Modern Mitate at Gion Matayoshi

hassun.gion.matayoshiWriting about food is such a pleasurable experience. While recalling the flavors and reviewing photos from a particular meal, one has chance to re-live the experience. And recently, we had a meal worth remembering at Gion Matayoshi, a tiny ryotei (traditional dining establishment) that was upgraded from one- to two-Michelin stars in 2012. It is the current featured article on Savory Japan.

gion.matayoshi.tsukimiIn the article I talk about mitate, a term used in the world of tea: That rarified, yet omnipresent way of thinking, seeing and living that makes Japan, well, Japanese. I didn’t have the space to explain it fully there, so I will attempt to do so here. Mitate means to “see with new eyes.” To arrange something in a new way so that it represents another idea, form, or time — so as to bring beauty and poetry, as well as a feeling of gratitude — for both. Take, for example, Matayoshi’s opening course, pictured here. What do you see?

What at first glance appears to be an egg yolk is actually a soft sphere of delicate and creamy corn kuzu, topped by two elegant slivers of sudachi rind, immediately bringing to mind the yellow-orange glow of the full moon, adorned with another version of itself,  a crescent moon. Even before Matayoshi set the bowl before us and said, simply “tomorokoshi no tsukimi dango” (corn moon dumpling), we appreciated the poetry, contemplating for a moment the beauty of the moon reflected in a bowl, set gently in a pool of inky sauce, like the night sky.

For those who know what tsukimi dango look and taste like, how radically different was Matayoshi’s version, so much more fitting for the season than a rice cake with red bean paste? But why do I call it modern mitate? Because one could argue that true mitate is always modern because it is new. However, there are plenty of examples in Japanese culture where the mitate itself becomes old. At any rate, I call it modern because it opened our eyes. Not only were the ingredients unexpected — with corn coming from the new world and not traditionally used in Japanese cuisine — but here we could see two phases of the moon at once; a time-shift that we barely noticed at first.

And the taste? Sweet and gentle, like only corn can be, the texture so silky and soft as to barely hold together; the tosa-su (a kind of vinegar) sauce and sudachi lending just the right tart acidity to complement the sweetness. So fitting for the season of the harvest moon of early autumn, when the nights are still warm.

Just think. Four paragraphs just for one dish. Yet, I don’t know if I could properly convey the concept of mitate. The meal revealed more examples of modern mitate, so be sure to read the entire article and view the photos here.

Sushi Kanesaka: Edomae sushi in Ginza

Everyone is talking about the recent movie “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” Have you seen it? I found the movie fascinating, and like everyone else, I dream of being lucky enough to dine there one day. However, reservations are made a year in advance, and according the the movie, it costs ¥30,000 for dinner OR lunch. And as much as I’d like to try what critics call the most delicious sushi in Tokyo, I think I’d feel a bit intimidated by Jiro’s stern presence.

We had a chance to dine at Sushi Kanesaka, another Michelin-starred sushi establishment (with two stars) that is much more accessible and highly recommended. Let’s face it; dining at an elite sushi establishment can be an intimidating experience for visitors, but the welcoming chefs and elegant, comfortable room put you at ease.

There, we enjoyed a fantastic lunch course for far less, and enjoyed classic Edomae (Tokyo-style) sushi in a relaxed atmosphere. Read the article to learn more about what fans call “Kanesaka style” sushi.

Serious tempura from Osaka: Yotaro Honten

We’re back from an extended visit to Japan, where we ventured outside our normal route, sampling soba in Nagano, unusual types of fish in Hagi, and okonomiyaki in Hiroshima. We also tried a few places in Osaka, a regional section on Savory Japan that is woefully underdeveloped. Happily, this time we came upon a place we could energetically recommend: Yotaru Honten, serving Osaka-style tempura for four generations, since 1921.

