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Friday, April 16, 2010
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Vegetables given pride of place in upmarket kaiseki cuisine
Down in Ginza, we got another glimpse of the future. This version, though, is hushed and sophisticated, with waitresses in kimono. It feels very traditional — in all but one respect. Instead of tuna and eel on your sushi, you get mushrooms and vegetables. Welcome to Nagamine, Tokyo's first vegetable kaiseki restaurant.
The idea is simple but profound. Japan's traditional multicourse cuisine has always been based on the bounty of the vegetable kingdom. Increasingly, though, kaiseki meals have become loaded up with meat and seafood, with vegetables, herbs and mushrooms treated as mere seasonal accents. Nagamine winds the clock back, but in contemporary style.
The credentials are impeccable. The parent company is a long-established produce wholesaler based in Tsukiji, not far from the legendary fish market. The restaurant sits discreetly in a basement close to Higashi-Ginza, doing little to advertise its presence save for the carefully arranged display of vegetables outside the noren curtain.
Unless you specifically ask for the counter seats by the small open prep kitchen, you will be ushered to a private room fitted with horikotatsu leg wells (a few have tables and chairs). English is spoken but barely needed since you will have already specified which course you want when you made your booking.
The basic course (¥5,250) focuses on vegetables only — though vegetarians should note it's prepared with fish-based dashi stock. The pricier courses (¥8,400 and ¥12,600) are more elaborate and include extra seafood and meat respectively.
Every dish looked and tasted as exquisite as you would expect from the setting (with one exception, an overly heavy "gratin" prepared with soymilk bechamel sauce). The highlight, though, was the platter of vegetable sushi served toward the end. This is Nagamine's signature dish.
The toppings ranged from a shimeji mushroom and a sliver of new-season bamboo shoot to delicately chopped tomato and sprouts of young negi leek as fine as chives. Visually, at least, we didn't miss our fish at all.
This was not the most brilliant kaiseki cuisine we've ever been served. Nor was the service as impeccable as we'd expect at this level in Ginza. But the idea itself is excellent.
We all know the oceans are being over-fished and there's not enough land for everyone on the planet to eat vast amounts of meat. The only way forward is surely to look back to the past. Japan's vegetable-centric traditional cuisine, with its elegance and subtlety, offers a viable model for the future.
Yasai Kaiseki Nagamine : Ginsho Bldg. B1, 4-9-5 Ginza, Chuo-ku; (03) 3547-8083; r.gnavi.co.jp/fl/en/b803900/ Nearest stations: Higashi-Ginza, Ginza (Asakusa, Ginza and Hibiya); open: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; 5:30-11 p.m.; closed Sun. and holidays.; lunch from ¥2,620, dinner from ¥5,250; major cards accepted; Japanese/English menu, English spoken; reservations essential