Tokyo Journal by David Kinch

"I am delighted to publish David Kinch’s review of four outstanding restaurants in Tokyo. The Michelin guides awards more three stars to Tokyo than to any other city in the world, but for many of us, including myself, the very best of the Japanese cuisine remains a black box. Kinch, owner and chef of the Manresa Restaurant in Los Gatos, where I had some of my best meals in the States, has visited Tokyo with a Japanese friend who helped him navigate some terrain unknown to Westerners. Personally I found his reviews to be very honest in the sense that he makes a very sincere effort to come to terms with a genre of cuisine which is new to him, and he approaches this new realm with an open mind and scientific curiosity. Being a world class chef certainly helps him to delve deeply into some details, but he never loses sight of the greater forest. I hope the readers of Gastromondiale will enjoy and benefit from these reviews as much as I did." Vedat Milor

Japan has remained a bit of a mystery to many who travel the world looking for great restaurants and cuisine. It is a seemingly daunting challenge because of the Japanese reputation of preferring to be closed to outsiders for assuming (fear?) that they would not understand, or appreciate the experience. But the very best of Japan, specifically Tokyo here, has always offered a far away promise; one of incredible ingredients and a genuine reverence for them, the passionate individuals who procure them, coupled with a complex regionalism and the appreciation and respect for old traditions. A reassuring nod to the future added to all this and all the cultural connections, speak of only the very best culinary traditions.

There have not been many European starred restaurants in the past 25 years that have not had their share of Japanese externs and stagiaires passing through their doors, first through France and Italy and then spreading fast through Germany and Spain. Many Western cooks had their first real exposure to Japan through these visiting workers (the knives made Western tools seem almost primitive by comparison) and the Japanese absorbed the best of Western restaurant culture, not only in the kitchen but the European perspective and experience of taking care of clients and learning to understand wine service. They took this back home with them. This highly skilled and trained work force coupled with a city of 20 million, cosmopolitan, well traveled and educated, with the means to finance these meals and support the restaurants add up to a vibrant and extremely competitive scene that lead credence to the argument that Tokyo might very well be the greatest restaurant city in the world. Some, like Michelin, might argue that it is not even a close assumption and that possibly the best French and Italian restaurants in the world outside their respective countries might be in Japan.

I do not wish to debate the relevance of Michelin here, though the Guide has succeeded all sales figures with most of it to the local population but, it has opened the door a little bit wider to the western dining populace. More and more people are making a special journey to dine there and for very good reason.

For every great restaurant that one goes to in Tokyo you are quickly told about another one that refused its multiple stars or that the very best have not even been visited by foreigners and never will be. All this adds to an excitement, an expectation and true sense of exploration that is hard to come by when one can virtually visit any great restaurant in the western world through the power of the internet.

I had a chance to visit some of the better-known establishments, both Western and Japanese on a recent spring trip and was very impressed with the overall quality of the entire experience. I do not want to critique in any way, that is not my role but, to celebrate 4 wonderful establishments that we truly enjoyed, and would love to visit again in the future. As my first extended trip to Japan in almost 20 years I am well aware that my exposure was limited but, also of the surface only being scratched, and the opportunity to explore and discover appeared almost limitless. One can craft and embark on a culinary adventure that nowadays seems like a dream of the past.

Restaurant Quintessence

Shuzo Kishida was the opening second under Pascal Barbot at L'Astrance in Paris where he remained for almost 4 years. He is an unabashed disciple of Chef Barbot, praising him above and beyond on his website and even patterning his menu format as the same as his mentor. So what is one going to get when you dine at his newly minted ***star in the Shirokane district? Was it going to be a copy or an original cuisine brought on by the vagaries of ingredients and sensibilities of being halfway around the world within the framework of his mentor?

There are a lot of Japanese branches here of famous foreign chefs, and frankly amongst the locals in the know they do not speak highly of the franchises. Is Koshida his own man, paying his respects and acknowledging his mentor or is he the strangest sort of outpost, the one that does not even has a legitimate connection with the originator?

The restaurant is tucked away like a boutique on a beautiful little residential street. It has about 25 seats and a one menu only format based on the market.

We had a very good and interesting meal here; contemporary, filled with original ideas yet solidly based on simplicity and product. There were some stunning dishes of the highest quality and of a memorable nature that speak of Kishida’s talent.

