Koju (Ginza, Tokyo) – Minimalism and Perfectionism
The Western, or at least American, perception of Japanese food tends toward the ideas of meticulous perfectionism – ingredients and preparation – too perfect for a human but too soulful for a robot. The ideas must extend from our general notions of Japanese culture since Japanese restaurants1 in America rarely succeed at accomplishing one of the two, much less both. The cuisine from the island is mythical and I was uncertain if it could live up to its own legend. I was excited for the possibilities but prepared for the crash.
Koju, named after a master potter, manned by Toru Okuda, is one of the eight Michelin three-star restaurants in Tokyo. In a culture of apprenticeship, tradition and rules, I was quite surprised by his youth. I picked this meal intentionally as my introduction to Japanese dining for its reputation for perfect ingredients and impossible restraint. Anyone can make a reservation with enough advance notice, and I did, but I also had an introduction here (the Japanese love their business cards.)
The doorway into a magical place
The trusty Streetwise City Guide map will get one to the right block but the door picture will prove to be the most valuable mapping device of all, unless you read Kanji. Whenever you intend to visit a restaurant in Japan, and Tokyo specifically, print a door picture whenever possible – come prepared.
The meal is served in the traditional kaiseki format that originated in Kyoto. Kaiseki is known for being a totality – everything from the food to the ceramics to the symbolism of the ingredients contribute to the many historical, cultural, and ritual layers of the experience.2 A complete understanding of the format and its nuances could not be understood without eating through each season, for seasonality, and its celebration, are paramount. To my Western sensibilities, the format seems constrained, despite following an understandable progression.3 In some ways, the plot is already known, with just dishes to fill each space.
The meal was ultra minimalist and austere but its memory, and impact, germinated for a few days. I kept thinking about “that eel”, “the toro”, or “that flavor”; and, then I realized, this meal was already serving as a very high reference for the meals to come. It was of the sublime; possibly the only true way for the kaiseki to impress.
Hokkaido uni, horse crab, and eggplant
Three simple ingredients that somehow combined to be so much more. The uni and crab played off of each other, their differing ideas of sweetness interacting with the marinated eggplant. The different textures, to the bite and mouth, contributed to the sensation of the dish. A bright crisp introduction to Koju.
The minimalism of the meal, and perhaps of all kaiseki, is encapsulated in this dish. The frying on the abalone was beyond reproach – an even thin layer, brought to life and punctuated emphatically by lime and salt. A masterpiece.
Dashi soup w/ shrimp ball and matsutake
The rabbit in the moon motif, fall and harvest, would be repeated throughout the trip. The shrimp ball, if one could call it that, was full of large pieces of sweet plump shrimp. The broth was clear and refined, complementing the shrimp with a slight ocean breeze.
Sashimi – toro, sea breem, squid
The fish is served with two accompaniments – salt/seaweed/lime and soy/wasabi. You are instructed to eat one piece with each, beginning with the lime, and then finishing the third piece whichever way you prefer. The characteristics of each fish changed noticeably, but my preference leaned toward the brightness of the salt/seaweed/lime combination. The toro was the best I’ve had – it had the full tuna taste of Bostonian tuna with a perfect balance of fat. The squid, already bursting with flavor, really took to the lime treatment. It was also interesting how finely they grate the wasabi – it almost looked powdered. At this point, one did not need to convince me that fish in Japan would be markedly superior to the US.
Kamasu around matsutake, lime, Japanese beef
The plating on this dish captures what I assume to be the essence of kaiseki – the season indistinguishable from the food – fall on a plate. The kamasu (barracuda), slightly overcooked by my standards, had a smoky flavor that meshed well with the matsutake. The Japanese beef took the fattiness of wagyu and combined it with an *intense* dry-aged flavor – it was the best of both worlds, right there in three incredible bites. I have read that the Japanese do not dry-age their beef but these morsels had it in spades.
Octopus, pumpkin, & winter melon
The octopus was marinated in at least miso and grilled nicely – the char gave it a full taste. It also had a great consistency – pliable but still firm. Unfortunately, I’m not really a pumpkin, melon, or steaming such things fan so the rest of this dish left me unfulfilled.
Miso, pickles, eel, & rice
The final savory course, ending with the requisite miso, rice, and pickles. The wild eel was large (1.5kg) – and its flavor re-defined eel for me. Its texture was firm and its flavor had waves of subtlety that I was to later find at Sushiyo Masa. This was unlike anything I’ve tasted in the US, where eel is not among my favorite items.
Autumn jelly fruits, sake jelly, soymilk ice cream, mochi, chestnut
I expected a singe piece of fruit, ala Masa (NYC), but I am always fond of ice cream. The soy-milk ice cream was surprisingly creamy with pure clear flavor. The slight alcohol in the jelly was akin to salt for the fruit – perked it up.
Green Tea – the end
At the end of the meal, there was no question I ate some of the best ingredients I had ever tasted (beef, eel, toro, fried anything, and squid for certain) but the minimalism was hard for me to get past, even though I absolutely expected and prepared for it. The constraints of the kaiseki format also left me wanting – for what could this chef accomplish following his own format?
Over the next few days, I kept thinking about the ingredients and flavors; and, I realized, this meal was much better than I originally realized. It had become a benchmark for my Japanese meals to come and the Japanese meals of my past. I liked Ryugin better (review to come) for its “more exciting” flavors but this meal was on equal footing.
In Kyoto, the kaiseki meals were composed of local products of the time. The Tokyo kaiseki meals (Koju & Ryugin) seem to be a “best of Japan”, as they sourced the best food from across the country – a more metropolitan approach befitting of Tokyo’s relationship to the country.
This is a meal I’d like to have back so I can try it again, knowing what I know: it was a Top 10 meal of all-time.
1 – I obviously have not been to every Japanese restaurant but only Masa (NYC) and Urasawa (LA) seem to be fulfilling that mythical contract.
2 – It is dinner as theater.
3 – I should have more to say on this topic in later reviews. I ate six kaiseki meals in total – 2 in Tokyo and 4 in Kyoto.