Kawamura: Beyond Great Steak, the Peak of Yoshoku in Tokyo

If Japan embodies a uniquely assimilative spirit — in language, architecture, landscapes — Tokyo can appear downright chameleonesque. Roland Barthes once observed that Tokyo is a city whose geographical center is empty; a centrifugal movement leads around but never towards a source. In some ways, from a foreigner’s perspective such as Barthes’, the experience can be vertiginous, not unlike witnessing a bunraku play: the puppeteers remain visible but the puppet is so seamlessly orchestrated that you can easily forget that the spectacle is a pure construct. The performative aspect of Japan is at least as old as the famous codified court manners of the Heian period portrayed in Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji. Already at this period, China functions as a culture whose mythology would be copied and repeated in Japan’s unique brand of assimilative mythopoesis.

Cuisine in Japan is no less assimilative and performative. In addition to well-known examples such as tempura, yōshoku is a self-reflexive optic of a Japanese observing himself cooking Western dishes. I have thus far had only mild interest in Western-influenced restaurants in Japan, until I visited a few ingredient-driven temples over the past 12 months: Kawamura, the 7-seat counter restaurant specializing in wagyu and abalone; Comptoir Feu, a creative kappo restaurant in Osaka; and CHIUnE, which references other cuisines such as Piemonte for its consommé and China for its sublime shaoxing ice cream.

It is implausible that there exists a French bistro or brasserie in France that sources this quality of beef for a tartare and seasons to order so precisely, or that extracts as much flavor and texture from the beef bones for the most concentrated and yet balanced consomme I have tasted.

Technically, the latter two restaurants are not yōshoku per se, as they do not rehearse the staples of the repertoire (hamburg steak, curry rice, et al.), whereas Kawamura san mainly cooks within these parameters. Normally yōshoku as a genre does not prioritize the ingredient foremost but rather the established codes of the dish. Kawamura is thus an exception in sourcing premium ingredients for the familiar repertoire. Gastroville former contributor Mikael Jonnson was among the first to expose the qualities of Kawamura’s wagyu to the anglophone world. It bears adding to Mikael’s account that Kawamura is probably the highest elevation of a yōshoku restaurant. It could only exist on some cumulus altitude where earthbound concessions had disappeared entirely from one’s ken, which is probably no metaphor in many a penthouse of Ginza. Whereas generally yōshoku restaurants recycle B-kyu-gurume (B-class gourmet), or soul food Japanese riffs on Western ideas, such as omurice, with only minor distinctions, Kawamura focuses on sourcing the best ingredients across Japan and the West. He creates what might be considered the Platonist Form of French and fusion staples.

It is implausible that there exists a French bistro or brasserie in France that sources this quality of beef for a tartare and seasons to order so precisely, or that extracts as much flavor and texture from the beef bones for the most concentrated and yet balanced consommé I have tasted. Meanwhile, Kawamura’s historical-based fusion dishes are equally impressive, the ise ebi curry rice with the concentrated crustacean flavor, more notable for the complexity of the sauce than for the pre-cooked lobster meat. (Curry rice is a Japanese import from English sailors, whose country of course borrowed the spice profile from India. It is as such, a twice-removed performance but one rehearsed most maniacally in Japan’s myriad specialists in this dish.) Once the beef yakimeishi (Chinese fried rice) hits the frying pan, your nose is certain to perk up.

Mikael wrote that few have mastered Escoffier as well as Kawamura, and I would add that he shows why cuisine has not really made many strides since then.

One aspect that makes this counter experience exceptional is the way Kawamura san will listen to requests and personalize what he cooks for you, within a reasonable limit. Despite what one may expect, this is not always a given in counter dining in Japan, especially where customers begin to exceed what the chef can handle on an authentically personal basis. I find this can be the case more often with the more commodified restaurants that have opened up to online concierge services. Introduction-only kappo lend themselves to a more leisurely and less rote progression of the meal. Kawamura sits seven guests arranged at a right-angle and offers a full glimpse of the chef and a couple staff working in the tight space.

At Kawamura, you should simply explain what you enjoy, and he will probably be able to accommodate your request. Besides sourcing premium ingredients, Kawamura san’s technique is impeccably refined classical French. Mikael wrote that few have mastered Escoffier as well as Kawamura, and I would add that he shows why cuisine has not really made many strides since then. Kawamura is not aimed at making a statement, except the truism that well-sourced luxury ingredients in large doses most often taste great. Kawamura san revisits Western dishes from the inside, intending to infuse the repertoire with finer technique and better ingredients, rather than add too many personal flourishes.

In contrast, at Comptoir Feu in Osaka, the reserved chef Sato san conceives of novel dishes that are often successful, based on a sound French background in excellent saucing (no frothed emulsions!) and an intelligent experimentation in seasoning with some exotic spices (foie gras sauce with Chinese mala peppercorn, or paprika sauce, in two memorable instances). Kawamura may not be bent on this kind of invention, but he is notorious in certain circles for frying katsu of sizable tuber magnatum and for buying up a good percentage of Périgord truffles for his own brand of picnic sandwiches. If this is culinary invention, then it is the kind that only the id could dream up.