A bavarois of goat cheese from Kyoto, macadamia nuts with olive oil was a stunner that took my breath away. A light, ethereal cloud, so delicate that it fell apart almost if you blew on it, was flavored with a mild goat cheese fabricated in Kyoto, seasoned with fleur du sel and had small petals of blanched spring onion and thin pieces of shaved raw macadamia nut. It was barely moistened was a fragrant, just pressed olive oil from the south of France. So simple and beautiful, this was a noble dish with humble ingredients.

Two desserts stood out and have remained reference points for this meal. Coconut custard was topped with virgin pistachio oil with a float of strong espresso. This was so satisfying, just outstanding sensibilities, balance and seasoning, bitterness playing a pleasing role, a theme that was played out often on this trip. The finale, a dish of meringue brûlée ice cream was superb, finally, a refined dessert with a truly adult taste of marshmallow.

Other dishes of interest just below the heights of those include:

~A small tomato, peeled and then fried in the form of a beignet. Perched precariously on top were thin slices of marinated sardines, some shavings of raw fennel, and just a touch of fennel granite. The tomato was raw, yet warmed through by the frying process. It burst its tomato water and seeds, which mingled with granite to become the sauce.

~Fat white asparagus from Japan of outstanding quality, gently warmed with pieces of bay scallop and very juicy clams. All sauced with a powerful seaweed butter.

~Ako fish from Kyushu. A member of the sea bream family, the filet was cooked whole at a very low temperature and then sliced into individual pieces as the skin then takes on a beautiful mother of pearl glow, like an abalone shell. Fiddle head ferns, flowering coriander and a delicate sauce made from salted cherry blossom leaves add a fleeting floral element. The fish was of an extremely excellent quality, an unsurprising theme that remained constant during the entire journey.

~French pintade, slowly roasted whole, impressed with a superb, gamey flavor. It was all framed with a condiment of a type of red treviso, roasted with raspberry vinegar and carrots. Cheese consisted of a three year old comte from the affineur Laurent Dubois.

Kishida talked about the one menu market concept was not well taken to in Tokyo and they struggled at first as people demanded choice. But he has stuck to his vision. and appears to be succeeding. He is a very talented young man and appears to be handling the high expectations and the ensuing pressure in good humor and stride. The heights of the bavarois, the quality of the game bird and the coconut with espresso are world class. He is his own cook without overt references to his master, all very admirable. The restaurant is young like its chef and his team and he has the pressure of the stars but I think with a couple of tweaks with service and a bit more time under his belt it is going to be really scary how good he is going be.

His potential is enormous.

1958 Meursault Tastevinage from the Chevalier du Tastevin

1961 Ch. Brane Cantenac.

Restaurant Quintessence (Highly recommended), 

1F “Barbizon 25" building 5-407 Shirokanedai, Minato-Ku, Tokyo 108-0071, Japan

Tel. 03.5791.3715 Fax. 03.5791.3716

Azabu Yukimura

Jun Yukimura gained a reputation working in Kyoto at the famous kaiseki restaurant Wakuden for many years. He moved to Tokyo and opened up his namesake restaurant Azabu Yukimura in 2000. He has been a difficult reservation since the day they opened the doors. The small intimate 10 seats at the counter with one table of 4 is much in demand with the power elite in government (the current prime minister is a regular) who desires his traditional Kyoto style dishes. Mr. Yukimura works with 4 other cooks and presented a seamless meal that was a mirror held to the seasons and a testament to the power of quality ingredients.

We start with an infusion of spring water with lightly salted cherry blossoms. It is a tepid, calming tisane, perfect after just getting off the plane. Sayori, or Japanese needlefish is gently steamed, then served at room temperature. Some thin batonets of winter vegetables, perhaps 5 different ones, and some steamed leafy greens from them added a slightly bitter element that was very pleasant. A small amount of a thick dressing that creamy and mild in flavor tasted of dried bonito. Vegetable greens, perhaps the top of the vegetables themselves, that were slightly charred completes the first amuse. Subtle and delicious. This is the first experience of a common theme of a balanced bitterness in opening dishes that always stimulated our appetite.

Chilled soba noodles in a beautiful verdigris bowl are completely covered in a fine grating of dried and slightly smoked cod roe. The roe was a deep rich burnished gold color and had the flavor of a most intense bottarga. A stunning dish in appearance and taste, is would also be at home in any modern or post-modernist style of cuisine. Outstanding.

