Monday, October 1, 2012

The wow meal at Kikuchi


There's little doubt in my mind that the omakase sushi meal at Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi was epic, but if I have to name my favorite meal during the 10-day stay in Tokyo, that belongs to the dinner at Kikuchi, a restaurant in Nishi-azabu which specializes in kappou gomi - which literally means the culinary art of cutting and cooking.

This restaurant is almost impossible to find - first it's not close to a metro station. Situated between Omotesando and Roppongi stations, it's almost a good 20 minute walk from either ones - trust me, it's no fun either walking in the summer heat or the winter freeze. That's in addition to the fact that it's located in a quiet residential neighborhood - without GPS and map on my iPhone, I would have been lost multiple times already on my way from Roppongi. So my advice? Take a taxi.

Steaming, grilling, cutting, cooking... can you believe they are all done by one chef in this small setting?
The restaurant is located on a second floor of a small building, with just a small sign hanging outside. Reservation is a must not only because the restaurant has only 7 seats at counter and then a table for 4 by the side, Chef Kikuchi bought only just enough ingredients for the evening bookings and most of the food required hours of preparation in advance. When you book, you have a choice of 2 menus - the basic one that costs around 11000 yen, and the premium one for 16000 yen - the difference is mostly the ingredients served. I picked the basic menu, and left the rest to the chef.

Elegant and cozy counter space
I arrived just slightly before 8pm and found that there were only 2 other diners that evening, who probably just came in about 15 minutes before I walked in. The restaurant is tiny by all standards - other than the counter seats and the table, there's only the open kitchen with stoves on one side, the middle working area in front of the counter and a little pantry hidden away on the other side.  Other than that, the decor is simple but classy - it's almost like walking into someone's home for a meal.

From top left (clockwise) - Steamed Ishikawa Imo, marinated fresh sea weed and steamed sea urchin
My first course is a trio of small appetizer dishes - steamed Ishikawa Imo, mozuku su (marinated fresh sea weed) and steamed uni with shiokobu. Ishikawa Imo has a shape and size of a new potato and taste of a taro with slimy texture, and it's simply steamed with a hint of salt. I often has uni (sea urchin) eaten raw but this steamed version presented an entirely different texture and flavors. I also like the refreshing vinegar taste of the fresh seaweed soaked in mirin and vinegar marinate, with the texture like tiny threads of jelly noodles.

Chef-owner Kikuchi Takashi
Kappou cuisine (割烹料理) is very similar to kaiseki but less formal. Instead of being served by in a nicely decorated dining room by ladies dressed in kimonos (as in a typical kaiseki meal setting), kappou cuisine is usually served by the itamae (chef) himself, by the counter. Here, it is a one-man show by Chef-owner Kikuchi Takashi - he cuts, he cooks, he serves, he washes... it's really hard to imagine how he managed to do all that while letting everyone's dinners run flawlessly and smoothly.

Aomori suri nagashi
Futamono (蓋物), which literally means lidded course, is usually a soup. The course tonight was called "Aomori suri nagashi" and was presented in a golden-colored lidded bowl, with tiny water drops sprayed on the lid, a tradition of serving to show the lid was not touched before putting on the table. I loved the complex flavors hidden in the clear consomme-like soup with green threads of fresh seaweed - I am sure it's cooked with many more ingredients other than what I saw in the bowl.

Hamo no yubiki
My third course is cooked with Hamo (鱧魚). Hamo, or pike conger, is a summer delicacy especially in the southern Kansai region. Hamo no yubiki is a classic way of serving the fish, by blanching the meat in boiling broth briefly and serve with ume (plum) sauce (in a sense similar to sashimi). Don't know if you have encountered a live pike conger before, but this is definitely not the most beautiful fish you will ever see, and it's so full of bones that it took hours by a skilled chef to delicately cut the meat and bones finely (while keeping it in one-piece) so we can eat with ease. The fish has a rather subtle taste, a chewy texture and a slight hint of fattiness that must be enhanced by the additional of savory sweet plum sauce - the result is a very refreshing summer sort of dish. 

