Kaiseki 懐石 – top end dining in Tokyo
Japanese cuisine has received UNESCO heritage status just a few days ago. Which means that Japan offers refined and stunning dining experiences beyond its awesome sushi.
A week ago we went for the ultimate Japanese dining experience: kaiseki. We were prepared to pay a fortune and starve for the rest of the week.
Kaiseki is Japan’s most exquisite culinary tradition. It is so exclusive it has not made it abroad – in contrast to many other Japanese dishes which are exportable, like ramen, tempura and temaki.
Kaiseki is all-in-Japanese dining. It is a highly formalized dining ritual dedicated to the esthetics of the seasons. The meals are created to be one with nature.
The term kaiseki includes the kanji for ‘pocket in a robe‘ and ‘stone‘ and comes from the habit of monks keeping hot stones wrapped close to their bodies to ease hunger during prayers. In the 16th century kaiseki was a simple vegetarian snack served along the rituals of the Japanese tea ceremony which has since evolved into a no longer strictly vegetarian meal.
Traditional and incredibly elaborate, kaiseki only incorporates fresh, natural and local ingredients of high quality. The menu is solely in Japanese. Customers have a big wallet.
Kaiseki restaurants are not easy to find because the signage is all in Japanese, the entrance is modest in terms of identifying marks and you do require a reservation in advance.
Kaiseki is usually for special family occasions but mainly business meetings. Or, as Saori remarked, for rich old people who eat healthy but not much. Yes, the dishes are indeed tiny… but I got to say that I enjoy Japanese culinary minimalism. I was happy and filled (not only with experience) after the dinner.
We were seated in a cabin, with traditional sand paper walls and a wooden sliding door, as well as a Japanese sliding paper window, which was closed for absolute privacy (and which I only opened to get a quick curious glimpse into the foyer).
Interior is minimalist.
Saori, a regular companion of our culinary adventures on foodie Wednesday (although this time it wasn’t Wednesday), told us that she had similar sand walls as a kid in her room, which is believed to be healthy.
The meals were presented one by one, following a set course which kept us occupied for about two hours. Each selection was beautifully prepared.
Food will be presented in differing porcelain bowls that would not look out of place in a museum.
The presentation in itself is an experience. We are talking flowers and autumn leaves adorning food. Service standard is on a high.
We each got a menu (in Japanese) and I liked the drink mats without advertisements.
For the kaiseki warm up, peach sake.
Sake with a sour berry.
We also had Japanese hot green tea.
Then came the fish liver with turnip and ginger. Perfection on a plate.
Fugu (yes, the super poisonous fish) on green mizuna and shiitake mushroom. I have to admit, I was a bit anxious to eat Fugu.
Hamo (dagger-tooth pike conger eel) soup.
Open up and tada!
Sashimi. Tuna, tai (seabream snapper) and scallop.
A pretty food landscape.
Jibuwan soup. Jibuwan is a specially designed lacquer bowl which is wide and shallow, used for thick soups.
I found an autumn koyo leaf in my jibuwan bowl.
Hot oyster plate with chestnut and sweet potato.
Adorned with momiji, the Japanese maple leaf.
Ew, don’t eat that!
Salmon and hakusai cabbage were served next.
Miso soup with salmon-topped rice and a side dish with pickled vegetables.
Seasonal Japanese persimmon fruit for dessert.
We probably violated dozens of Japanese codes of conduct, but staff was very friendly (as always in Japan).
Aaah, now that’s mature.
The plates were borne by a waitress clad in a kimono. I took a picture as we were about to leave.
My first kaiseki meal was a culinary lesson and overwhelming. Saori invited us when we came to Japan for the first time in 2012. There were flavours I had never encountered, food I didn’t recognize and cooking techniques I hadn’t seen before.
I couldn’t have wished for a better culinary adventure. Our first kaiseki during the beautiful Japanese cherry blossom spring period.
Although I must admit that we stocked up on the dessert spectacle at home, after kaiseki. It is strawberry season after all in Tokyo and conbini chocolate cake is always a culinary pleasure. Add the two and you get this treat.
Kaiseki is a great dining experience. And a great opportunity to wear some cute clothing in everlasting memory of Japanese kawaii.
I am ready for more. (Dress and kaiseki).
The Shinjuku located restaurant (top floor of Odakyu department store) is what Saori calls a ‘beginners kaiseki’ and the bill was (only) 25,000 yen shared by the three of us… but I have read that you can get into top notch kaiseki for about the same if you stick to weekday lunch course menus (and have tea instead of sake for drinks).
We shall see and I shall keep all culinary-curious updated!