Then a series of amuses coming out quite quickly, one after another:

1. A tiny, perfect maki of steamed vegetable shoots and rice is very traditional in appearance and flavor.

2. Steamed abalone with its liver, served room temperature in a sesame dressing. It might be perfect. A 20/20 dish. A taste of a mythical ocean, it made me close my eyes and sit back in wonder.

3. Tempura of fava beans and a white fish they called a rock trout, maybe a cod of sort. Part of the exploration…

4. A salad made from the green tops of wasabi that had a haunting nuance of the root in its aroma. Lightly dressed, a fascinating tutorial on the nuances the rhizome possesses.

Then there is a procession of more ample dishes. Six tiny Ayu on skewers and salt grilled right in front of us. A couple of counted out drops of sudachi citrus completes the dish. The entrails are intact and have seemed to liquify in the heat, giving the bite its own perfect sauce, reminding one of both of liver and the iode of the sea. Exemplary grilling. The same rock cod (or trout??) again in a beautiful dashi resting on a cube of Kyoto kudzu and grilled leek. One learns to appreciate these seemingly simple broths that arrive with a lid and catching the ephemeral aromas that escape when the lid comes off. Grilled bamboo shoots. Young and tender of extraordinary flavor. A real treat whose flavor reminded me of parsnip in an odd way. Another white fish that had been steamed and cooled had been fashioned into a beautiful salad of sorts resting in on a bed of seaweed and surrounded by a jelly made with baby scallops that was very good. And then... A shabu shabu then appears with only two ingredients. The first was sansho, a very seasonal leaf or herb that seems to grow low to the ground like moss but resembles curly parsley. A large handful of this was placed in the simmering dashi and then several of thinly sliced Wagyu beef was quickly stirred in for merely 3 seconds. The beef and sansho were quickly removed and placed in a bowl followed by a small amount of broth. Well, let me tell you. I haven't really ever had Japanese beef of this quality before. Pure pleasure. And the sansho tasted as if it was electric. It had a sharp pungency that served the role that horseradish or wasabi would, but it seemed to defy gravity. It felt as if there was a mild, not unpleasant electric current was going through your tongue that lasted for several minutes. I have never had that long of a finish before of anything that was pleasant to eat. I still think and wonder about this dish. Three ingredients. Would we like seconds? Why yes, we would.... Next, a small plate of homemade pickles and a made to order rice pot with small bits of bamboo and a handful of fava bean. Superb and an excellent bento for lunch the next day.

Dessert was the famous amaoh strawberries, segments of grapefruit topped with a sake sherbet made with sake, milk and cream. No sugar. Mr. Yukimura has just opened a small bar/ bistro (grappas, wine, nabes, etc.) on the next floor up from the restaurant and though now he is only bringing in people who are finishing their meal downstairs he plans to open it to the public. It, like the restaurant, is about the size of a hotel room. This meal is a stunning example of the pleasure Japanese cuisine can offer.

Serious, fun, delicious, a small but lively crowd, I would give it my highest recommendation to anyone serious and a student of great cuisine, a restaurant mindful of the past with a steady and discerning eye towards the true benefits the future has to offer, an experience reflecting the talent and passion of the man who created it.

Azabu Yukimura (My Highest Recommendation.)

1-5-5 Azabujuban Minato-ku Tokyo 106-0045 JAPAN 1999

Dom Perignon 1995 Ramonet Chassagne Montrachet "Morgeot"

1985 Leroy Chambolle Musigny

P.S. We drank wine at most of our meals on the trip, even the traditional Japanese ones, and we were not alone. It seems that a lot of restaurants are encouraging wine with the traditional Japanese fare. Many seem to be building small lists for their restaurants. I have found that to my palate that Champagne is extremely versatile with the diverse aspects of meals here, especially the cooked dishes and Burgundy of great provenance is the surprise with first rate sushi and sashimi dishes.

Restaurant Koju (or Ginza Kojyu)

Koju is a traditional yet contemporary restaurant that reflects the southern Japanese heritage of its chef-owner Mr. Tooru Okuda. It is a small restaurant of only 6 comfortable seats at a counter with two private rooms of 4 persons each in the back. There is a staff of 8 that take care of the clients. It is located in the heart of Ginza and currently has ***stars in the Tokyo Red Guide.

