). As expected from a Junmai Daiginjyo, it was rather delicious and left us wanting more.
As the sake was being poured, another waitress proceeded to serving us our Zensai (前菜), otherwise known as the Starter, on a beautiful lacquered tray with a pair of chopsticks that we were encouraged to take home after our meal.
As we were technically still in the fall of autumn, our first course was the chef’s interpretation of Tsukimi Dango (月見団子), a typical dumpling served for the moon-viewing festival (Tsukimi) that dates back to the Heian period, roughly a thousand years ago. Four lightly fried dumplings of Edamame, Corn, Rice and Sesame were served that were all distinctly flavoursome as well as crispy, warm and void of any excess oil. Not a bad start at all.
The dumplings came with a Kotsuke (小附), a small supplement dish called Shikisaikurouyose (色彩九郎寄せ) and Suizenjinori (水前寺海苔) served in a long ceramic case. It was essentially a herbaceious gel of dashi stock containing shiso (perilla) leaves and seaweed from Suizen-ji temple. The strong sweet and spicy flavour really drew the clean flavour of the dashi.
Next was the clear soup course or Osuimono (御吸物), an aromatic Kaburamushi (蕪蒸し), essentially a turnip that had been steamed, peeled and grated before reassembling it into a small ball and serving it in a clear soup with the young leaves of Japanese pepper, kinome (木の芽), and yuba (tofu skin). Whilst Kaburamushi is traditionally made with white fish flesh and prawn in Kyoto, this one was purely vegetarian and was far superior to any kaburamushi I’ve previously. It had a soft texture and distinct but subtle flavour of turnip.
The filler course to tie to the next dish, also known as an Oshinogi (お凌ぎ), was an assortment of Vegetable Sushi (野菜寿司) made from Green pepper (ピーマン) with black sesame and salt crystals, Bamboo shoot – Takenoko (筍), Shiitake mushroom (椎茸), Fermented seaweed and Cucumber – Kappamaki (河童巻). Each sushi was remarkably delicious and varied in sweetness, and seasoning to complement each ingredient. It took us by surprise as we had low expectation from this course because one would normally associate sushi with fish. Nomura-san explained this dish was replaced with a soba course in summer to suit the season.
The next dish, the Hassun (八寸) is perhaps the most poetic and constrained course in a kaiseki meal. The tray used to serve the course is always made of plain cedar, and it is traditionally the course where the master chef and the customer toast with a cup of sake. The tray typically contains two types of food representing “mountain” and “sea” that depict and celebrate the current season. The food is arranged across the tray in tiny piles to create contrasts of color, shape, texture, and seasoning. It is been generally recognised in Japan that a person with sensitivity to the changing season is one that possesses talent.
We started the Hassun with the “sea” item of Atagoshigure (愛宕時雨), where essentially hijiki (brown sea vegetable) and gluten (extracted from wheat) had been delicately seasoned with soy sauce. The texture was not too dissimilar to that of minced chicken and just melted in your mouth. I was worried about the soy sauce overpowering the flavour but that was certainly not the case here. Who needs meat when vegetarian food can be this good? Impressive.
The item representing the “mountain” was the Houzuki Yamamomo (鬼灯山桃) which was a mountain peach encased in a layer of mountain peach jelly and beautifully presented in Japanese lantern leaves (houzuki). I expected the flavours to be rather tart but instead it was bordering on sweet and perhaps my least favourite item in the course.
We continued with the Take ni kogori (茸煮凝り), which was the gelatinated mushroom cube on the right, followed by Konasu Dengaku (小茄子田楽), essentially a small but flavoursome aubergine that had been broiled in a sweet and savoury miso glaze, resting on mountain potato. We finished with the Mizutama Ohitashi (水玉草お浸し) which is a genus of the whillowherb family that had been cooked in a buckwheat soba stock and topped with crispy tempura flakes of wheat. The chef definitely knew how to draw out the flavour of each ingredient whilst respecting them as well. The cooking thus far was impressive and beyond a two-star level.