If it’s tempura, why do we show a photo of a big fish on rice, you ask? Well, the other specialty of the house is taimeshi (sea bream rice), and it’s worth ordering ahead of time. Both rice and tempura are honest, direct and full of soul. This two-Michelin star restaurant is full of integrity. Read more.

Japanese Hotel Breakfasts

Many of my American (and even Japanese) friends don’t care for Japanese breakfasts. They somehow can’t fathom the thought of having fish for breakfast. That’s too bad, because we at Savory Japan think that Japanese breakfasts are one of the joys of life.

While many dutiful cooks prepare Japanese breakfasts at home, few have the time — or skill — to prepare the lavish versions featured at fine hotels and ryokan (traditional Japanese inns).

So if you’re given the choice of a Japanese or Western breakfast for the same price (or included at ryokan), go the Japanese route! You’ll not be disappointed, and it’s worth taking a detour from your usual routine.

For example, we’re currently staying at the Park Hyatt Shinjuku, and while they make some of the best bread and bakery products in the city, their Japanese breakfast is amazing.

The meal comes on a round lacquer tray with a two-tier bento box and a myriad of plates and bowls. While the usual suspects — grilled fish, miso soup, rice and pickles — are all there, stand-outs include the dashimaki (egg omelete) which is made richer with cream cheese, and covered in a delectable dashi-rich sauce that is filled with green nori.

Also included is yudofu — usually a dish served for lunch or dinner. We had the Japanese breakfast on multiple days, and the tofu and several other dishes were thoughtfully changed for us. On day two, the upper tier of the box held a stellar ohitashi of kiku (chrysanthemum petals), myoga (ginger bud) and maitake (dancing) mushrooms.

If this sounds like an awful lot of food to eat at breakfast, it is. For people used to fruit and yogurt in the morning, it can take some getting used to. But it’s a great way to start a day of walking around the city. You’ll also be able to sample some unique seasonal pickles and umeboshi (each hotel has their own specialty).

Finally, the price is right too. The Park Hyatt breakfast is 3,800 yen, which is the norm at deluxe hotels. A similar-sized meal at lunch might be 5,000 yen, and dinner, 10,000 yen. Even if you’re not staying at a luxury hotel (as we often don’t) it’s worth it to go for their breakfast.

Savory Japan in Tokyo

We’ve been in Tokyo now for a few days, for this, our first visit since the triple tragedy of 3/11. The country faces some major challenges after that devastating event, and while the earthquake’s aftershocks have subsided, the financial aftershocks are still rippling through the economy. Setsuden (energy conservation) is officially over, but the bright lights of Shinjuku and Gion aren’t at their pre-3/11 glory, and we’ve arrived to find that some of  city’s small and unique niche galleries, shops and restaurants have closed. The financial strain caused by the public’s pulling back from spending proved to be just too much. And foreign tourists are much less prevalent than normal, during this — the start of one of Japan’s peak travel seasons. The typhoons are over, and the weather is perfect, with highs in the 70’s and cool, humidity-free nights.

The high value of the yen might also be keeping the foreign tourists away, but the economic slump has spurred a price war for Tokyo’s low-end dining. Bargains are many, and the city’s commuter restaurants have been competing with each other, slashing their prices to levels unseen since perhaps the 80s. It’s easy to find lunch sets in the 800 yen range, as well as 1,000 yen all-you-can-eat buffets (called”viking” here).

At the high end, it’s easy to make reservations at the city’s top restaurants — even on the same day — for weekday dining. Many of the 2011 Tokyo, Kamakura and Yokohama Michelin Guide’s restaurants are small, with only 6-12 seats. And yet, we were able to get into every one we called. Apparently, while things have improved as time has passed, the old days of lines around the corner are gone, at least for the time being.

