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Sunday, Nov. 11, 2001
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Modern kaiseki set on the right course
These are not the best of times for Tokyo's ryotei, those rarefied houses of inconspicuous consumption, whose prime purpose is as venues for wining and dining, mutual back-scratching and political intrigue. With captains of industry cutting back on expense accounts, and Nagata-cho's mandarins under increasing public scrutiny, patronage is on a downward slope.
So it is either an act of desperation or supreme bravado for Kanetanaka, one of the top ryotei in Shinbashi, to open not just one but two establishments inside the imposing portals of the Cerulean Tower, the massive skyscraper that now dominates the skyline above Shibuya. Down in the basement, they have replicated their ryotei experience, offering grand banquets accompanied by performances on an authentic Noh stage. For this, the cost runs to a mere 28,000 yen to 35,000 yen per head (extras not included).
Although this may not be of major interest to the general eating public, their new, second-floor restaurant certainly is. Rather than merely reproducing the tried-and-true (but oh-so-tired) kaiseki format, Kanetanaka-So opts instead for a more contemporary take on Japanese cuisine, in a setting so simple and spare it would inevitably be called "Zen" by most Western observers.
The walls are white stone and light is diffused through opaque glass, to conjure the effect of washi lamps. The streets outside are glimpsed from below blinds of silvery metal formed to resemble bamboo sudare. A narrow band of living greenery -- plants, shrubs, a small maple -- divides and softens the interior.
In fact, this is a very un-Japanese environment. The seating is all Western style, at tables and chairs that are chic but comfortable. Tall-backed chairs are set along the two short counters running alongside that minimalist garden. Jazz wafts across the high ceiling. The black and green attire of the waiting staff contrasts with the gleaming white of the itamae chefs in their open, short-order kitchen.
From a Western perspective, the food seems quintessentially Japanese. Seen through a local prism, it incorporates Western touches that impart a daringly modern feel to the cuisine. Whatever your viewpoint, it is perfectly executed cuisine, cooked and presented with the kind of seamless precision that you expect at this level of restaurant.
In the evening, there are three set courses (changed monthly), each comprising five dishes plus dessert. Unusually for restaurants of this kind, you are not required to order the same meal as your dining partner. This allowed us to compare the medium "Gyo" course (at 11,000 yen) with the lesser "Sou" (8,000 yen).
We opened with a hitokuchi (a "single mouthful") of ikura salmon roe on a small bite of mochigome sticky rice, salty and comforting, to awaken the taste buds and prime the digestion. This was followed by the hatsusara, a beautiful composition of seasonal starters, which stars in all three courses. The arrangement and ingredients are changed every 10 days, to reflect the changing seasons. Needless to say, at this time of year, the bounty of autumn is fully reflected.
The current selection features three small bamboo pots containing gomadofu; tofu cooked with flakes of mushroom; and a kanten jelly flavored with sea urchin. Next to these, we found little tidbits arranged on bamboo pins the shape and size of pine needles: creamy foie gras with a couple of sweet, chewy raisins; grilled matsutake mushroom; kamaboko (fish paste) with sweet, dried persimmon; and a small, pink shrimp with a disc of tender baby cucumber.
There was also a cube of grilled mackerel, with pureed sweet potato; a thimble-size glass bowl with slivers of cucumber, radish and persimmon, topped with a persimmon marmalade; and a bowl containing deep-fried ginkgo nuts, green and slightly bitter, with cubes of salted, grilled sweet potato.
Next, we were served the "soup" course -- which in fact were miniature copper nabe (hot pots) containing marvelous savory dashi and morsels of the greatest delicacy. For the lesser course, these included quail meat, shiitake mushrooms and millet nama-fu (fresh wheat gluten). For the Gyo course, what was prosaically described on the English menu as "turnip boiled and served in a pot" turned out to include the most wonderful cuts of soft kajiki otoro (the fattiest underbelly of the swordfish), so soft they almost melted in the mouth.
The tsukuri (sashimi) that followed was equally fine -- principally bream and shima-aji yellowtail, respectively, the latter given a powerful dusting of red chili powder. Although served in diminutive quantities, these only whetted our appetites for the main dishes that followed.
In the lesser course, this was tara (cod), steamed with tororo-konbu seaweed, covered with a smooth, creamy sauce of shirako (pureed milt). This was served in a ponzu sauce of vinegared shoyu, along with leaves of shungiku (garland chrysanthemum).
The main dish of the Gyo course was lobster -- two substantial chunks, tender and perfectly grilled -- and slices of broiled quail with a sweet miso sauce, served on a bed of spinach. A small "side salad" of cucumber, wakame seaweed and ikura roe was presented in a whole hollowed-out yuzu citron.
At this point, we were asked if we were ready for shokuji (the rice course) or if we wanted to order a few extras from the a la carte menu. Though tempted by the idea of matsutake tempura or steamed abalone, we did not indulge and were quite happy to receive, respectively, a light chazuke with salmon and a colorful zosui porridge containing minced quail, curds of egg and fine minced scallions.
And finally dessert. From a choice of six small pots, we selected three sweet delicacies: nashi pear and muscat grape in a "butterscotch" jelly (actually black sugar with a hint of shoyu); matcha mousse, smooth and sweet like an unfrozen version of a premium green-tea ice cream; and light dumplings in a dark, bitter syrup of molasses.
As always with the finest Japanese cuisine, our senses were fully satisfied without feeling our stomachs filled to capacity. Our sense of appreciation was also enhanced by being able to feel at ease throughout. And this was not just because we visited on a weekend, when people dress more casually.
Despite the precision of its cuisine and the well-drilled formality of the service, Kanetanaka-So has none of that stiff orthodoxy that prevents you from being able to relax. Perhaps this derives from the ryotei connection -- after all, they must have long experience of making politicians and other bigwigs feel at home.