The Nimono (煮物) or simmered dish course was a Tougan agedashi (冬瓜揚げ出し) presented in a ceramic bowl covered with a lid. The fragrant aroma that wafted out was sensational and put us under a spell. The dish contained fried winter melon that was steeped in dashi stock and served with rice cake balls and mountain potato, and topped with grated ginger, spring onion and baby corn. The slight heat from the ginger, fragrance of the spring onion and the sticky texture of the rice ball – all came together with the thick dashi sauce. What a phenomenal dish!
Our Agemono (揚物), or deep fried course, was Daigo’s Shyoujin-age (精進揚げ) consisting of a variety of tempura from maitake (hen-of-the-woods mushroom), shikakui-mame (winged bean), sweet pumpkin, tofu and shallots. The tempura here was far more interesting and well balanced in texture and flavours than Raku-tei. I particularly liked the rice pop corn that was salty and packed with so much flavour.
There was a significant pause before Nomura-san came back with our next course. However, contrary to what we expected based on the copy of the menu we were given, a special course of Japanese fig or Ichijiku (無花果) was brought to us on the house. The fig had been prepared in a sakamushi style, that is steamed with sake, and served with a white miso glaze on top. It was by far the best fig dish I have ever tried with a beaitful marriage of sweet and savoury flavours and a melting texture to die for. We were left speechless as Nomura-san came back to collect our empty dishes. We must have looked like a bunch of guppies.
The Shiizakana (強肴) is traditionally served to customers after the fried dish as a relish to further enjoy with the sake of choice. On this occasion we were served a Matsutake Mizoreae (松茸霙和え), that is pine mushroom prepared with grated daikon radish, and Kaki Shishitou (柿獅子唐) which were slithers of persimon and slightly hot shishitou peppers. I’m not the biggest fan of matsutake mushrooms but this wasn’t too bad as far as it went.
… Chikushi Konbu (竹紙昆布) which was a soup made of a luxurious konbu (kelp that has been shaved manually by hand to make it extremely thin to 0.05mm), garnished with slithers of the konbu itself and puffed rice balls. It was very soothing and aromatic again. Despite having quite a few dishes we felt energised at this point as the food had been light, aromatic and harmonious in progression.
… a bowl of Nameko Zousui (なめこ雑炊), basically a rice porridge dish prepared in a stock made from nameko mushroom served with gooey nameko and enoki mushrooms. As the evening was getting cooler in the Autumn evenings this was the perfect dish to warm your core temperature up. The food here was not only delicious but also thoughtful. The concentrated flavour of mushrooms was stunning and the lingering flavour in our mouths delightful. This was indeed what Japanese people call soul food.
To go with the porridge we had some condiments, Kou no mono (香の物), that included an earthy Yamagobou (山ごぼう) or mountain burdock, Sainome daikon (賽の目大根) or sliced daikon radish, and Bainiku (梅肉) which was a tart paste made from plum.
… we had a cup of the best cold red bean soup with mochi – Shiratama zenzai (白玉善哉) – I have ever had the pleasure of eating. The flavour of the red bean had been further drawn out with kurozatou or black sugar but without making it sickeningly sweet.
We came with little expectation and left speechless. Shoujin ryouri has countless limitations in its cooking methods and is intertwined with Japanese traditions, culture and arts. This was clearly demonstrated at Daigo by the sense of season in the cooking as well as the selection of crockery used for plating and presentation. In a culinary age that could be perhaps described as gluttony from the abudance of food, a cuisine following the austere discipline of Buddhism is a fresh breath of air. The only thing I didn’t agree was the star rating bestowed by Michelin. This was far superior to many Three-starred establishments we had collectively visited. If Daigo isn’t on your list then I would strongly urge you to add it.
Tempura is one of the three cuisines that originated from and defined the Edo period (also known as Edo no Zanmai – 江戸の三味) when Tokyo became the capital (1603 – 1868), alongside sushi and soba. Given the importance of the cuisine, there was no way that we would be missing out on at least one good tempura experience in Tokyo where it all began centuries ago. Fortunately there are a number of 2-Michelin starred tempura restaurants in the capital. In the end we decided to opt for Rakutei (楽亭) in Akasaka, which specialised in Edomae tempura; that is utilising seafood and vegetables that were available and caught in the vicinity of Tokyo during the Edo period.