Are the high-end restaurants slashing their prices? Not from what we can see, and you wouldn’t expect it, as the quality of the ingredients, high rents and labor-intensive preparation can’t bear it. Besides, it just isn’t in keeping with the spirit of excellence. And we, as diners, are glad. Just yesterday, we had perhaps the single most succulent piece of sushi we’ve ever tasted at Sushi Kanesaka, and it wasn’t the rarity of the fish — saba (mackeral) — but the chef’s skill that made it transcendent: the neta (sushi topping) melted in our mouths. It was so good that we considered ordering another, but as there was more sushi coming (sets of 10 and 15 pieces) we didn’t dare. But of course, right after we finished our lunch we longed to go back.

It’s good to be back in Japan.


Robata: Art + Food in Tokyo

We’re in Tokyo, but today we’re featuring a restaurant from our last trip. Why? Well, it took me this long to muster up the courage to ask our friends if I could write about the secret place they take their special guests. It’s such a unique restaurant that to use that word hardly describes it. As soon as you walk into Robata, located in central Tokyo in the shadow of one if its’ most famous hotels, you enter another dimension.

For instance, take a look at the setting here, at the strangely beautiful painting of the maneki neko (becoming cat) behind the irori hearth. I would flip over this if I were to find it at a gallery or antique shop, and yet, I’ve never seen anything like it. And this little corner represents only 1/100th of the collection in this remarkable place.

Every single inch of Robata is filled with something unusual, beautiful and fascinating. It’s too much to take in at one time, and the feeling is just overwhelming. It’s almost better understood in photographs.

And the food, you ask? Oh, I almost forgot this is a blog about food. Honestly speaking, the food takes a back seat to the setting, but it’s home-style, eclectic and full of flavor. The tableware too, is bold and impressive.

While we love Tadao Andoh and Japanese classic and modern minimalist design just as much as anyone, we can appreciate how special Robata is, especially for Tokyo residents who want to escape its hard edges for even a brief while.


Giro Giro: Kaiseki goes modern

Savory Japan is updated for January with a review of Giro Giro Hitoshina, a matchbox-sized restaurant in Kyoto that does an inspiring version of modern kaiseki. If you’ve never had hamo (pike conger) covered in a crunchy shell of kaki no tane (rice crackers in the shape of persimmon seeds) you’re in for a nice surprise.

Giro Giro is also extremely reasonable. You’ll be amazed at the price, even with today’s unfavorable dollar/yen exchange rate. What’s more, you get to watch some of the coolest chefs in the business create some of the most inventive — yet completely accessible — food around.

Kunio Tokuoka, Kitcho’s Kaiseki Visionary

Savory Japan is updated for December with a new page in the LEARN section for Seminars and Classes. Featured there is an overview of the Japan: Flavors of Culture conference we attended last month and featured here in three postings. The page will be a home for links to more in-depth articles that will be added in the coming months. Kicking off the series is a cooking session with legendary Kitcho chef and owner Kunio Tokuoka, whose book we reviewed  a few weeks back.

Featured in this beautiful book on page 155 is this photo of Oyster Rice that would be perfect for the coming cold and snowy months, when oysters are at their most flavorful.

 Oyster Rice 

 Photo and excerpt from the book Kitcho; Japan’s Ultimate Dining Experience, courtesy of the author and publisher, Kondansha International. All rights reserved

SERVING VESSEL: Black earthenware pot, ca. 2000

ARTIST: Masatake Fukumori

 The lid of the pot comes off to release the irresistible aroma of oysters mingled with a subtle hint of soy sauce. Some of the oysters are deep-fried; others are simmered briefly in kelp stock, which is then used to make the rice. Just as the heat is turned off, both kinds of oysters are arranged on the rice and chopped water dropwort (seri) is scattered on top. Kunio has removed the black edges from the oyster meat, as he maintains that they do not taste good—once again defying conventional thinking in pursuit of pure, perfect flavor.

