We can’t believe it’s been a year already – I’d say what a long strange trip it’s been, but we’ve only just disembarked! We thank you sincerely for visiting us and for adding your thoughtful comments to our posts. There are more recipes along the way we’re very excited to share, and beyond those there is still a barely explored world of ingredients and techniques. We’ll keep at producing dishes like you’ve always and/or never had; hope you’ll keep coming back to check them out.
But first, on this occasion, we’d like to look back at a very memorable trip we took, and a mind-blowing meal encountered thereon. This was the trip where we first encountered tofu-misozuke and amazake, explored the Japanese drinking-food scene (izakaya), and ate an astonishing meal prepared by a chef known for embracing modern technology to better express his unique vision for the elaborate and canonized traditions of kaiseki meals. Have we mentioned we desperately want to be like Chef Yamamoto?
We were so inspired and energized after the trip, our whole outlook on cooking and food changed. Our playing in the kitchen took on new ambitions and urgency and became “experiments”. With interesting data came the natural urge to “publish”, which eventually led to our carving out this little niche on the Internet.
Without further ado, the most amazing meal we’ve ever had:
One cannot be in love with food and not be intrigued by kaiseki meals. Modern multi-course tasting menus owe a clear debt to this ancient tradition. And yet, we were intimidated by the richness of that tradition and also the price tag of even the least expensive kaiseki meal. Once we decided to splurge to celebrate some good fortunes and important milestones in our lives that year, the first concern was still a powerful deterrent.
This was after all food that aspired to be high art; not just that, but the artform has been practiced for centuries. The visceral rewards of such a meal could almost be assumed automatically, but how much of the creative effort would we be missing if we approached such an elaborate meal without understanding the traditions and conventions behind it? More crassly put, we wanted as much bang for our buck as possible – we demanded an intellectual appreciation of the meal as well as a visceral one.
The reviews of RyuGin we read were almost universally ecstatic. What intrigued us and set RyuGin apart from other restaurants was the chef’s fearless use of any technology that would help him achieve his vision. We especially appreciated the anecdote about how he took a particularly recalcitrant fish to have a CAT scan in order to construct a 3D model of the fish’s skeletal arrangements and plot how best to debone it. There was also his stunt at a chefs conference where he silk-screened QR code of the url of the restaurant onto a plate with a simple miso–squid ink paste.
We were determined to experience the kaiseki tradition, but while we were still just barely wading in, the chef’s playfulness and modern outlook provided other means for us to appreciate his creative prowess. Just as important to us, though, was the recognition that his techniques were an elaboration of the past rather than abandonment of it. We wanted to be led into the tradition, after all.
Looking back at these pictures, after having educated ourselves some on kaiseki meals, and having had a few more modern tasting menus in our belly, we were struck by how successfully the experimental techniques were made to serve traditional kaiseki aesthetic goals. The paper thin potato chip, the pistachio tofu, the 20 different vegetables all made some use of molecular techniques, and yet what impressed us was not the novelty but the flavors and textures of the ingredients and how they were combined in surprising and well-thought out ways. They were all familiar and recognizable, we all knew they were capable of those qualities, and yet we’ve never had them so good! In fact, it was only afterward that we wondered about how dishes were made; during the meal we were just marveling at the quality of the food itself.
The baby sea eels were delicious; the squid was so finely cut and had an amazing texture; toro (middle piece) was melt-in-your-mouth yummy…all the sashimi pieces were served with vegetables which provided very interesting combinations of textures and flavors.
And of course, part of the reasons these dishes tasted so good was that the Chef only used top-notch ingredients. RyuGin follows the same calendar as the Tsukiji fish market because nothing less than very fresh fish and seafood will do.
This was yet another mind-blowing dish: the writing and the fish were actually miso pastes and squid ink printed on the white plate. It was to be mopped up by the eraser-looking tofu pieces to be eaten with the fish…the full combination of both miso pastes and the fish was incredible… and fun!
By the time we got through the meaty beef course, we were more than completely stuffed. Then came the offer: there was unlimited soba and rice for us if we’d like to eat some more! “As much as you like” were the words, we believe. We were faced with a difficult choice: on the one hand, we probably shouldn’t eat anymore; on the other hand, we’d love to see how Chef Yamamoto played with basic dishes, too. Well, we lied…the choice wasn’t difficult at all! And we were glad we chose to eat more, otherwise, we wouldn’t have experienced the playful combination above.
As we learned more about food and experience more of the world, we’ve come to appreciate this meal even more. We’ve gained an appreciation for how closely the chef adhered to the overarching structure and philosophy of a kaiseki meal, all the while departing from expectations in delightful ways. The above dessert, for instance, was probably a visual play on a traditional dessert of roasted persimmons. And Bird is still pining for another taste of that heavenly dish. She can’t stop wishing she could figure out how to make that dessert!
In any case, we really want to be back (despite the price tag…that meal remains the most expensive meal we have had, and yet it is the only one where we feel it was worth every yen). Will we be disappointed and find that we were more easily impressed back then? We hope not and now we have more reasons not to expect such an outcome. Reviewing these pictures and reminiscing about the meal have revealed to us more to look forward to the next time we can visit the restaurant. We hold dear to our hearts those experiences that grow and mature as we do, delighting us anew with previously overlooked details, and our first RyuGin meal had done just that.
Sigh, we can’t wait for our next meal at RyuGin. In fact, Bird kept checking airfares and calendars while we were writing this post. She really wanted to find a way for us to jump on a plane bound for Tokyo ASAP. Probably won’t happen any time soon, but when we do go, there will be another report!
Happy 1st anniversary!