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Friday, April 6, 2012


Kaiseki course as delicate as blossom

It's been a long countdown, but finally spring has liftoff. The buds and leaves are out, and so are those all-important cherry blossoms. And there is no finer way of appreciating them than from a table with a good menu and a choice vantage point. Time for lunch at Kita-Kamakura En.

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In bloom: Situated in Kita-Kamura, a short train ride from Tokyo, En overlooks an ancient pond with cherry trees. The multi-course kaiseki meals include a dish of premium sashimi. ROBBIE SWINNERTON
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The setting of this Michelin-starred restaurant is very easy on the eye. The dining room overlooks an ancient pond at the entrance to one of the most venerable Zen temples in all of eastern Japan. A stand of mighty cryptomeria cedars screens off the nearest road. And, perfectly positioned in front, a couple of exquisite Somei-Yoshino-zakura, the most spectacular of all the cherry trees, droop their branches over the water.

If it doesn't sound much like central Tokyo, that's because it's not. You are well out of the city, in among the wooded hills, leafy alleys and incense-wafting temples of Kita-Kamakura. You won't be alone, though, least of all on a weekend, when tourist hordes swarm the area. But once you've climbed En's steep staircase and ensconced yourself in the quiet of its tranquil second-floor dining room, the crowds seem far away.

There are no tatami mats, low tables or private chambers. It's a single compact space decorated in earth tones, with plenty of wooden surfaces and just enough rustic accents to evoke the aesthetic of the tea ceremony. It is simple and uncluttered, serious but without any undue emphasis on etiquette. Ditto with the food.

In keeping with the traditional feel of this historic city where shoguns ruled and Buddhist monks still meditate and preach, En serves kaiseki ryōri, delicate multi-course meals cooked and composed with care to reflect the changing of the seasons. The principles are the same as you find at exclusive high-end Japanese restaurants, but here the cuisine is more modest and approachable.

Nor is there any whiff of corporate culture. En is a family-run restaurant: Owner-chef Osamu Horie works with his son out back in the tiny kitchen; his wife oversees the dining room, chatting with regular customers and making sure their teacups are filled.

Even the simplest of the lunch menus (¥3,675; ask for the Ume meal) comprises six separate courses. It will begin with a small sakizuke (starter) plate, perhaps a single small sardine simmered in savory soy sauce, with a couple of morsels of vegetables.

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If you are tempted to order a glass of sake, this is the point to do so. Ignore the Miyasaka, a coy, insipid amakuchi (sweet) sake. Instead go straight to the Tensei, a much more characterful junmai ginjō brewed locally, just along the Shonan coast.

While most dishes will change with the season, the next course, known as the mukozuke, is fixed: a sashimi of gleaming-fresh red-meat tuna or white-meat flatfish, presented with a dab of grated wasabi root, a couple of jade shiso leaves and a small mound of smooth, dark-green iwa-nori seaweed.

At this time of year the yakimono (grilled dish) is likely to be a small fillet of sakura-masu sea trout, served with a dip of kinome-zu, fragrant rice vinegar with a distinct piquancy and green hue derived from the leaves of sanshō herb. It's not much more than a couple of bites, but this is one of the highlights of the meal.

While Kamakura is renowned for its produce, not all of En's vegetables are locally grown. At this season especially, bamboo shoots are more likely to come from the warmer climes of southern Kyushu. These will feature in the taki-awase, a selection of seasonal vegetables simmered in a light dashi broth.

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Small but perfectly formed: The starter plate may simply be a single sardine with vegetables, but it sets the tone beautifully.

Other specialties within this dish include yomogi-namafu, slices of green wheat gluten made with mugwort herb; fresh-made yuba (soymilk skin); or surimi fish paste studded with fresh warabi bracken rolled up in a layer of deep-fried tofu.

The more expensive menus (Sakura, ¥5,250; or Tsubaki, ¥8,400) will include a tempura course, as well as grilled fish — in summer, expect to see salt-broiled ayu sweetfish. But all will include an aemono, a cooked "salad" with a lightly vinegared thick dressing. One of En's spring specials is baby kabura turnips lightly seared on the outside, then steamed, quartered and dressed with a delicate miso hinting of mustard.

The meal draws to a close with rice, pickles and miso soup, and concludes with green tea and a small dessert. In terms of volume, you will leave with your stomach far from distended but with taste buds fully satiated.

Call it kaiseki in miniature, if you will, but nothing is lacking when it comes to the delicacy of flavor and superb balance of flavors. There is none of the cloying sweetness or the bite of excess salt found too often at tourist destinations around Japan. That's because En has long catered to Kamakura locals just as much as day-trippers.

In 2010, it was awarded a Michelin star — justifiably, in terms of food quality — and it now boasts two. But that hasn't changed chef Horie's attitude a jot. Reservations may be rather harder to snare, especially during the blossom season, but never impossible.

Even if all tables are taken, there are other ways to taste En's food. Every day, Horie delivers bentō lunch boxes to the Kinokuniya store in the center of Kamakura, though these tend to sell out by soon after midday.

Or make your way to En outside of meal times. Even if the two small tables right by the window are unavailable, the outside seats on the small verandah are rarely full. Sipping on tea and nibbling on cake while watching the white-pink sakura petals flutter down onto the surface of the pea-green pool — there's no better reassurance that spring is really here.

Kita-Kamakura is 45 minutes from Shinagawa Station on the Yokosuka Line. Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.foodfile.typepad.com/blog.

Kita-Kamakura En

Location: 501 Yamanouchi, Kamakura-shi, Kanagawa-ken
(0467) 23-6232

Open: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; teatime 2-5 p.m.; dinner 5-8 p.m.; closed Mon.

Nearest station: Kita-Kamakura (Yokosuka and Shonan-Shinjuku lines).

How to get there: As you leave Kita-Kamakura JR Station by the main exit, there is a row of shops on your left. The entrance and stairway leading up to En is in a building with an ochre facade, second closest to the railway tracks.

What works: Fine kaiseki without frills in a prime setting.

What doesn't: The stairs may be too steep for some.

Number of seats: 16 (plus 4 outside).

Smoking: Only allowed on the verandah.

BGM: None.

Price per head: Lunch kaiseki at ¥3,675, ¥5,250 and ¥8,400; dinner kaiseki ¥5,250 and ¥8,400; also bentō and a la carte.

Drinks: Beer ¥735; sake from ¥630; shōchū ¥840; umeshu ¥630.

Credit cards: Not accepted (cash only).

Language: Japanese menu; a little English spoken.

Reservations: Essential for dinner; highly recommended for lunch.

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