It is my experience here that I start to understand the real difference that separates the best of Japan and what the West has to offer. How many ***stars are there in the Western world where the chef is there standing and working just in front of you, concerned for your well being, and applying his talent, exercising his vision in such an intimate relationship that only gets better as it is forged over time? My host considers Koju his favorite restaurant in Tokyo and in the highest echelon. It is a perfect scenario for my birthday dinner. One is seated in a small comfortable room completely paneled in blond wood. It is a serene environment, quiet and calm.

The first dish that came out was a pinshell or tairagai which somewhat resembles a large scallop in an over sized mussel shell. It was served grilled and then chilled in the shell with a complex salad of 12 different early spring vegetables. It was all moistened with a very light broth that had a slightly bitter tinge to it. There is an early spring culture here of the first season’s vegetables being foraged on hilly slopes as they start to poke through late snow falls. This continues a thread through all the meals I have now had here in which they start of with a delicate, subtle dish with bitter tones to it to stimulate the appetite. I find the bitterness is a great foil for setting up the rest of the meal. Incredible light and delicate, balanced with superb vegetable quality.

A perfect dashi, complex and deep, crystal clear through impeccable technique, arrived in a lidded bowl that contained a small square of gluten tofu for texture, some shiitake mushrooms and another piece of delicate white fish. Outstanding.

Sashimi. Wild bluefin toro from Kyushu as it is time for the seasonal run there. There are two pieces from the belly and one from the back. Sea bream that had been "relaxed" from both the belly and back, and some scored thick slices of big fin squid. We were instructed to have the first tuna with only sea salt and then the rest with soy and wasabi. The squid and bream were recommended to have with only sudachi citrus and sea salt. Small pieces of blanched bream skin go into soy with wasabi. There were small pieces of mountain yam on the plate, the potato of a slightly gelatinous texture meant to accompany the fish. The tuna is full of a deep type of flavor, a seamless balance of flesh and fat with nary a blemish. We were told that sea bream should be as fresh as possible but also to have a fish not in rigor so it is relaxed. Fresh fish in rigor is a flaw, so techniques such as ikejime are practiced. The squid had a mild flavor but with that unusual texture that I think of as "squeaky.” Notice that we were both served the same dish with our portions at the opposite end of the platter.

The main course was a southern Japanese version of mar y muntanya. On the platter was a cattle breed raised Kobe style in Kyushu that had been grilled with salt. There was also a grilled piece of amadai or tilefish with sea salt.

But, oh, what a piece of fish! Red tilefish only feed on a diet of crab and their meaty flesh with a subtle pink overtone reflect this. This filet came from a 3 kilo fish and had special properties that one only associates with large mature turbots. In this small piece there were several textures, meaty, soft, gelatinous, crispy, smoked and steamed. The complexity of a mouthful defies description. These two items were served separately on the same platter (again for both of us) with grilled young bamboo shoots, spring onions,sudachi citrus and fukinoto, a Japanese vegetable that has added bitter elements early in the meal. What confident cooking!

Fried tofu with a small southern shrimp paste mixed into it was fried and is served in a light broth. It also hadwarabi, a southern mountain vegetable and a mature version of fukinoto seen the previous course. A small delicious bite that signals a quiet retreat from the heights of the tilefish.

The rice dish is a made to order pot of rice with tiny baby scallops and herbs. Outstanding. The rest was a bento for us for lunch the next day. 

Desserts were artfully presented and delicious. A tomato sorbet with tomato jelly, high in acid. A classic dessert called anmitsu (i think) with bean paste and fruit, including amaoh strawberries and a sakegelee Chef Okuda is an immense talent who is working within a very codified tradition.

His is a personal cuisine with a sense of place, a reflection of who he is and where he's from. His ingredients are seasonal and top quality. His enthusiasm shows in the generous staff and overall happiness of the space. Unlike a lot of his countrymen he has embraced Michelin. He says foreigners are requesting spots in large numbers to visit the restaurant and he loves it. He says he is exposed to new ideas and can interact with different cultures. "How can I not benefit from that?" he asks.

Koju deserves high rankings. It is also on the upper level of the three star strata. Warmth, passion, a quiet confidence in their own abilities make we want to return again as soon as possible even if i have to hope on a plane halfway around the world. Worth a special journey, they say and without a doubt, one of the great culinary experiences of my life.

1999 Dom Perignon

2001 Dugat-Py Gevrey Chambertin "Coeur du Roy"

Koju (Ginza Kojyu) (My highest recommendation, without hesitation.)