Reservation is necessary for this 11-seater restaurant. Just like the chef’s from other famous tempura restaurants like Kondo and Fukamachi, chef-owner Ishikura Shuuji trained at the famous Hilltop Hotel restaurant before going independent in 1970. There were only two options from the menu, starting with the cheapest at 11,000 yen and the most expensive being 13,000 yen. Given the difference between them was only the number of prawns you got, we opted for the cheapest one to leave room for dinner.
As soon as our orders were taken, Ishikura-san began preparing the oil and its temperature. As Ishikura-san had to adjust the temperature of the oil for each course, the meal could not commence until every diner was present as everyone’s meal was served simultaneously. A wet hand towel was brought out to everyone with me being the exception (this wasn’t rectified until half way through the meal when I had to point it out). The apprentice, and only aid behind the counter, wasted no time in preparing our appetiser of Bonito salad, or Sakizuke no katsuo nuta ae (先付の鰹ぬた和え). Unfortunately, it was rather chewy and I felt the fish was dominated by the white miso dressing.
Ishikura-san’s wife then brought out a lacquered tray for each of us. On the tray were essentially all the condiments to go with the tempura. Basically you could have your tempura with grated radish in home made tentsuyu (天つゆ), which is a tempura dip made from a specific ratio of dashi, mirin and soy sauce, or just lemon to squeeze over…
There was no doubt the ingredients being used here was fresh. The prawns were still moving when Ishikura-san brought them out. Each prawn was handled with the utmost care and prepared methodically. The chef made the process look effortless but the slicing, trimming and peeling was done at speed with flawless precision that captivated all of us. He must have done this thousands of times. Each prawn was lightly slashed across the belly before being coated in the light batter.
For the cheaper menu, two Prawn Tempura’s (海老) were served in comparison to four, and in hindsight we made the right choice. The prawn had a natural sweetness and worked particularly well with just salt as it allowed you to appreciate its freshness and natural flavour. Despite this, I was not blown away from essentially what should have been the star dish of any tempura restaurant. I found the texture of the prawn a little drier than I’d like, absent of that expected juicy explosion at first bite.
The meal did however pick up with a serving of the delicious and salty Prawn Head (海老の頭) and Matsutake mushroom (松茸). The prawn head was divine with its crunchy texture and depth of crustacean flavour, far superior to the body of the prawn itself. I did wonder though, why did we only get one head when we had been served two prawns? The matsutake was satisfyingly meaty and oozed of its delicious juice. This was more like it!
You could distinctly notice the change in the application of the batter and the temperature of the oil with the Garfish, also known as Kisu (鱚). There was a thicker coating of the batter and it had been fried at a much higher temperature to penetrate the thicker fillet of the fish. Lemon and salt did the perfect trick for this course. What surprised me most was the absence of oiliness despite the thick batter, leaving you with just the flavour of the fish.
One of the two stand-out dishes of the meal was undoubtedly the Long Aubergine or Naga-nasu (大長茄子) from Kumamoto prefecture. I loved the contrasting texture of the soft moist flesh against the crispy batter. The aubergine has been deep-fried to retain as much moisture as it could before it was sliced in half for plating. A ginger stem tempura was then served to clean the palate. Ishikura-san changed his oil after this course to maintain the freshness of the next few courses. Shame the same level of attention wasn’t paid to the service as we had run out of water and tea for some time and there was no sign of any impending top up.
The second star dish of the meal was the Ink Squid or Sumi-ika (スミイカ). I’d never encountered such a delicate texture with the flesh having hardly any resistance to bite. The entire piece just dissolved in my mouth effortlessly and we were all left speechless. Wow.
The Conger eel or Anago (穴子) in comparison felt slightly too oily, unrefined and tough compared to the other courses. The toughness in truth was due to the fact that it had been cooked slightly longer than it probably should have. Mind you, at least the flavour was good and its only saving grace, although admittedly it was difficult to hide our disappointment.
