Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Tokyo in 40: Mo-DEN Kaiseki

After breakfast, I managed a quick nap in my hotel room (thanks Hilton for letting me check in at 8am - must be my record of earliest check in at a hotel), and after that I was all refreshed and ready for lunch at Den, a restaurant owned by the young Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa that many of my friends have gone and loved, and now it became so popular that I needed to call them a month in advance to confirm a spot.

The restaurant has recently moved to a more central neighborhood called Jingu-mae (not far away from the Meiji Jingu shrine and park) and it was a quick and pleasant walk from the nearest metro station. The place took up the space in the lobby level of a low-rise building in a quiet neighborhood and is spacious and homey with an open design, with the communal table in the center and the open kitchen right behind. There's a tall counter in between the kitchen and the dining area we couldn't really see the cooking actions, but the setup allows Chef Zaiyu-san's team to have full view of their customers and adjust the serving speed accordingly.

This afternoon I shared the table with 10 other customers coming from all over the place - a couple from New York, some epicureans from Holland, a certain French chef making a name in Paris and now with a second restaurant in London, and a family from Hong Kong. As everyone settled down with our first drink (a choice of champagne, sake or juice), our lunch feast began.

Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa represents a new generation of Japanese-trained chefs applying traditional ingredients and techniques for more western-leaning and modern-style cuisine. At Den there's no menu per se, but followed a certain pattern with small changes throughout based on seasonal ingredients to keep the menu fresh. We began with a Monaka sandwich, traditionally served as sweet snacks but here it's our first savory course. In between this closed wafer sandwich served inside a paper wrapper was foie gras terrine, persimmon jam and bits of daikon pickles. It was delicious with the smooth and creamy foie gras paired with the sweet persimmon jam, and the bit of pickles gave this some crunchy bite.

It was then followed by a colorful presentation of a chilled summer salad, with the junsai (water shield) mixed with bits of passionfruits, basil seeds, rhubarb puree and watermelon chunks. Junsai was commonly used as an appetizer ingredient in traditional Japanese meal, but it's the first time I saw them used as part of a fruit salad, adding that hint of umami and accent of acidity into this refreshing dish. Then the iconic chicken wing arrived, playfully presented in a KFC-knockoff takeaway box (dubbed DFC). Inside was a perfectly cooked chicken wings with pickle stuffing, in a personalized presentation for each customer (mine came with a hand-drawn Hong Kong flag) It was finger-licking good.

Next was the fatty Aji sashimi lightly marinated with soy sauce served with wasabi and shiso flower. This is perhaps the most traditional sauce with the special delivery from the highly rated sushi-ya in Nihonbashi (with their sous chef spending the day at Den's kitchen) Then it was our main course of Kinka Buta pork shoulder with Japanese sansei (mountain vegetables) The pork - from Yamagata Prefecture and belongs to the same breed as what's used for Chinese Jinhua ham, we were told - has a clean flavor and tender after slow-cooked in dashi. On the side was seasonal mountain vegetables momijigasa and miso paste mixed with fukinoto (butterbur bulb). It's not something technically sophisticated, but I love this unique combination of seasonal ingredients and flavors.

We continued with yet another savory course. It was introduced as the Gar-DEN salad, with over 20 different vegetables all prepared separately and differently. Reminded me of Chef Massimo Bottura's "Caesar Salad in Bloom" dish, but only similar in concept but totally different taste. In the midst of the beautiful colors from the vegetables and edible flowers was a small piece of deep-fried grasshopper. Chef Zaiyu came over to explain the grasshopper came from the Noma Mexico team whom he visited a few weeks ago. Didn't do much to the overall taste but it's kinda cute.

We finished with the rice in casserole served with pickles, just like a proper Japanese meal. We were lucky to have two different types – with one topped with crispy sakura-ebi, and one with raw shirasu, the small whitebaits commonly served as rice toppings, and finely-diced chives. Both pot of rice I love, but when chef asked whether I wanted a refill, I asked for a second bowl of the shirasu type – I was just amazed at such straight-forward home-style cooking yielded such unique taste.

We then had two courses of dessert. Our first dessert was served off a spade (not edible, unfortunately) put on a faux newspaper placemat. On the placemat was a hidden message from the chef, and the dessert was called "Tea-ramisu", a play on the famous Italian dessert, with matcha instead of coffee, and underneath was cream cheese mousse mixed with bamboo charcoal powders, barley and chocolate bits on the side. And the second one was served in an espresso cup (with a play on the Starbucks logo with chef’s anime portrait painted on) – again, a fusion creation with cane sugar pudding mixed with caramel and black truffles. I loved both of them.

Went light on sake for lunch today and just did one glass that they poured in the beginning – didn’t want to fall asleep in the middle of the meal for drinking too much. Round and dry but still refreshingly crisp. Good with the food and with this weather.

Overall I think the meal was delightful, and everyone enjoyed the fine execution and friendly hospitality of Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa. He was serious at times, making sure the food courses were well-prepared and delivered to his customers, then he's flamboyant and jolly with many of his playful dishes, and even brought out his pet dog to say hi to us at the end of our meal. Many related to kaiseki meal as something up-tight and ceremonious, but he showed us a proper meal can be creative and fun. We were glad to have made friends around the table and with the team as well, and felt we were just like at someone's home enjoying an extraordinary meal. I can totally see why the restaurant and chef was so popular and I would be looking forward to seeing and trying many of his new dishes in the future.

More photos in Flickr:

When? June 3 2017
Where? DEN, Architect house hall JIA, 2-3-18 Jingumae, Shibuya Ku, Tokyo
Menu Highlights? Gar-DEN salad with grasshopper
Drink? Abekan Daiginjo – Abekan Shuzoten, Miyagi Prefecture

The rest of my Tokyo weekend:

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