The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G.K. Chesterton

Monday, 16 November 2009

Modern Kaiseki @ Ryugin, Tokyo

On the night after my birthday, hubby took me out to a Michelin 2-star-rated restaurant for dinner, having arranged with my sister to babysit the kid. I had no idea where we were going until we walked up to the door of RyuGin. Chef Yamamoto serves up Modern Japanese cuisine done kaiseki- or dégustation-style (read: a multi-dish dinner with lots of dishes!), and there is only one course on offer at this exclusive restaurant: the Gastronomy Course. The food is highly seasonal with the chef preparing dishes based on his inspiration for the ingredients he obtained earlier in the day at the markets. This means that what was served tonight would most probably not make an appearance in tomorrow's menu. When dining at an acclaimed chef's restaurant, I am more than happy to let the chef decide what would be in my meal, as I have the assurance that the chef would have given a lot of care and effort into preparing each and every dish the chef has chosen for the day.

The embroidered oshibori:

I haven't had as much experience with kaiseki dining as I would have liked to (they are notoriously expensive, after all), but the two occasions that I previously did have, I enjoyed the experience and food very much. I love sampling small portions of a variety of the chef's specialty dishes, much like the dégustation dinner we enjoyed at Loose Box earlier this year.

An artpiece on the wall - ink painting of a dragon:

We were given very professional service from the moment we stepped through the door. Our waiter spoke English quite well, and used appropriate vocabulary when describing the beverages, which is no small feat considering that there were 40 types of champagnes, 80 variety of white wines, 120 red wines - and this isn't including the Japanese brands and alcohol! The interior has been tastefully and artistically decorated, with an unsubtle emphasis on dragons. 22 gorgeous ceramic plates hang on the wall, and the centerpiece ink painting of a dragon dominates one wall. I appreciated the understated and simple colours which lended to the classy atmosphere. And the food! I loved the attention to detail given to each dish, the artistic presentation in gorgeous wares, and the fact that you can taste excellence in the top quality ingredients that were used. All 12 courses were exquisitely prepared, and I enjoyed every single bite.

For apéritif, we chose some Torotoro Umeshu, on the rocks, which was gorgeously fruity and not too sweet.

1st course: Vegetable Amuse of Two Clams and Okara - this was the perfect start to the meal, smooth creamy texture interspersed with slightly crunchy carrot and bursts of citrus flavour from bits of yuzu.

2nd course: Warm Appetiser of Steamed Abalone and Fried Potato - the abalone was cooked for 6 hours, and the result was the most tender abalone I've ever eaten! The croquette had prawns in them, and I loved the textural contrast of the crunchy coating and the soft creamy centre.

3rd course: Cold Appetiser of Two Crabs with Apple Vinegar Jelly - the sweet flesh of the blue swimmer crab was topped with the kani miso (literally means "crab brains", i.e. innards) of the Shanghai crab and finished with a mildly sweet vinegar jelly. Eating crab guts may sound gross, but it didn't taste like I was eating innards of a crustacean. I honestly do think that it served quite well to emphasise the sweetness of the crab meat. And it was pretty nice on its own too, with complex crab flavours, and not as pungent as other kani miso I've had.

4th course: Chef's Autumn Specialty of Clear Soup with Grilled Snapper and Matsutake. Made with ichiban dashi (first brewed soup stock) and the famously expensive matsutake mushrooms, this was a real treat to eat. The crispy skin snapper had been grilled to perfection, and was succulent and delicious. I really liked the lacquerware that held the soup - the gold dragon on the inside of the lid was a pleasant surprise.

5th course: RyuGin Assorted Sashimi with Red Snapper, Tuna and Japanese Lobster. I love sashimi, and this one was excellent! I savoured the raw lobster meat slowly, and had the first piece of the other items on its own without any wasabi, soy or other condiments. I had fun with this course as I squirted the second piece of every item with Japanese lime juice, dunked them in salt and topped with wasabi. Simply delicious.

6th course: Autumn Special (seasonal dish) of Ankimo (monkfish liver). Our waiter was accurate in his description of 'Japanese fish foiegras' - it was every bit as fatty and delicious as its duck or goose counterpart, and it was so rich that I could only have half of my portion (hubby happily helped finish off the rest). The liver patty was served in a shallow broth of grated gobo (burdock root) and a type of bright green bean.

7th course: Char-grilled Sea Perch - the fish had a coating of crispy fried (or popped?) rice, topped with a mound of fluffy grated chestnut and finished with a grilled matsutake mushroom. This was another excellent dish, a treat for all the senses: visually appealing, soft tender flesh contrasted with the crispy coating, and wonderful flavours.

8th course: Meat of the Day with Iwate Wagyu, Shiitake and Figs. The wagyu was cooked rare and every bit as fatty and tasty as wagyu ought to be, served with a relish of onion and chestnuts. A cube of sweet marinated persimmon, nut-coated fried shiitake and a juicy fig segment were creative accompaniments to the beef, and so delicious that I wish there were more of them. Dare I say that I enjoyed these accompaniments more than the wagyu itself? They were that good.

9th course: Seasonal Rice with Miso Soup and RyuGin Pickles. The grilled anago (seawater eel) was perhaps the best I've had, and the yuzu-seasoned rice that the anago laid upon was quite refreshing. The pickles were gorgeously presented in a nori wrap.

Hubby had an additional optional Special Rice course because he still had room in his belly for more food (I was well and truly full at this stage!). This course was a small portion of seasoned rice with fish and ikura (salmon roe). I didn't have a taste of this, but hubby said it was pretty good.

10th course: First Dessert of Orange and Fragrant Olive Sorbet - I love the colour, and if bright could have a flavour, this sorbet would describe it. Excellent palate cleanser.

11th course: Second Dessert of Warabimochi with Coconut, Kinako and Genmaicha Flavours. The warabimochi was prepared like a mousse, and each little cube would burst in the mouth, releasing an explosion of intense flavour on the tongue. All three were good, but our favourite was the kinako (roasted soybean).

12th course: Third Dessert of Baked Chestnut Cake with 2 Types of Cream (Chestnut and Sweet Potato with Lemon). One word: divine.

To finish, we enjoyed a bowl of perfectly prepared Matcha. I love anything matcha-flavoured, so drinking the real thing is always a nice treat.

I really enjoyed this birthday dinner, and I left with a very full and happy belly. It's our second real dinner date (i.e. without baby) since our boy was born more than a year ago, and our last dinner date was more than 6 months ago! We both love our son very much, but it felt good to enjoy each other's company on an actual date.

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