Daini Sanyuu Building 1 8-5-25 Ginza Chyuouku Tokyo 104-0061 Japan

Tel. 03-6215-9544 Fax. 03-6215-9545

Sushi Mizutani

After a long night before we had decided to take it easy on our last full day in Tokyo. We had plans for an Italian meal this evening so we decide to have a sushi lunch.

Hachiro Mizutani. Mizutani, the legend. Trained by Jiro...

We went down to Ginza, waited outside a nondescript building and then at 11:30 we walked down into a tiny basement to a small doorway. We went in, the second party to arrive. Really tiny with a counter of 10 seats, it had a degree of understated elegance that was pleasing to the eye. The sensei behind the counter greeted us and chatted with my host for a few minutes. What took place then was, along with sushi Masa (Roppongi, not New York!) a couple of nights before was the best sushi experience of my life. It is amazing how rice and fish, even the "same" fish can be interpreted so differently and be expressive in such different ways. Mizutani is elegance personified. And what fish! What tuna!

Mizutani, along with Jiro get the best set aside, by hard fought reputation over the years and woe to the suppliers who don’t do so. Masa's rice earlier in the week emphasized vinegar and is incredibly delicate, barely keeping together as you lift it to your mouth. Sublime. Mizutani's rice is slightly sweeter and little bit stickier. They both were incredible, slightly warm, just a touch warmer than your mouth’s temperature, the same as the fat in the tuna. I can't decide which I prefer, nor do I feel compelled to but, to just to celebrate the differences, the beauty of it all.

Barely talking or acknowledging anything, looking down at you over the top of his glasses, as if to judge you and your reaction every step of the way, it is a rarified, dignified masterpiece where the explosion is the perfect balance. He possesses thin, long elegant hands and fingers. No wasted motion, almost looking bored, watching him work was a life lesson. I showed a keen interest and respect with an occasional question or two. He told me he was leaving in a week to go to Paris. It appears he has been adopted by Yannick Alleno of Le Meurice who was having him visit to cook for/with him. They had become good friends and colleagues. He actually started warming up to me at the end allowing a smile, and removing his glasses for a photo at the end of the meal. It must have been my effusive praise the whole way. However, near the end of the meal we were given two pieces of kampyo-maki, a roll consisting of the outside of a long squash like vegetable that traditionally will end a sushi meal. I ate one piece and chatted briefly with the lady next to me and then got a piece of bonito nigiri to finish. Mizutani came over and i started to tell him how great the bonito was. He stared at me hard, opened his eyes wide and shot a glance at my last uneaten piece of maki, then back to me with a frown.

"Eat it now," he seemed to say.

“Yes sir.” We started with sashimi and went into nigiri afterwards...

We drank beer followed by a small bottle of Kamotsuru daiginjo sake.

Sashimi: Madai, or Sea bream, cut thick 3 thick slices of warm, large wild abalone from the lip, inside and inside plus foot. Stupefying. How can anything at all taste so good?

Aji or horse mackerel. Easily the best of the trip.

Maguro chu toro. Grand flavor.

Then on to sushi: Kohada or gizzard shad.

Ika or squid.

We move on to a tuna flight which turns out to be a master class of what tuna is all about and what it can be. Maguro akame or red meat tuna from Kagoshima.

Maguro chu toro nigiri.

Then toro, of the highest echelon.

Akagai or red clam.

Tairagai or pinshell.

Baby scallops. Amazing chewy texture!

Mirugai or geoduck clam from Tokyo Bay.

Sayori. Super fatty, the best of the trip.

Kuruma ebi, the great brown shrimp. Sweet as candy.

Sea urchin from Hokkiado. Sweet and almost no brininess at all.

Anago or sea eel.

Akagai-maki, the red clam in a roll.

Kampyo-maki, the vegetable roll.

Katsuo nigiri, the first fresh bonito of the trip.

Tamagoyaki to finish.

A destination worthy of all its accolades.

Sushi Mizutani (My Highest Recommendation, without hesitation)

Ginza Seiwa Silver Bldg B1F 8-2-10 Ginza, Chuo-ko Tokyo 104-0061 Japan

Tel-Fax +81.3.3573.5258 

Note: This article was published in 2008.  Sushi Mizutani was closed on the 29th of October, 2016 due to Hachiro Mizutani's retirement.