November 12, 2013
The more I remember about this restaurant, the more it blows me away. It was so brilliant, in so many ways.
Thinking about RyuGin, in contrast to Kikunoi in Kyoto (notes on that meal still to come), makes it even more interesting. Because what chef Seiji Yamamoto is doing is, in some ways, so radical. He situates his restaurant squarely in the kaiseki tradition while reinterpreting each dish in an extremely modern way. The result is breathtaking.
Of all the meals I've had in Japan, I think this is the one that will linger in my mind. It's not that it was better – we've had so much fantastic food – but I am fascinated by the way the chef is reimagining what kaiseki food might be. It's extremely respectful reinterpretation; in the classic restaurants you feel you're tasting history, but this food wants to appeal to modern palates.
The intentions are clear from the moment you walk in the door. No kimono-clad women kneel to serve you, there are no tatami rooms, no removal of your shoes. It feels like a statement: if the old ryokans are taking you back to the Japan of long ago, this one is firmly anchored in the present - and looking forward.
Many patrons stroll in clad in jeans and sneakers, but the restaurant maintains its dignity. Every detail has been carefully considered: just take a look at those beautiful long charcoal-grey napkins. You unfold one and the rectangle floats across your entire lap making you wonder why most napkins are square. But just as you are thinking this the first dish arrives, and you stop thinking about anything but the food.
First dish. 17 different vegetable: julienned greens, pickled beets, mushrooms… You stir it all into its pinenut dressing and feel the flavors dance into your mouth.
Steamed abalone, which arrives covered by a ludicrously large shell, in an apple jelly vinaigrette, with wakame seaweed. The abalone, tender and mild, is set off by the sweet sourness of the vinaigrette.
Chawan mushi with milt (shiroko). Soft soft with soft. It's milt season in Japan – we've eaten it everywhere – and it's the food I'll most miss when I leave. Ttranslated as "children of the clouds," it seems more like the cloud itself to me. We've had it deep-fried, rolled in squid ink, even pureed, but this presentation, on custard, emphasizes texture in a particularly wonderful way.
Matsuba crab from Sanin Bay is in season at the moment, and it should not be missed. What you can't see, hiding beneath that extraordinarily tender crab claw, is a crab dumpling wrapped in cabbage. The contrast between the matsutake and the crab claw – same shape, similar texture – very eloquently marries the sea and the forest.
sea bream, tai
raw spiny lobster
squid, so tender
shining silver skin fish
ankimo, with chrysanthemum stem. The liver itself was smoked until it resembled the world's best liverwurst
smoked spanish mackerel
in the middle, cured strips of squid.
Sea perch, its skin coated in roasted rice and then grilled to crackling crispness on binchotan charcoal. So amazing. The texture is emphasized by being paired with meltingly soft taro brushed with black vinaiger, a nod to the charcoal.
Prawn dumpling and turnip soup with yuzu citrus flavor. I'm not sure there's any way to explain how truly delicious this was. Imagine the most ethereal quenelle, made of seafood instead of fish, floating in the lightest turnip broth. Stunning!
Chicken rice. Pickles, but so lightly done, they're almost fresh. And miso soup made with prawn broth that still, this late in this large meal, managed to make me stop and pay my respects. Miso soup tends to be shy and retiring, but this one shouts out loud. It was the best I've ever had.
Moelcular kaiseki: a candy apple that explodes! Crack open the hard candy shell and there's powdered apple inside . Next to it, a warm compote of apples. Playful but serious, it's another little waltz of temperature and texture. And also a nod to the apple vinegar jelly that was the second dish in the meal (this is the second to last).
Hot sake: a dense little souffle.
An exuberant end to an extremely delicious and thought-provoking meal.
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