Showing posts with label kaiseki. Show all posts
Showing posts with label kaiseki. Show all posts

Friday, April 18, 2014

"here be dragons" | Nihonryori Ryugin - 龍吟 - Tokyo

There are few places I've been as to which opinions diverge as widely as Nihonryori RyuGin, the Tokyo restaurant of Chef Seiji Yamamoto. It holds three Michelin stars and, for whatever it's worth, has recently made a rapid climb up the S. Pellegrino "50 Best Restaurants" list.[1] More important to me, several folks whose opinions I've come to trust had spoken of great meals there.[2] And yet other reports – including more recent visits from some of those same people – ranged from indifferent to disappointed.

I can't speak to anyone's experience but my own. And even then, there are few culinary genres as to which I feel less qualified to opine than kaiseki, which lies at the foundation of RyuGin's style, and which for me was unexplored territory prior to this meal.[3] So take it for whatever it's worth: I found RyuGin to be a beautiful, well-executed and fully realized dining experience.

My admittedly naive understanding of kaiseki includes at least a few components: a strong focus on seasonality; a somewhat regimented procession of courses that feature a variety of cooking methods; and layers of symbolism – in the ingredients, the presentations, and even the plates themselves. As a meal that endeavors to tell a story of the season, this centuries-old tradition has uncanny similarities to what's lately been labeled the "New Nordic" school of cooking.

Though RyuGin has a reputation as being in the thrall of the "modernists," its style seems to have become more, rather than less, traditional over the past few years. Chef Yamamoto is familiar with the latest techniques and gadgetry, but for the most part, they seemed to stay in the kitchen and were virtually invisible on the plate. Rather, the meal unfolded as a meditation on Japanese ingredients, seasons, and flavors.

(You can see all my pictures in this Nihonryori RyuGin flickr set).

The attention to both elegance and craft is on display even before any food arrives, as the server offers a choice of beautiful Edo Kiriko sake cups for each diner to select.[4] Sake is decanted into a cut crystal carafe, nestled in a matching bowl filled with crushed ice. The coaster is emblazoned with a dragon, a motif that makes several appearances around the restaurant.[5]

The menu is wordy. This is a dinner with a "title," "Plating the Prodigality of Japanese Nature," and this first course is described as "Beginning with a variety of Sensations ... Seasonality, Aroma, Temperature, Texture and Assemblage."[6] But despite the verbosity, the dish is actually beautifully simple: a selection of seasonal vegetables, accompanied by a warm turnip soup garnished with a tongue of uni. It being February, the greenery consists mostly of tiny little buds and stems, what I believe the Japanese call "sansai" or "mountain vegetables," their compelling bitterness offset by a creamy pine nut dressing.

(continued ...)