Book Review: Kitcho- Japan’s Ultimate Dining Experience

Recently, at the CIA’s  Japan: Flavors of Culture conference and festival, Kunio Tokuoka–third generation kaiseki chef and owner of the legendary Kitcho group of restaurants– was one of the star presenters. In addition to giving seminars and demonstrations, Tokuoka was also signing copies of Kitcho: Japan’s Ultimate Dining Experience released November 1 by Kodansha International.

The book is a miracle. It’s one of the most beautiful books about a Japanese subject–be it cuisine, art or culture–that I’ve ever seen. It’s not just a lushly illustrated and evocative introduction to the restaurant (taking the place of dining there for most mortals), but explains Tokuoka’s cooking philosophy, something he calls “Rimpa-style cuisine”; as explosively creative, sumptuously gorgeous and poetic as the artwork made famous by Tawaraya Sotatsu, Hon’ami Koetsu, Ogata Korin and most of all, Ogata Kenzan, the potter who painted Rimpa motifs on dishes that were revolutionary in his day. In fact, the book is as much about art as food, and Tokuoka dives right in with the importance of tableware from the very beginning of the book, quoting famed 20th-century potter Rosanjin Kitaoji (who figures prominently in Kitcho’s history) famous line: “Dishes are clothing for food.”

As you might know, Savory Japan places special attention on the importance of tableware, so this is a book after our own hearts. But even for cooks and foodies who own not a single Japanese dish, the techniques and ideas in this book should provide inspiration for anyone.

Take–for example–the o-toro (fatty tuna) sushi. Kunio’s version (as many of the dishes in the book are named) has the neta (topping) sliced into three thin slices. These are stacked on top of pillowy sushi rice that is light and airy because it is not squeezed together, but is instead artfully arranged on the tines of a fork, so the diner can enjoy one perfect mouthful of bliss. The photo and description of this immediately made my mouth water, and at this moment I came to realize just how revolutionary Kitcho is.

In fact, the restaurant is known for innovation–and there is plenty of evidence of such in the book. As for recipes, well, they’re lacking, for the dishes are described much like a chef would describe them to a fellow chef: No measurements, but more than enough information for chefs and serious cooks to take to heart, make their own and take off to the kitchen. (That said, we asked Kodansha if Savory Japan can obtain the recipe for Eggs Kunio, and they are currently trying to secure it. More later.)

But there is plenty of the really important stuff here; information you won’t easily find in other books on cuisine, such as a clear explanation of mitate–the Japanese way of seeing one thing in another. The book also takes you through the seasons (starting in Spring), much like Yoshihiro Murata’s Kaiseki: The Exquisite Cuisine from Kyoto’s Kikunoi Restaurant does. Like Murata’s book, one learns as much about Japanese culture–with its festivals, deep-rooted traditions, Shinto and Buddhist origins and its reverence of nature–as kaiseki cuisine.

You’re probably wondering which book I like better, and it’s honestly impossible for me to say. I had the unique opportunity to dine at Kikunoi, but unless something miraculous happens to my pocketbook it’s unlikely I will ever get the chance to dine at Kitcho, for it is much more expensive. So while Kaiseki–with its spirituality and deep Kyoto roots–holds a special place in my heart, Kitcho represents a dream. Just like the book’s apt title, it leaves me wondering whether Kitcho is the ultimate dining experience–perhaps not just in Japan–but the world.

Compare both books on our Recommended Reading page in the Learn section.

Kamigamo Akiyama, Kitayama’s Hidden Treasure

For November, Savory Japan returns yet again to Kyoto with an article about Kamigamo Akiyama, a one-star Michelin restaurant. Dining there is more than simply enjoying a meal, it is an experience: part theater, part education, part tea ceremony.

Located on the edge of the Kitayama mountains just east of Kamigamo Shrine, the rustic restaurant is  worth a special trip. Just make sure you make a reservation at least a month in advance.

Naohiro Akiyama, the young chef/owner spent many years at Kitcho, one of the most venerated kaiseki establishments in Japan. But his approach is fresh, exciting and delicious, making it a place we’ll return to again and again.