(Top photo: Hassun at Kichisen - The round jelly comprises baby figs! The little fish are ayu. The chef sprayed dew over the dish to enhance the sense of freshness.)
These are some notes from a recent Japan trip. All of the restaurants are Michelin-starred. I rely heavily on the Michelin Guide to choose restaurants in Japan because I find it to be reliable and it matches my tastes on the high end.
I listed the restaurants below in order of how much I enjoyed my meals on this trip. I would go back to all of them again, but some were better than others.
You don’t need to know a word of Japanese to dine at any of these restaurants (though you may need help making reservations). But if you are terrible with chopsticks or are a squeamish eater (e.g., you dislike raw sea creatures of all sorts and are disgusted by the thought of eating the heads, viscera, and tails of little fish), it can be hard on everyone, including the diners around you. Most of the restaurants are intimate; you are typically seated at a small counter in front of the chefs and next to about five other diners. Moreover, the majority of these restaurants offer only set course menus, though you can always express "allergies," including dislikes such as uni, raw squid, or meat other than seafood. It's best to do so when making your reservation so the restaurant can prepare.
Another thing to know is that Japanese chefs tend to be both provincial (they strongly prefer traditional Japanese ingredients) and obsessed with seasonality. As a consequence, if you visit seven different kaiseki restaurants over a one-week span, you likely will have similar dishes seven times. In late May / early June, every kaiseki restaurant I went to served ayu (a small river fish), hamo (conger eel), and, most peculiarly, a lake vegetable called junsai (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brasenia). (Even my ANA flight back from Tokyo to LA served a soup with junsai. These things have a cool jellyfish-like texture but little else to commend about them, so I thought it was ridiculous to eat them over and over again. The ones in the ANA soup had lost the cool texture and were dreadful mush. Seasonal silliness.)
One final thing to know: Many of the restaurants offer course menus at a range of prices. Often, the higher-priced menus have the same number of courses as lower-priced menus, but use more expensive ingredients. You shouldn't assume that the higher-priced menu will be a better meal. For example, if you order the highest-price course menu, you'll likely be served wagyu beef and otoro sashimi, when you may prefer fish and tai sashimi.
RyuGin - Kaiseki - Roppongi (***)
RyuGin is wonderful. I’ve been there twice, on this trip and in 2011. I consider both meals to be amongst the best I’ve had in my life (certainly both are top five). The food, presentation, and service are all superb and memorable. I enjoy the beautiful tableware almost as much as the food, which is exquisite. There were several wow moments throughout both meals. My favorite moment in this meal was when our waiter, carrying a basket of ayu roasting over charcoal, took each ayu with chopsticks, held it above our plates, and dropped it such that it landed "standing up" on its pectoral fins, without any bounce. They must have practiced this for hours. So much has been written about RyuGin that I see no need to say more (though I feel like RyuGin has become so popular that it is experiencing a backlash of sorts). I hope that Chef Yamamoto has another wave of innovations left in him and wonder whether the Japanese anchors need to stay so strong.
Sushi Yoshitake - Sushi - Ginza (***)
Incredibly delicious, one of the best meals of my life. Perfect sushi. And the staple appetizer of abalone with liver sauce is one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten and far outclassed all the other abalone dishes I ate at this trip (including at RyuGin and Kichisen). The atmosphere was on the serious side, though all the chefs were friendly. I was entranced by Chef Yoshitake's focus on the warmth and consistency of the rice for each piece of nigiri to maximize my individual enjoyment. Some people may prefer Sushi Saito (which I adored last trip) for the more relaxed atmosphere (at least it used to be), but if you're just looking for incredibly good sushi you won't go wrong with Sushi Yoshitake. I'm tempted to list this restaurant above RyuGin because there's nothing that they could have improved upon, but RyuGin wins for the overall experience.
Esaki - Kaiseki - Aoyama (***)
Very traditional kaiseki. My meal consisted of light dishes based exclusively on fish and vegetables (no meat). My favorite dish was a whole “kinki” fish simmered in a beautiful soy–sake sauce. Not the kind of dish you’d expect at a three-Michelin-star restaurant, but it was delicious. Generally, I adored the flavors of all the soups, stocks, and sauces, which Chef Esaki was constantly tasting (to be contrasted with chefs at other high-end restaurants, who are constantly plating). Everything was so simple and good. I especially liked the gohan (closing rice dish) with fresh corn as the main ingredient. I felt that the gohan at other restaurants was often overcomplicated and thus unsatisfying, whereas this gohan soothed the soul. The waitstaff were exceptionally nice and spoke good English. This was substantially less expensive than the other three-star restaurants (probably because they don't use super-expensive ingredients). I left here with a very happy feeling and appreciated the kind hospitality. This restaurant lacks the fireworks of some of the other restaurants on this list, but I can't wait to return. Kudos to Michelin for getting it right once again.
