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Friday, Oct. 3, 2008
TOKYO FOOD FILE
It's Kyoto kaiseki, but not as you know it
Shopping and eating in Ginza — it's a hallowed custom and one almost as old as Tokyo itself, certainly dating back at least to the time when streetcar tracks used to run along the district's willow-lined main thoroughfare. After a long, hard session of retail therapy, the best reward is to pamper oneself with a late and leisurely lunch.
Thus it was we found ourselves brushing past the hempen noren curtain that marks the entrance to Mikura Ginza Honten and making our way down lamp- lit stairs. Heading past a landing where seasonal vegetables are laid out in baskets to whet the appetite, we reached the vestibule. Gratefully we eased out of our shoes and were shown into the dining room.
Mikura specializes in what it terms Kyoto inaka kaiseki, a rural version of the classic multicourse cuisine for which the ancient capital is so famous. It's a mix of stately tea-house tradition and rustic farmhouse simplicity, presented in a style that feels entirely contemporary.
This harmonious blend of aesthetics is reflected in the decor. Coarse-textured, mud-colored walls inset with false shoji-screen windows are spot-lit strategically. At the back a bunch of rice on the stalk has been hung, as if freshly harvested from the paddy. A minimal garden of sparse gravel and greenery is tucked in one corner, while uptempo jazz plays on the sound system.
There are low tables with leg wells around the edge where you sit on thin zabuton cushions. But the advantage to arriving after 1:30 p.m., when most other customers were leaving, was being able to take our pick of the dozen seats at the chunky timber counter and watch the chefs in action in the open kitchen.
Most of the cooking is done out of sight, but what you do see is a charcoal grill on one side and, along the back, a bank of traditional kama, the kind of pot-bellied caldrons with heavy wooden lids that used to be standard equipment for cooking rice in any rural dwelling.
Lunch options range from an affordable ¥2,000 selection of dishes on a single tray (only 20 made each weekday) to the deluxe ¥5,800 Keihoku multicourse meal. Whatever the level, the meal will be long on vegetables, especially kyo-yasai, the distinctive varieties of produce grown around Kyoto. These are supplemented with tofu and yuba (soymilk skin), with meat and fish playing a subsidiary role.
We plumped for the ¥4,200 Shuzen set meal, an abbreviated version of the full kaiseki banquet. It opened with a small sakizuke appetizer, a morsel of steamed mochi rice, sticky but unpounded, embedded with fragments of yellow ginkgo nuts and brown starchy mukago (yam "berries"), on a thick, clear sauce flecked with yuba (fresh soymilk skin) and yellow chrysanthemum petals.
The zensai starter course was comprised of four small dishes on a lacquered tray, each little more than a couple of exquisite bites. There were slivers of okra and shiitake mushroom, seasoned with sweet-tart sudachi citrus juice; spinach greens in a creamy, spicy sesame karashi-goma-ae dressing; kikuna greens and delicate enoki mushrooms in a smooth, white, tofu- based shiro-ae dressing; and a few slices of lotus root deep-fried thin and crisp.
Now is a wonderful time of year for eating, with the produce of late summer being joined on the plate by the first fruits of autumn. This was reflected in the takiawase course, a medley of simmered vegetables each prepared separately before being arranged on a bright, mustard-yellow bowl. Alongside the usual suspects — daikon, burdock root, taro yam and kabocha squash — there was a portion of delectable, fleshy Kyoto eggplant cooked meltingly soft. Providing another accent was a curious rectangular block the color of burnished brick, which turned out to be made from konnyaku (devil's tongue) jelly.
Perhaps the most unusual dish was the one that followed. A flask carved from a single section of giant bamboo was filled with hot, savory dashi (kelp and bonito-flake) stock, holding three bamboo skewers. Each pierced a morsel of nama-fu (soft cakes of wheat gluten) of a different color and texture: yellow chestnut; green mugwort herb; and black-flecked sesame. We were surprised to hear that this was called dengaku. Usually that term refers to foods (most commonly, slices of tofu or konnyaku) grilled over charcoal. But the principle is the same: you slide the nama-fu off the skewer, then dip it into one of the rich, miso-based sauces, one a tangy mustard flavor, the other with zesty yuzu citrus.
For the main course, we were offered a choice: salmon; grilled chicken; deep- fried tofu "steak"; late-season ayu (small river trout); or — our choice — wagyu beef. It had been marinated overnight in white Kyoto miso, then lightly pan-fried and oven roasted. Cut into delicate slivers, it was delicious, the best roast beef we have had in a long while, although we did crave a dab of pungent Western horseradish in place of the coarsely grated daikon that came with it.
Rice — with miso soup and pickles, of course — was followed by a dessert of jellylike warabi mochi topped with sweetened kinako (toasted soybean flour). It was a light, simple coda to a meal that was beautifully presented, full of interest and satisfying to the senses.
In purely culinary terms, Mikura does not try to rival the rarefied pinnacle of Kyoto cuisine found at the finest kaiseki restaurants. Where it scores is in its winning blend of casual elegance and fine but wholesome cooking. Besides offering a highly accessible introduction to traditional Japanese foods in their seasonal glory, it is also a very welcome oasis close to the heart of Ginza.