RyuGin (Nishiazabu, Tokyo) – Ingredient Extremism

Ryugin the previous year (2008) was memorable – a tour de force of the world’s best ingredients served in a kaiseki meal – but mysterious. The format is challenging enough – a meal of the seasons and traditions, imbued with ritual and symbolism – but the promise, or spectre, of molecular gastronomy further obscures the accessibility of Chef Seiki Yamamoto’s daring synthesis of history.1 Lacking the necessary framework of cultural references to properly assess Yamamoto’s complete vision, it was the ingredients from last year’s meal that persisted and reminded me that obsessiveness is most obsessed in Japan.

Despite my effusive praise, Ryugin did not earn its third Michelin star2 – leading some to believe the restaurant might be too inconsistent for that highest honor. The chef himself has been known to say “come back in Fall”, presumably his favorite season for ingredients. And the ingredients – during this Fall 2009 meal – again occupy a notion of “the best.” The concentrated sweetness of a fig, its ripeness arguably to the hour, its provenance surely divine, was certainly meant for the emperor, not me.3 The chef’s quest for ingredients is un-mistakenly three-star territory, if not four.

This meal was less exciting than the last, save for those few punctuations. It was generally two-star territory, sputtering at times, with a few moments of absolute brilliance, moments that were among highlights of the entire trip. Comparing it to last year’s post, it appears the food is even more traditional than before, particularly with regards to plates. The potential for sheer amazement – the Earth can yield something that good – would still require me to highly recommend a visit to Ryugin when in Tokyo.

Notes are not exact – this meal took place nearly a year ago (2009) – and no menu was given at the end.

Abalone and potato

Blue crab w/ Shanghai crab innards, apple vinegar jelly – A slight variation on last year’s crab dish, this time appearing earlier in the meal, with apple vinegar jelley instead of chrysanthemum. There is a very delicate balance between the crab’s sweetness, the slightest pungency of the kani miso, and the acidity from the jelly. The acidity and brightness stand out but it is still an under-stated dish – world class.

Grilled matsutake & red snapper soup – A subtle dish that did not “wow”; instead, it served as a pause and reflection for the complexities of the dashi and mushrooms.

Sashimi – tuna, red snapper (osaka), & lobster – The sashimi course at Ryugin rivals the best sushi restaurants in Tokyo, incuding Sawada. Chef Yamamoto is not content with buying the day’s best catch from the fish market – he has relationships with his own fishermen. Last year, the red snapper from Osaka was tremendous in its flavor – tough but each bite released an ocean’s swell. This year’s red snapper was only disappointing in that it did not live up to its own expectations.

Ankimo in Burdock root broth

Sea perch, grated chestnut, puffed rice – A beautiful piece of silky fish, cooked perfectly, but the dish as a whole was marred by the extraneous accompaniements. It could be personal preference but the luxurious texture of the fish is an end in itself – there’s no need to frame it against contrasts like puffed rice. The grated chestnut, significant because of the season, merely conflicted with my personal ascetic preference for un-adorned pristine fish. Arthur Hungry, too, thought the fish was nothing short of phenomenal.

Iwate Wagyu & figs – In a darkly lit room, the main course is brought out – a few cubes of beef book-ended by two halves of fig. Where Koju literally served “Fall on a plate“, could there be a more apt abstraction than this?

Wagyu beef is not dry-aged as long as American beef (if at all?), presumably because of its fat content; but these cubes had the intense concentration of eight+ week old beef – still maintaining their beef taste, instead of veering towards a caricature. They were the best beef bites of my life.

The table was all smiles and joy – best beef ever – but the figs made the dining table hallowed.4 They were divine and they alone were nearly worth the price of admission.

Grilled anago over rice, pickles in nori – I’m a great fan of Ryugin’s rice dishes because they are a bit more satisfying than the traditional bowl of rice. The eel was excellent but the real excitement was with the follow-up rice dish. Follow up? They prepare several rice dishes and they will offer more if you ask. The second was ikura over rice – the ikura, popping in the mouth with each bite, made the rice risotto-like – excellent.

Caramel Ice Cream with “Wasanbon Sugar”, served with grated Milk-Curd – The *masterful* dessert from the last meal – ruined – by an icy texture, as if it had melted and been re-frozen. The texture of this dish is so delicate, the milk curd blending with the melting ice cream in your mouth, that those ice crystals completely ruined the magic.

Chestnut cakes

Ryugin has served me three bests ever in my life – fish, beef, and fruit. This meal, as a whole, was not as fantastic as the last, but the highs were equivalent. It would be impossible not to recommend Ryugin 5 because the quality of its product is remarkable – during Fall.6 While not as “exciting” as my first meal, upon reflection, it provided new reference points for me – priceless experience.

- chuck

1 – Chef Seiji Yamamoto gained an international reputation while performing feats of wizardry at international molecular gastronomy conferences. There is an irony in that his food has come full circle back to tradition – a very interesting interview opportunity that the food press has missed out on.

I would also like to thank Chef Michael Cimarusti of Providence (LA) again for introducing this restaurant to me.

2 – Yes, tongue firmly in cheek

3 – Ironically, we had cancelled our reservation for 7 Chome Kyoboshi, where they do serve the emperor’s fruit.

