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Friday, Oct. 19, 2012
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Kaiseki master invites you to his second home
Autumn is the golden season. Fruit and hearty root vegetables; mushrooms, nuts and new-season rice; plentiful fish and seafood, too: This abundance is the palette from which Japan's top kaiseki chefs draw in creating their intricate, elegant multicourse meals. Few are as accomplished at the art as Toru Okuda.
For aficionados, the name needs no introduction. Okuda's intimate high-end restaurant, Kojyu (www.kojyu.jp), which he set up in Ginza nine years ago, is among the finest in the city, lauded both at home and increasingly abroad, especially after gaining three stars since the very first Tokyo Michelin guide.
Far fewer people, though, are aware that he has a second restaurant. Simply called Ginza Okuda, it opened in August of last year — and it's very well worth knowing. Far from feeling like a spinoff or an attempt to cash in on his (deservedly) growing reputation, the new place is more like a Kojyu clone, almost identical in scale, appearance and atmosphere.
Descending from street level, you are greeted by attendants in kimono, before being shown to your seat. In contemporary-classic kaiseki style, the look is spare, with mud-packed walls in a restful shade of ocher, lots of wood and no embellishments save for a single small flower arrangement. The wide, smoothly polished timber counter overlooking the small open kitchen area is just big enough for 10 seats, and there are three small private rooms tucked away out of sight.
As with the decor, so with the cuisine. Just like at Kojyu, Ginza Okuda serves only full-course omakase set meals that need to be booked ahead of time. From start to finish — and even the simplest meal here will last a couple of hours — the attention to quality and presentation leaves nothing to be desired. You eat very well indeed.
But there are also differences between the two restaurants. Firstly and most obviously, Okuda himself is nowhere to be seen. He leaves things entirely in the highly skilled hands of chef Shun Miyahara, his youthful lieutenant.
And secondly, Ginza Okuda is rather more affordable. With menus at ¥15,750 and ¥21,000, few would call it cheap (meals at Kojyu start from ¥21,000). But the special lunch-only ¥10,500 menu represents a great bargain for kaiseki cuisine of this standard.
It opens with a small sakizuke appetizer. As of last week, Miyahara was still serving some late-summer ingredients, such as eggplant, grilled over charcoal to imbue it with an appetizing smokiness, stripped of its skin and blended with gleaming edamame beans. These were topped with fine slivers of the tastiest, tenderest steamed abalone you are likely to find.
This will be followed by owan, a clear soup of richly fragrant dashi broth containing seasonal seafood and vegetables. One of Okuda's specialties is his kuruma-ebi shinjō, superbly soft "dumplings" of egg and king prawns, topped with shredded myōga and seasoned with zest of yuzu citron.
The tsukuri (sashimi) course that follows will comprise two kinds of seafood, perhaps tai (snapper), the white-meat cuts served with a small sliver of the skin with its distinctive crosshatching; and maybe creamy, soft, white aori-ika squid. Just watching Miyahara at work effortlessly slicing the fish in front of your eyes is part of the pleasure of the experience.
As the "main" course, there may be kamasu barracuda, its meat grilled slowly until it is tender and moist, then rolled around some matsutake pine mushrooms and grilled some more to release their appetizing woodsy aroma. Served with ginkgo nuts and cuts of sweet potato, and garnished with red-tinged leaves of maple and persimmon, this is truly a dish that announces autumn.
Before the rice arrives at the end of the meal, there will be one more course: a bowl of nimono, simmered vegetables such as tōgan (winter melon), pumpkin and eggplant.
The rice is generally cooked in a clay pot, not on its own but covered with vegetables and fish, reflecting the season. Right now, that might be a layer of shredded gobō burdock root, lending an autumnal taste, while morsels of hamo eel remind us that summer is not long gone.
A small dessert, usually of fruit, brings the lunch to a close. Even at seven dishes, this abbreviated menu is more than satisfying in all senses — and highly likely to tempt you back, to explore the longer evening courses. Expect to be served morsels of succulent wagyū beef and other delicacies, especially crab at this time of year.
Such is the standard of the cuisine at Ginza Okuda that it was awarded two Michelin stars (in the 2012 guide) within four months of opening. It's a remarkable and unprecedented achievement that is totally deserved.
Not that Chef Okuda has been resting on his laurels. Earlier this summer, he moved Kojyu into the fourth floor of the same building as his eponymous restaurant. He has also opened a sushi counter, just a couple of blocks away, called Sushi Kakutou (www.sushikakutou.jp). Judging from the wonderful seafood at his other restaurants, the quality is likely to be outstanding.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.