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Friday, July 1, 2011
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Japanese cuisine that follows nature's cues
Japan, as has been said far too often, is a country of four seasons. But that tired old mantra is by no means the whole truth. The ancient lunisolar calendar recognizes 24 distinct divisions in the year, while haiku poets and others attuned to the constant flux of the natural world identify three times that number.
That same sensibility underpins the world of traditional Japanese cuisine. Every week of the year, the seafood and produce will be different, and cooking techniques must be subtly adjusted to reflect those changes. What better motif, then, for a restaurant serving cha-kaiseki ryōri, the cuisine that evolved from the rarefied world of the tea ceremony, than the 72 seasons, Shichi Jyu Ni Kou?
This new (but very traditional) restaurant lies in a tranquil residential side street just minutes away from Roppongi's bright, brash main drag. But once you've made your way down the short flight of stairs, slid open the wooden doors and been ushered inside by kimono-clad attendants, the grim and gritty cares of the outside world soon seem very far away.
Still less than three months old, Shichi Jyu Ni Kou (for brevity's sake, let's call it 72 Kou) is fitted out in classic contemporary style. The interior is simple and spare: plain wood paneling on the walls; discreet lighting; private rooms fitted with tatami mats, low tables and very little else; and, to one side, a massive cedar counter long enough to accommodate 10 diners with generous elbowroom.
This is where you are likely to be greeted by owner-chef Akio Saito. A veteran of top-flight Japanese restaurants at heavyweight Tokyo hotels, he has the demeanor and gravitas to match the setting, overseeing his kitchen crew like a scholarly conductor leading his orchestra, ensuring that the food is unerringly exquisite.
Serious, formal and precise, Japanese cuisine at this level is much like classical music. Just as the score for a symphony is already written, the parameters of a kaiseki meal are fixed, and any variations in nuance tend to be subtle.
Where 72 Kou stands out from others in its class is in Saito's embrace of organically grown ingredients. This includes not just his vegetables — sourced from market gardeners he trusts around the country — but also the seasonings that are the fundamental building blocks of his cuisine. He takes this enthusiasm for natural foods an extra step too: He will also (by prior request when making your reservation) create versions of his kaiseki menus that are macrobiotic and entirely vegetarian.
Saito's full-scale multicourse kaiseki feasts are intricate, drawn-out affairs that can last three hours or more. But at lunchtime he also offers abbreviated versions — the ¥3,500 bentō boxed lunch is feasible to eat in an hour or so, though you will need rather longer if you're having the ¥5,000 "light kaiseki" meal. That is why we set aside a recent Sunday afternoon to investigate.
Our opening dish, the sakizuke starter, featured hamo eel, a summer specialty of Kyoto, served with shiradatsu, the blanched stems of sato-imo yams, topped with a superb agar-based clear gelee of tomato juice and garnished with red kikonomi wolfberries. Chilled and slightly tart, it was as refreshing as it was beautiful, the perfect way to coax our appetites into action.
Next, a suimono clear soup in lacquerware bowls. Bathed in the steaming savory dashi stock were morsels of suzuki (sea bass) and soft nama-fu (gluten cake), freshly made with sweet corn, a highly unusual preparation. As counterpoints of color and flavor, there was a whole young pea pod, a sprinkle of fine-chopped myōga (ginger) and a single aromatic yuzu blossom.
Our sashimi course comprised individual servings of ara, a rare and delicate white-meat fish from Kanazawa; aori-ika squid in fine slivers; and meji-maguro, delicate young tuna. All were superb, but so were the accompaniments: freshly grated wasabi, of course; deep savory soy sauce (naturally brewed and aged); and also a small saucer of iri-zake, a traditional dip made from cooking down sake with umeboshi (salt-pickled ume plums) and toasted konbu seaweed. Light and fragrant, its subtle savor perfectly matched the summer weather.
A rice dish followed: a lacquer spoon holding a small portion of rice, topped with cooked tsubugai (whelk). This we ate by folding it in a sheet of yakinori seaweed as a form of te-maki (hand-rolled) sushi.
The yakimono (grilled dish) was the most substantial course. It comprised morsels of mebaru (rock fish); pieces of chicken that had been marinated in Kyoto miso, giving them a deep, smoky flavor; and a single conical tsubugai. Served with a small wedge of sudachi citron, these were all grilled over charcoal and all absolutely delectable.
One final course before our rice and soup: takiawase, colorful cuts of vegetable, simply simmered and served unadorned, to showcase their depth of flavor. Food doesn't get much simpler or more profound than this.
To round off a highly satisfying, uplifting meal, we were served anmitsu, a traditional dessert that Saito has updated and re-created by including ice cream made from soy milk and sake-kasu (the lees left over from the sake-brewing process), topped with a deep green, deeply bitter matcha tea syrup.
This was the "conventional" menu. The macrobiotic version would be entirely vegan, and includes brown rice rather than white. Either way, you leave with your taste buds sated, your stomach filled (but not too full) and your spirits elevated. And that, rather than mere taste titillations, is the ultimate aim of kaiseki cuisine at this level.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at foodfile.typepad.com/blog.