Normally I write about a three star meal in the few days that follow the experience. There is a degree of excitement and anticipation that keeps alive when you get to deeply think about the meal that was. Occasionally, especially on holidays, it is just too hard to find the time. That is not to say a serious delay is a negative measure.
After a great meal you have a glow. You can still almost taste some of the most exquisite dishes and smell the scents. Over time you lose many aspects, and those that last are often with you for life. Add in the travel element, and you are much more likely to remember some dining experiences with even more fondness. They are connected to holidays; less stress; more indulgence.
The weight of evidence suggests tonight is going to be an experience to behold. Good friends have been here and recommended it, but it wasn’t just them. In Tokyo, many restaurants do not accept foreign bookings, so our hotel was responsible for organising our visit to RyuGin. Walking up to the door there is nothing that suggests this is one of the best restaurants in this huge city.
As in all Japanese establishments, the welcome is warm and respectful. We are early to make sure there are no hiccups travelling to the quiet part of Roppongi, so we are shown upstairs to wait for our sitting. Funnily enough, with some nice green tea and a splendid room (more on this later) we suggest getting here early is a good idea.
Once led into the dining room we realise that the restraint of the entrance is no different here. It is very nice, and there are some dominant features, but it is certainly not elaborate. Given we are in a non-English speaking country we don’t expect to understand everything, but generally the staff deal well with our lack of Japanese.
Our first course is sea urchin packaged in crispy batter and seaweed, with broadbean and edamame soup. It is quite sensational. The sea urchin is unrecognisable and brings out softness and that subtle flavour, while the broadbean is beautifully seasoned. The soup is simply stunning. Salt is around the edge of the cup and I can’t stop until it’s gone, continuing to run my finger around the edge for more of that salty hit! The abalone in the second dish is the best I have ever tasted, in a deep cloudy broth with a white paste we’ve seen elsewhere but have no idea what it is.
Earlier we had been sitting in the waiting room admiring firstly the gigantic owls and then the video of the head chef’s exploits with cooking amazing produce. The dish we were presented with showed fabulous technique in the form of divine knife skills allowing eel to blossom like a flower. The flavours, especially the broth of Mt Fuji water, and glutinous vegetable scattered throughout, were probably too different to fully appreciate, but it was still a tremendous dish to eat.
Our sashimi course has challenge, beauty and intrigue. The challenge is the crab which is chewy and not everyone’s cup of tea, but I like it all the same. The Benito is absolutely gorgeous with not one flaw. It is the equal of the ootoro tuna sushi I earlier tried near the fish market as my best fish for the visit. The intrigue is the flat fish which is again a different texture to what you associate with sashimi, but is delightful and beautifully matched to the accompaniments, this one being salsa like.
The frightening looking fish, called Ayu is served next in the theatrical style some love and others despise! I love it, the challenge in presentation, and the impact it brings. The instructions given are three bites – one over the head to the wing, the next over the wing, and the last over the tail. Wow, the first bite is scary. Then you taste the impact of the char, reminiscent of great squid or sardines over charcoal in say Portugal. Then you calm and the next bite is delicious and all of a sudden you are dipping into the watermelon based sauce like a pro and absolutely loving it, trying to work out the next time you will eat Ayu again!
As Catherine would describe, the first half of our meal is different and confronting. But the second half is basically just awesome.
We are almost onto our beef course and we’ve already gone through about $160 on 4 glasses of premier cru Montrachet so spending another $130 on two glasses of red was a stretch but you only live once. If I had a critique it would be that the wine, as sublime as the limited options are, is nevertheless very limited and all very expensive. Finding some glasses to offer that are nice for $30 would really help our wallet! We only had the choice of two reds and both were very expensive by the glass.
Prior to the beef we had a surprise in the form of noodles and broth, a dense egg yolk sitting atop the noodles, looking very proud, and eating wonderfully. The terrific floor staff directing us to dip the noodles into the broth, which is consistent with the way connoisseurs would eat their noodles here in Japan.
The beef course was something to behold. Presented over a steaming contraption, it was completely rare and slowly being cooked above an onion, with a semi-glutinous broth and asparagus. It was so delicious it was gone in a flash, even with trying to have a sip of red between each taste. Left behind, the onion was about as great an onion I’ve eaten. And I never ever finish an entire onion portion.
We were really getting into a groove. This is thoughtful modern Japanese food and maybe a bit above our abilities, but intriguing and indulgent at the same time. The next course was chicken rice with a miso soup. The miso has an ode to the chrysanthemum flower which is a Japanese icon, and you could not believe it is tofu! Not only that, the miso is wonderful. The chicken rice has intricate knife skills being shone on the dish, but the flavour, whilst very nice, is not one of the better profiles of the evening. The chicken is fabulous though.
This took us to dessert. Absolutely no offence to Asia, but desserts here are different, and often more savoury than many other cuisines. So imagine our surprise when a deliciously balanced but sweet mango ice dessert with sweet mango concentrate comes to our table. It is hard to describe how good this was, but knowing this combination well, I can honestly say it was the best I’ve ever had, including several goes in Hong Kong.
Then to follow up and smack it out of the park comes a double take on sake, leading to me having a double take on how good these desserts were! A soufflé of sake and a sake ice cream hit the high notes. The soufflé is perfectly constructed and deep in the vessel, with a textured top, and soft bottom, with just the right balance of egginess. The ice cream keeps its form and actually tastes of the key ingredient. Knowing how difficult it is to achieve this I take my hat off to the chef and his team.
We finished with a matcha green tea as the night was ending, reflecting on a second half that was definitely more settling. It goes to show that in both Western and Eastern fine dining, being brought to the edge of your tastes by the chef is part of the experience. Sure, it should still be comfortable on the whole, but a few dishes outside your comfort zone brings the meal to an entirely different level. Several months later I look back at our time at RyuGin with fondness and respect.