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While there are full abalone courses at Kawamura in the summer months, there is one signature dish available year-round that I recommend trying at least once and primarily for the caviar: Kazakhstan caviar and abalone with a mild sour cream sauce. The abalone is steamed on the side of al dente by mushiawabi standards (he may slice it if you request but left it as a “steak” in my case), flavorful from an ample diet of kelp, but the caviar threatens to upstage it. Caviar in restaurants is usually disappointing, but here you doubt you could source a tin this quality if you so desired. It is the most full-bodied caviar I have tasted. In the future, I would simply request a dollop on its own. Comptoir Feu served a more cohesive caviar course with a sublime onion potage seasoned only with salt. The excellent Russian beluga on toast points was one of the most successful caviar dishes I have tasted, but the caviar Kawamura sources is hors concours.

It may seem textbook, but a steak tartare on perfectly griddled toast chased with champagne is a pleasure that can sometimes be forgotten.

The three beef-based dishes that should not be missed at Kawamura are the following:

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The hand-cut beef tartare contrasts the overt sweetness of wagyu fat to the subtle tang of the caper/negi/yolk sauce. As expected, this is less iron-forward on the palate than a lean tartare would be. The beef is given a thick dice so you get some bite despite the textural give of wagyu. It appears that premium toasters have begun to hit the market in Japan, ones that are designed to toast a single piece to perfection. I have no experience using them, but I doubt they can replicate the texture and temperature of Kawamura’s. It may seem textbook, but a steak tartare on perfectly griddled toast chased with champagne is a pleasure that can sometimes be forgotten. This one is likely to stick in your memory for a very long time.

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Perhaps even more memorable is the beef consomme, a studied balance in flavor, aroma and texture. I recommend you forgo the spoon and lift the teacup by the handles to your nose and imbibe slowly in order to experience the aroma with the flavors and finally the texture that is like a glycerol-rich wine. Let it roll around on your tongue for a moment. Umami is now a cliche referring to a whole host of flavors, but until you taste this consommé you cannot understand what beef savoriness can achieve, and I am fine calling such a dish “reference”. There is always the risk of extracting too much sweetness from beef bones, but in this case the rich texture exists without a cloying finish. This is the work of a master technician, not simply a meticulous procurer of ingredients. (I have yet to taste the chef Furuta’s consomme, but his son Satoshi’s (of CHIUnE) Piemontese-inspired parsut ham from Bon Dabon consomme with a shaving of tuber magnatum leads me to believe the father’s is likely also worth seeking out.)

Kawamura’s chateaubriand is deep in a complex way that even the great txuleta of Galician blonde breed cannot achieve in their more overt mineral attack.

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Finally, Kawamura’s chateaubriand, unsalted, is grilled leisurely over low heat. You are given a dull-edged knife which may be a cute conceit but which just barely does the job. Japanese generally prefer the soft (yawarakai) texture of filet /chateaubriand. In my experience, with wagyu the more deeply flavorful ribeye can be overly unctuous, while chateaubriand generally lacks the intense beefiness of the ribeye. In both cases, I usually find it a compromise.

Not in the case of Kawamura’s chateaubriand, which is deep in a complex way that even the great txuleta of Galician blonde breed cannot achieve in their more overt mineral attack. The cuisson is also more precise than what you will encounter in an asador, where the crust can either be overly caramelized or the beef flavor masked by an overpowering smokiness. Kawamura’s is a more uniform cuisson of medium rare, without a distinguishable crust. Less overtly impactful than txuleta but reverberating with a broad array of gamey/maillard tones, it is a steak that everyone who appreciates beef should taste at least once to recalibrate their palate. There is no wasabi to season, but rather salt, mustard and soy. Especially with a cut this thick, you will want to sprinkle some salt to serve as a foil. It reveals its intensity only when perked up, and I found that my order of preference was first, salt, second, mustard, third soy.

It appears that Kawamura san does not have a single regional or farm source but, like other top beef restaurants in Japan, appeals to a handful of bovine experts who select specimens of Tajima strain, Sanda or generalized Kobe breeds for restaurants and provide certificates for them.

Kawamura is a case where a restaurant not rooted in its place of origin is paradoxically right at home.

It is popular to order a wagyu sando (sandwich) with the remainder of the steak, but I recommend that instead you finish it sur place. The bread buffers the flavor of the steak too much and while the tomato paste is concentrated in flavor, it is a shame to mask the flavor of this wagyu. Unadulterated, a pinch of salt is enough. I have not tasted Kawamura’s gyukatsu sandwich either, but Iida kaiseki in Kyoto remains my reference for panko-fried wagyu.

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Finish with a creme caramel that would be hard to find at this level of refinement in the Western world. Kawamura is a case where a restaurant not rooted in its place of origin is paradoxically right at home. Or rather, it reevaluates what place means for a city like Tokyo. One might claim that yōshoku, like Tokyo, is a paradigm of the Japanese spirit of studied assimilation. However you interpret Kawamura, it is simply an exceptional restaurant in sourcing and technique and merits a visit by anyone curious what the very most premium ingredients can achieve in the hands of a chef catering to a clientele for whom concessions do not exist.

Kawamura encourages BYOB and I think a sturdy pinot champagne can carry you through the meal, to pair with abalone/caviar, beef tartare and even the chateaubriand. I brought the non-vintage Maillons by Ulysse Collin, picked up a ten-minute walk at the shop Kimijimaya in Ginza. The people at this shop are friendly, though the wine selection is limited to the shelves of a walk-in closet. They will chill your wine for you in advance if you call in the request.