To finish our meal we were served a plate of Japanese Pickles or tsukemono (漬物) and given a choice of having our Kakiage (かき揚げ), essentially a concoction of various ingredients, in this case clams, being deep-fried together in a batter, prepared in a Tendon (天丼) which is on a bed of rice, or Tencha (天茶), which is in a bowl with a tiny bed of rice and tea.
I opted to have my Kakiage as a Tendon. The Kakiage was made from the muscular part of the round clam, known as Kobashira (小柱) that had been sourced from Hokkaido. Whilst the flesh was very soft and sweet, I felt there was far too much batter for the amount of the delicate clam, making it rather more doughy than i would like, albeit crunchy on the outside.
We reflected over our meal as we sipped on our red miso soup, Akadashi (赤だし) and waited for our bill. We all had mixed feelings about the meal. There were some clear winners like the sumi-ika and naga-nasu that were a world apart from any tempura we had ever tried previously but we couldn’t overlook the inconsistency in the quality of the tempura, not to mention the simple mistakes in the service such as my missing wet hand towel and tea not being topped up. For the same price we had a far better and memorable meal at Ishibashi.
It took us a couple of attempts to finally get through the queue at the famous ramen-ya in Ginza, Kagari. On our first attempt we were told that the waiting time had surpassed 3 hours so we returned determinedly half an hour before opening time the following day. Amazingly, there was already a queue 14 people strong. Luckily, on this occasion it only took 45 minutes before we finally managed to get a seat. Impressive, as it really is a hole in the wall that only seats 8 people. It must be noted that the queuing rules are fair and empty seats are left until the size of the next party in line can fit in. A word of caution though, there is no English menu.
Kagari’s fame almost came overnight after they opened in March 2013. In particular, they are well known for their two soup based ramen (中華そば); Nimboshi Shoyu (煮干醤油), a soy sauce and dried sardine based soup, and the Tori Paitan (鶏白湯), a chicken based soup. They also had a choice of tsukemen / dipping noodle (つけ麺). Following the advice from Tokyo Food File’s Robbie Swinnerton, we decided to go for the Tori Paitan. After all, how often do you come across ramen that has been made from chicken?
At 980 yen for a large portion of ramen, the price was more than reasonable considering their prime location at the heart of Ginza. The ramen took a good 15 minutes to prepare so we sipped on some asahi superdry whilst we watched other diners tucking in. The smell wafting from our neighbour was agonizingly delicious. But our wait was finally over…
The Tori Paitan arrived with an unconventional choice of juicy and tender chicken instead of pork, as well as seasonal vegetables which on this occasion included lotus roots (renkon – 蓮根), nameko mushrooms, spring onion and a dollop of salmon roe. I also opted for flavoured egg (ajitama – 味玉) from the extra toppings on offer (which also included garlic butter, bamboo shoots and roast beef). On the side were also some fried onion and grated ginger for those seeking a bit of a kick.
The soup had a beautifully concentrated flavour of chicken. It was elegant and creamy yet surprisingly refined. It’s butteriness was something I’d never encountered before with a bowl of ramen and took me by complete surprise. The noodles were slightly thin and softer than I normally preferred, but it somehow worked with the delicious soup. Together with the starchy lotus roots, meltingly good ajitama and slight kick from the fried onion and ginger, this was definitely the best ramen I had as far back as my memory could take me. And just like that, the bowl was empty all too soon. I wished that I had ordered more but I was very content despite my meal being over.
As we walked out half an hour later, the queue had already built up to where we were the night before. One of the chefs was doing his round explaining the waiting time to each patient patron, but not a single soul flinched and they all stayed put. That’s dedication for you. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were return customers. I certainly would queue up again after having tried their ramen. It was really just that good. And for less than 1,000 yen, this may be Ginza’s best valued meal. ご馳走様でした!
It takes a tremendous amount of determination to rebuild your dream after watcing it crumble right in front of your eyes. It will however take more than the air raid of Tokyo in 1945 to stand in the way between the Nemoto family and their pursuit to perfecting the art of cooking eel. The century old family restaurant may no longer be sitting in its original location at Nakanohashi but I was impressed to see that they had managed to salvage some of their older building material including the bricks for the gate. Currently run by the third and fourth generation of Nemoto Mitsuaki and his son Kazunori, Ishibashi continues to be a contender to holding the title of the best unagi-ya (eel restaurant) in Tokyo.