Shima-aji
Mukozuke (向付) is typically a sashimi course, and I was served a few generously-cut pieces of shima aji. It's so fresh that it's tasty without any need for additional seasonings (even though grated ginger and soy sauce was served alongside the dish). I also love the firm and oily texture as this is right in season - as in everything I had that evening.

Mana-gatsuo no shioyaki
Mana-gatsuo (bonito) is another in-season fish species at this time of the year and this has become my main course of the evening (yakimono course 焼物). It's slightly seasoned with salt, grilled above charcoal fire and served with grilled corn on the cob and a piece of Japanese lime by the side. It's moist and firm and with just the right amount of crunchiness on the surface from the charcoal burn. I had this in sashimi at Sukiyabashi Jiro just a few days ago but I prefer this one actually - I guess grilling in Bincho charcoal just brought the best out of this fish with awesome texture.

shiro datsu no fuku mase
Chef Kikuchi didn't speak a lot of English so sometimes it's hard to fully understand what I ate that evening - but I did ask him to write up the menu for me so I could go home and research. Yet it still took me a while to figure out what "shiro-datsu" was. Well, remember the Ishikawa Imo that was served as the first course? Well shiro datsu is its stem (while imo obviously is the root). Here it is finely sliced, slowly braised in broth until it was softened and the broth reduced to a potage-like texture, then served with grated ginger. 

Hamo Nabe
Towards the end of the meal, I was given a second serving of hamo, in the form of a nabe (claypot) with clear broth simmered with onions, mushrooms and parsley. While the first course of hamo no yubiki was light and refreshing, the nabe dish is much more intensely flavored yet retained the same hint of fresh fish taste.

My dinner was concluded with a bowl of hearty steamed rice. I know it may sound silly, but this rice was seriously good. It was steamed in an individual ceramic clay pot using new rice from Niigata. I finished it in no time as if I have never had a bowl of decent rice before. I also love the pickled vegetables and silver fish that served as condiments.

Two hours later after my dinner started, I left the building absolutely amazed. What looked like a simple dinner with a handful of simple dishes required hours of preparation and tremendous skills by the chef, and his intimate knowledge of all the food ingredients. It's often the simple things that differentiate between a good chef and a true master and nothing shows that more clearly than the art of kappou cuisine.

The dinner I just enjoyed - all the ingredients were prime for the season; the hamo was cut so carefully that there's no trace of bones; the mana-gatsuo was grilled perfectly that it's not overcooked on the surface and just cooked in the center... even the rice - it's perfectly cooked just at the moment it's placed in front of me. All these were done without use of any special equipment or troops of line cooks to ensure everything's done with pin-point accuracy - it's just the chef, the ingredients, his kitchen, and nothing else, and as everything's done right in front of the customer, there's absolutely no margin for errors or time to panic.

My favorite part of the kitchen - piles of beautiful serving wares!
All these required all-rounded skills in the kitchen as well - from sourcing the right, seasonal ingredients, to knowing the best way to prepare them; from knife skills, to mastering various cooking techniques key to Japanese cuisine; from preparing the perfect broth, to grilling the fish to perfect doneness. God knows how many years of training and experience that one needs to become a true kappou master, like what Kikuchi-san has achieved. 

At home I have a book written by Hirohisa Koyama - many considered to be the most authoritative figure in the Japanese culinary scene - which talks about the many simple things that are the key to Japanese cuisine. As I returned home from the trip after meals at Sukiyabashi Jiro, Kikuchi and several other fine restaurants I was lucky to have tried in these 10 days, I picked up the book and read it from front to back once again, and have a deeper appreciation with every word he said. What a treat - and I seriously doubt if there's anything quite like that anywhere else in the world

when? September 11, 2012
where? Kikuchi, Port shop home office Building 2F, 2-17-17, Nishiazabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo
menu highlights? Grilled Mana-gatsuo no Shioyaki
drinks? Sanno esshu Tokubetsu Junmai (参乃越州 特別純米)

Full set of pictures can be found here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/g4gary/sets/72157631667305375/

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