Nanochome Kyoboshi – Tempura - Ginza (**)
Outstanding tempura with a wide range of ingredients. Way better than the vast majority of tempura restaurants in Tokyo, even some with good reputations such as Ten-Ichi. The best dish may be the “shrimp toast” served as the first tempura item (after an appetizer). Other interesting tempura items during my meal were figs, paddlefish, and white asparagus. The chef is a nice guy who speaks decent English. The setting is very casual. I’ve been here a couple of times and plan to return next time I’m in Japan. This restaurant used to have three Michelin stars; not sure why it dropped to two. This is an excellent choice for folks who are nervous about Japanese food but have good chopsticks skills; it's hard not to like tempura. The main downsides of this restaurant are that the price is exorbitant (over $300 for a meal with sake) and the interior is plain.
Yukimura - Kaiseki - Roppongi (***)
More fun than most high-end kaiseki restaurants (RyuGin excepted). The most memorable dish was shabu-shabu wagyu beef with huge amounts of fresh kinomo flower (there are pictures on Tabelog), which provided the mouth-numbing sensation of sansho (a relative of Sichuan pepper). Also yummy was cold soba noodles with tons of grated karasumi (Japanese bottarga). At least for my meal, Chef Yukimura seemed to prefer the bold over the elegant. (The beef dish was downright Sichuan in spirit.) All the chefs spoke decent English and were rather gregarious.
Les Saisons – French - Hibiya (*)
A fancy (jacket required) French restaurant in the Imperial Hotel with a glamorous interior. I found all the dishes in the course menu to be excellent. Service was perfect. I felt like the restaurant deserved two stars.
Ishikawa – Kaiseki - Kagurazaka (***)
I loved Ishikawa on my last trip but only liked it this time. I suspect this is due entirely to the particular menu on the day I went, and that Ishikawa could have topped this list on another day. Generally, I find Chef Ishikawa’s cooking to be elegant, refined, and subtle. In my two visits to Ishikawa, all the other patrons were Japanese, which is not the norm at most Michelin-three-star restaurants in Tokyo. This is probably due largely to location (Kagurazaka as opposed to Ginza or Roppongi).
Ginza Okuda – Kaiseki - Ginza (*)
I’ve been to Ginza Okuda twice and like it much. Okuda is one of the only restaurants on this list (if not *the* only) that is open for lunch, where it serves an excellent kaiseki meal that lasts about two hours. The chef and staff are friendly and warm. If you’re looking for a great lunch in Ginza, I highly recommend Okuda.
Sasuga – Soba - Ginza (*)
Sasuga serves a fairly inexpensive course menu with two soba courses and lots of other buckwheat-based dishes. There is also an a la carte menu. I found all the dishes enjoyable, though simpler than those of the other restaurants on this list. The waitstaff were friendly and took pride in the restaurant’s food. But both the waitstaff and the kitchen seemed overwhelmed, and the meal dragged on for longer than I would have liked. I would go back to try the wide variety of soba dishes that are available. All the clientele I saw were Japanese; this was off the beaten path for food tourists and foreign business folks. This was by far the cheapest of all the restaurants on this list (maybe $70 with sake for one person).
Kichisen - Kaiseki (***)
Kichisen was fabulous, start to finish. Some of the dishes were amongst the best I ate during my trip, including ayu sushi (so delicious--best dish of the trip) and a dessert of melon with ratafia de Champagne—a liqueur I had to Google. Kudos to the chef for using a non-Japanese ingredient to prepare a special dessert. Presentations were beautiful (see top photo). And the chef and staff were friendly to boot. I recommend this restaurant very highly. (Interesting aside: A sous chef at Sushi Yoshitake scoffed at using ayu for sushi, saying it was no good. When pressed a little more, he said it wasn't part of the Edomae (Tokyo) tradition but noted that it was part of Osaka tradition. I've had ayu sushi twice, and my own opinion is it's oishi oishi oishi!)
Roan Kikunoi - Kaiseki (**)
Roan Kikunoi is the more casual sister of three-star Ryotei Kikunoi, with mostly counter seating. While all the dishes at Roan Kikunoi were good, none of them was particularly impressive. Overall, the meal was not as enjoyable as my meal at Kichisen. The dishes weren’t presented with as much care, the counter seating was cramped, and the chefs weren’t so friendly to me (they were “Japanese polite”). Also, the meal was rushed: dishes came one after another with little time for digestion and reflection. I felt a vibe of "we're famous, you're an ignorant gaijin, you should feel honored to be eating here, please leave quickly so we can seat another customer" from this restaurant. I believe this was the only Japanese restaurant except for Sasuga where the head chef forwent the nice gesture of seeing each diner out the door after the meal. (Even Chef Yamamoto bid us farewell outside RyuGin, despite the restaurant's large size.) I had a much better experience at the Kikunoi branch in Tokyo. Even though I say all these things, it was still a good meal.
(Bottom photo: Wagyu beef at Yukimura)
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