RyuGin (Nishiazabu, Tokyo) – Pure Excellence
Ryugin might be a restaurant with an international identity crisis, known more for wild experiments than quality, but this meal showed that a fascination with the modern can possibly1 inform and augment tradition. The endless debate about molecular gastronomy’s end game continues but only a few people defend the knowledge gained from the experimental process as an end in itself. One could say that the new ideas and investigations are a constant search for a greater truth about ingredients, food, and the layers of meaning we have affixed to fine dining. Chef Seiji Yamamoto may entered a “more traditional phase” 2 now and this meal could be held up as a result of the toil of inventiveness.
Ryugin popped on my radar when Chef Michael Cimarusti (Providence, Los Angeles) mailed me a DVD of Yamamoto performing cooking tricks that resembled a hybrid of Homaro Cantu’s (Moto, Chicago) high-tech-ery and Adoni Aduriz’s (Mugartiz, a favorite of mine) more organic approach. Indeed, as I did more research, I learned that Yamamoto and Aduriz were great friends, citing each other as influences and inspiration. The food at Mugaritz has an underlying Asian twist and it is possible to see how the two could find common ground to push each other further.3 A few inquiries found that, while experimental, Ryugin still had the Japanese attention to ingredient quality. The restaurant seemed to be at the forefront of an Eastern response to the largely Spanish molecular gastronomy “movement.”
Ryugin was slotted for the “experimental” dinner during the Japan trip – Aronia de Takazawa just looked too sterile. It would be interesting to see how, if at all, Ryugin would provide insight into Hyotei’s uber-traditional approach or Koju’s ingredient purity. When the chef at Koju mentioned that he & Yamamoto studied together, and maintained a very close relationship, my curiosity was further piqued. The ingredients and precision at Koju were beyond approach; would Ryugin fulfill this promise while at the more experimental side of the spectrum?
Yes, it could, but with quite an unexpected twist. There was none of the hallmark trickery that is generally associated with the restaurant (and still referenced in current magazine mentions.) Here was a man, known as for burdock root wine corks and functional bar codes that could be scanned with cell phones, committing to ingredients and taste. This was one of the best meals of my life. Not only were there no blatant mis-steps, but some of the ingredients and dishes will serve as reference items for the future. The meal had a “warmth”, or familiarity, that was missing from Koju; and I suspect this makes it slightly easier for a novice Western palette, such as mine, to rave about it.
“Ichiban Dashi” soup with puree of matsutake mushroom
A clear soup of (presumably) the classic first soaking of dashi broth (kelp and bonito) with a matsutake puree substituted for dried mushrooms. The flavor was very “clean” while the puree gave it a subdued earthy complexity.
Deep-fried seaweed, stuffed with Uni
Very delicate frying, the uni, from Nagasaki, was “raw warm” (slightly warmed but more or less raw.) The uni was sweeter and brinier than the Hokkaido uni I had been eating on this trip and it would rank atop most, if not all, of the uni I’ve eaten. The textural components of this dish were also fascinating as the batter had the slightest crunch, slightly augmented by the seaweed, and then all gave way to the creamy uni.
Aichi Figs w/ Port-flavored Foie Gras Terrine, served with sesame cream
This goose was fed white corn and figs to sweeten its liver; and those same staples accompanied the foie gras on the plate. The port flavor was slight, just enough to offset the intense creaminess and richness of the foie gras. This was every bit as good as The French Laundry foie (which was my previous favorite.)
Blue Swimming Crab and Shanghai crab (with roe aplenty!) topped with Chrysanthemum Gelee
This reminded me of an Urasawa dish on steroids – absolutely delicious. In a way, it could be interpreted as Japanese decadence – crab and roe. It worked well coming after the foie, its lightness and brightness a reprieve from the much richer foie gras.
Ryugin’s House Special – contrast of two abalone pieces – one steamed for ten hours, the other shabushabu for 10 seconds
The steamed abalone had an excellent texture – yielding but compliant – but this dish couldn’t live up to the sensations of its predecessors. The abalone pairs well with the earthy mushrooms but this course, for me, was an interlude between great pleasures.
Assorted Sashimi “Ryugin Style” – TREMENDOUS!!
Two pieces of each fish were served, one to be eaten with the dot of sauce next to it, the other with soy sauce. I could not follow the directions because the quality of fish was extraordinary. I could not bring myself to sauce it enjoyed it pristine and unadorned.
Red Snapper from Osaka area – The waitress explained the waters around Osaka are *very* turbulent and that the fish caught there are quite strong. She said the meat would not be buttery; but, instead, quite muscular and tough. Muscles taste great – I could taste the ocean with each bite. There was a depth of flavor – strong followed by waves of subtly – that I’ve rarely experienced. It was as if the Osaka currents were unleashed into the mouth. This was the single best bite of fish if my life. This bite alone justified the trip.4
Beluga Cavari w/ Squid – The chef has a reputation for amazing knife skills and they were in full display here. The squid unfolded into a ten-inch ribbon with further cuts throughout to soften its texture. Raw squid in Japan bares no resemblance to anything you find in American restaurants – its taste and texture might as well be a different animal.