Ishibashi’s eel is sourced from a designated farm in Yoshida-cho, Shizuoka prefecture. What I found particularly fascinating was that the eel was cultivated exactly to the chef’s specification, right down to the quantity and type of feed. Depending on the size and weight of the eel, the chef would decide how he would prepare it. According to Nemoto-san, it takes three years of practice to master skewering, eight years to cut and prepare the eel, and a life time to perfect the art of cooking it. That’s dedication for you! Naturally, it would have been rude to turn down the opportunity to try their elaborate menu to appreciate their various preparations of eel, so we obliged.
Our first course was a rather simple Zaru tofu (ざる豆腐) which is essentially tofu that has been strained using a basket (zaru) to remove as much water from the content of the soy beans. The remarkably silky tofu was sweet and creamy, complemented by the grated ginger, spring onion and soy sauce.
We were then presented a trio of starters (突出し) starting with Kamaboko or boiled fish cake (蒲鉾イクラのせ) served with kombu, salmon roe and grated daikon with soy sauce and wasabi on the left; a fresh slice of Salmon sashimi wrapped around sliced spring onion with caper (スライス玉葱のサーモン巻き); and some edamame (茶豆) cooked al dente.
I particularly enjoyed the Eel bone crackers (鰻骨煎餅 – unagi-kotsu senbei) which were, as the chef explained, packed with plenty of calcium with a crisp glass of beer. Crunchy, salty and packed with bags of flavour. As far as I was concerned, this was beer’s best friend and I could have had a truck load of it.
Some Oshinko / pickles (お新香) of cucumber, daikon, spring onion, aubergine and shirouri (白瓜), which is also known as summer cucumber. Great crunchy textures and not too salty. I managed to polish this plate before the next dish arrived.
The first proper eel course was a Unagi Chawanmushi (鰻茶碗蒸し), essentially a savoury egg custard dish steamed with pieces of delicious grilled eel, crab meat, mushroom, ginnan and slithers of the aromatic zest of sudachi. A harmonious dish with a beautifully silky texture and one of the better one I’ve had in a long time. I was particularly impressed as to how mush flavour the crab meat had.
Thirty minutes passed by and a rather apologetic waitress arrived with our next course. This was the moment we were waiting for! A beautiful Wajima lacquer box was presented to each of us with a soy sauce and wasabi concoction on the side. Wajima lacquer is one of the oldest lacquer craft produced in the city of Wajima in Ishikawa prefecture. Before opening the box the waitress explained that each eel was carefully handled and grilled just before serving them which was why it had taken thirty minutes. Fair enough!
The first serving of the eel was prepared as a Shirayaki (白焼), which is essentially plain broiled eel without any sauce. This method of cooking is popular amongst the purists as the lower content of fat from the cooking method allows you to truly appreciate the quality of the eel and the skill that comes with the preparation. The dish was accompanied with soy sauce and wasabi but without rice. I personally preferred this preparation and enjoy the clean taste of the eel.
As tradition dictates, a bowl of Kimosui (肝吸い) (eel liver soup) was served to go with the next course. The clear broth had a very clean taste despite it’s association with liver. I was however rather more interested with the next course…
…. and at last, the long awaited Unajuu (うな重). This beautiful kabayaki was served on a bed of rice in another Wajima lacquer box. Unlike the shirayaki, the eel had been dipped in a sweet soy-based sauce before being broiled on the grill. Whilst I personally preferred the shirayaki, I did rather enjoy the fact that there wasn’t too much sauce to distract the flavour of the eel completely. To the chefs credit, this was cooked to perfection and it was all a matter of personal taste.
Our first meal on the trip certainly set the tone for the week ahead. What I truly admired was the passion and commitment from the Nemoto family who have continued to refine the art of preparing eel across four generations. From humble beginnings in their original premise in Nakanohashi, Ishibashi had not only evolved in their cooking style but also in the manner in which the eel is cultivated. Eel is an expensive ingredient and for 13,000 yen I think this meal was an absolute bargain. It certainly put some of the other bigger names like Nodaiwa to shame.