4 – If San Francisco area restaurants served figs of this quality, no one would complain. We would gorge like geese, happily to our deaths. There could be nothing more humane – please show me to my pen.

5 – Not everyone has enjoyed their meal – A Life Worth Eating was not particularly impressed.

6 – But these two Spring meals look just as good: Wordsmithing Pantagruel had an uni dish that looks tremendous; as well as a Michel Bras / noma-inspired vegetable landscape dish that I would love to try. The Wandering Epicures had a similar, if not the same, meal from the Spring – and it makes me question why the chef would apologize for seasons other than Fall – because that meal looks spectacular.

  • http://www.epicures.wordpress.com Michael

    Lovely and interesting post, Chuck. My preference is different from yours on the issue of the puffed rice and grated chestnut on the sea perch. I would love it unadorned in a sushi/sashimi restaurant, but with a chef like Yamamoto I come to enjoy what he offers in textural contrasts and seasonal ingredients.

  • http://www.wordsmithingpantagruel.com Ed

    The flavor and the contrasting texture on my puffed rice fish course was my favorite part of the dish, but I had snapper belly which was a bit dry and tough, the one low point of the meal. I may have felt differently if I had silky perch instead like yours.

    I’ll have to remember to return if I’m ever there again in the fall, I’d enjoy the comparison to my spring meal.

  • cam_13

    Great post as always…kobe beef cannot be aged because of the high fat content it will spoil…keep up the good work

  • chuckeats

    cam_13 – that’s why this piece of beef was so special. it was wagyu but it had the unmistaken taste of dry-aged beef – and much more than the standard 30 days found here in the States. in fact, it had more dry-aged intensity than the 8-10 week stuff I buy from my butcher.

    i don’t know what they did – but it was remarkable.

    (i also had a 60-day dry-aged wagyu beef “bite” from Morimoto in NYC 4-5 years ago – it was quite good – but not this good.)

  • chuckeats

    Ed & Michael – i guess that’s proof we all have different tastes :-)

  • Rona Y

    I think it’s interesting to see how Chef Yamamoto’s food has evolved over time. The first time I dined at Ryugin in 2008my meal was more playful, I thought, and more “fusion-y”. The ayu dish I had was one of the most delightful dishes I’d ever been served.

    The second time I ate there (just this past February), I felt the food was more traditionally-oriented, and more serious. While it was still very well-prepared and delicious, nothing really struck me as outstanding the way some of the dishes of the 2008 meal did.

    Still, I’d definitely return to Ryugin. I think he’s a very talented chef, and I’d love to see how his talent continues to evolve.

    I’m surprised you did not receive a copy of the menu. In 2008 the server printed off a copy of the menu (in English) for me after he realized I was very interested in the dishes and their ingredients. They now give you a copy of the menu at the beginning of your meal, placed in a red envelope. I still have both of them to remind me of two great meals!

    (If you’re interested in comparing, the pictures for my 2008 meal can be found here http://www.flickr.com/photos/27022368@N08/sets/72157605240808052/ . The pictures for the 2010 meal start here http://www.flickr.com/photos/27022368@N08/4410892330/in/set-72157617736033051/ )

  • chuckeats

    Rona, in all honesty, i probably just forgot to ask (for the menu)

  • http://www.luxeat.com Luxeat

    Nice post. I went to RyuGin last autumn too and despite of really trying to enjoy the meal, i didn’t like it at all…

  • cam_13

    Wow…learn something new everyday…gonna have to research the technique…very interesting stuff chuck…thanks

  • http://gourmettraveller.wordpress.com gourmet traveller

    an illuminating write-up on Ryugin, the wagyu in particular sounds incredible. I definitely hope to make it there soon… and now I know to visit in autumn!

  • http://blindtastingclub.net Alex

    Hello Chuck. I’m curious what beverages were served for that meal. Tea only? Or is there a justification for wine?

  • chuckeats

    @cam_13 – if you learn anything, let us know!

    @gourmet – can’t wait to read about it on your site

    @alex – an incredibly yeasty champagne for half the meal, sake, and some red wine @ the end iirc

  • http://www.arthurhungry.com Arthur

    Great to see your photos from this meal, with quite a few differences from the meal I had a month earlier. It sure brings back memories, and I’m jealous of your Wagyu course.

    Regarding the perch – I must say, I really loved the puffed rice element, but I imagine that the chestnut would be an unwelcome third texture for me. I’m generally not too fond of chestnut to begin with, though.

    I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one who’s about a year behind on blogging meals. I’ve got so much in the backlog I don’t even know where to start!

  • Mr Kram

    Chuck, was the eel dish unagi (fresh water) or anago (salt water)?

  • chuckeats

    Mr Kram – good to see you – it was a typo – anago

  • Mr Kram

    figured as much. keep up the good work!

  • Per

    Was at Ruygin earlier this evening and I must say that it´s gotten a lot more traditional these days. Will put up the pictures at the blog when I get home… Also managed to visit Harutaka, L.c.Narisawa, Sushi Kanesaka, La Rochelle, Kondo and Sawada and some more. Have to say that I agree with everything you praised Sawada for…… what a show! Really liked Kanesakas rice btw with his 30 year old vinegar.

  • chuckeats

    that’s quite an itinerary Per – looking forward to the pics!