Hommard bleu from Bretagne – “Kaiseki” in Tokyo can take some liberties, and this addition was certainly odd thematically, but this slightly seared piece of lobster could be served at L’Arpege and fit right in.
The toro, after these fireworks, was the weakest but that is only because relativity can be cruel. On any other plate at any other restaurant, this piece of toro would be regarded as a highlight of a meal – fatty, melting, with nice kick of flavor.
Egg Pudding made with Hamo’s Bone Stock, Flavor of Autumn
The egg pudding, a chawan-mushi of sorts, was also mixed with monkfish liver. It was remarkably smooth and silky but robust thanks to the richness of the ankimo. The dish, with a slight resemblance to a full moon, represented the harvest season.
Char-grilled Natural Large Eel w/ Aroma of Japanese Peppers, monkfish liver
The waitress explained that most eel, even in Japan, is farmed; but that the chef has a special connection for wild eel. The wild eel in Japan, again, bares little resemblance to anything I have eaten in America. The texture has an integrity often missing in America but its taste has the waves of flavor described above in the Osaka red snapper sashimi dish.
The menu merely read “grilled meat course” and I was slightly disappointed that it was not beef (I had not had beef with only two days to go) but, as the picture shows, the pigeon was grilled textbook perfect. The “japanese mashed potatoes” – soy husks that had been pureed – were surprisingly addictive and comforting. The truffles, while not amazing, gently perfumed the puree.
Chef’s Rice of the Day
The white bowl of steamed rice at the end of kaiseki meals is jarring to me. It just does not seem to fit into a narrative of a meal, no matter how hard I try to link the connections.5 Ryugin chose to flavor his rice dish (he actually served two) and that provided a comforting, yet appropriately concluding, dish for the fantastic meal. Several types of rice were used and the grains were distinguishable in the mouth. (I do not remember the flavors of the rice.)
Fresh Compote of Pear and Small Grapes with Plum Wine Soda Gelee
The fruit was very fresh, the plum wine soda crisp, and this palette cleanser definitely popped, but the soda gelee might have been too carbonated for my tastes.
Caramel Ice Cream with “Wasanbon Sugar”, served with grated Milk-Curd
This was a world-class dessert – the wasanbon sugar, native to Japan and very limited, gave the caramel a quite different flavor. The grated milk curd on top, nutty in flavor, was so delicious that I probably would not complain if it was placed atop my toro. This was crazy delicious.
Baked Chestnut Cake, served on Full Moon presentation
Yamamoto is known for the visual flare of his dishes and this one was striking from an artistic point of view. It could not match the natural beauty of Koju’s autumn plate but this dish is probably more emblematic of the chef and his personality. Where traditional kaiseki would opt for muted traditional pottery, this dish vibrated with color and energy.
This was a kaiseki meal in spirit but it obviously took a few liberties – French lobster and pan-Japanese ingredients. Purists might argue with the approach but the meal felt like a modern, not experimental, version of the more traditional Hyotei and Koju. The food is not as austere, yet subtlety and ingredient quality were not sacrificed. Such steps took the edge off of the obtusiveness I felt with the other meals – and made it more accessible to this Western palette.
The restaurant has only received two Michelin stars but this meal was decidedly three-star material; at a price point that is very compelling when compared to European establishments ($250/person before alcohol.) When thinking of the greatest meals on this planet, given my still limited experiences, this would have to rank alongside L’Arpege, Pierre Gagnaire, El Poblet, Michel Bras, and presumably Noma6 for the absolute essentials of world-class eating.
For a review of a near-identical meal one day before, read Krugiste’s Ryugin review at her blog. She also brings up a great point that I completely agree with (based on my limited experiences of course) – there are very few mistakes in Japanese dishes. There is a reverence for perfection, every single time, that is lacking in French and Spanish two- and three-star restaurants.
I suspect that Ryugin will begin appearing on “best restaurants in the world” lists next year. Noma seems to have captured the hearts and minds of food writers this year, but I think Ryugin will become a media darling soon enough.
1 – I use the word “possibly” because I don’t know the techniques behind the food I ate. Regardless of the techniques, the chef assuredly draws from his historical experiments for inspiration and ideas.
2- This is a quote from the waitress, who also heads up international PR (and speaks perfect English.)
3 – This is, of course, speculation on my part.
4 – I say this with only a bit of hyperbole.
5 – And I say this knowing that half of the world enjoys nothing more than a simple bowl of white steamed rice.
6 – I have not eaten at Noma proper but I did try Rene Redzepi’s food at Manresa.