Friday, September 23, 2011

KISAKU in Ginza : Tokyo's New Breed of Chefs-Proprietors

Tokyo delivers such divine dining experiences. I am always amazed at how good everything tastes. Thankfully, I have a dear Japanese friend who is as much of a gourmet as I am a gourmand.
His constant pleasure is to find new and excellent restaurants and when I am in Tokyo, he shares his latest and best discoveries with me.
It is through this friend that I was exposed to a different dining trend. All over Tokyo, there are small, intimate places -- sometimes 20 seaters, sometimes just 14 seaters, where young chefs are proprietors and where they serve up their own take on Japanese food.
Sometimes traditional, sometimes inventive and bold but always an astounding taste experience.
This last trip to Tokyo, my friend told me that he had again found a new small restaurant for us to try. He said it was in Ginza but as we walked from Shiodome towards Shimbashi and onwards, it seemed more in the direction of the Yurakucho area.

As we walked through Tokyo's deepening dusk, we almost missed the building. It was one of the many narrow buildings that stood side by side along the street, right by the JR railway tracks.

There are signboards and menus of the different restaurants occupying the building -- one restaurant per each floor. Our destination was at the very top, on the 6th floor of this building. A small elevator, big enough for just four persons would take us to the restaurant.

It had been a very warm day and I was parched after the 15 minute walk. An ice cold glass of beer was the very thing I needed to cool down. And one glass of beer is never really enough.

My friend had ordered the set menu. We were seated at the small counter as the small, 18 seater restaurant was fully booked. It was a good thing we were still able to get a reservation, albeit at the rather un-dinner like hour of 6:00 p.m.
First on the menu was a small cold salad of octopus and seaweed. Very refreshing -- I felt as if the ocean had suddenly materialized in the room.

Next up was a clear soup made with the very expensive mushroom I had seen earlier in the Tsukiji Outer Market. A piece of very soft fish which I was told was conger pike nestled on a spoonful of eggplant puree. Thin stalks of young asparagus and small slivers of tart and slightly bitter yuzu skin added to the complexity of flavors of this seemingly simple soup.

After the soup came a small dish of sashimi with slices of otoro or tuna belly, sole and mackerel.

My friend explained to the chef that I did not eat meat so instead of the grilled chicken that was part of the set menu, he prepared this utterly simple yet delicious slice of grilled alfonsino. Served with a slice of lemon and grated daikon, it was a truly melt- in- your- mouth taste experience.

Consider this golden brown, crisp, lightly salted skin of the grilled alfonsino -- it was heavenly! So decadently succulent, I wondered how could fish skin taste so good?

The chef had a whole range of different plates, trays, bowls, spoons -- he always chose the ones that best showed off the dish he was about to serve.

This next dish was another fish dish -- delicately steamed, right in the bowl that it was served in. A slice of soft cod in a lotus seed infused sweetish broth with a small smidgen of wasabi artfully placed on top.

The next dish was not part of the set menu but my friend explained that the simple tamagoyaki dish that seems just like scrambled eggs is always served up differently by each housewife, cook or chef. Each person brings his own stamp to this deceptively easy dish thus creating a unique taste.
My friend said that the chef made his tamagoyaki with shaved daikon and ordered one for me to try. I must admit, scrambled eggs pale in comparison to tamagoyaki.

When the chef placed individual bowls filled with rice and broth, I knew that this was the end
of the meal.
The Japanese, like the Chinese, finish up their meals with rice. Rice and broth make for comfort food and balance the meal at the very end.
The chef's version had steamed rice, seaweed strips, slices of white fish and sesame seeds in a yuzu flavored broth.

I was surprised to be served dessert at the very end. In this other restaurant that my friend and I frequent, much like this one and run by another young chef proprietor, no dessert comes with the meal.
At Kisaku, a small glass dish with a soft coconut cream based flan and topped with a dollop of green tea flavored syrup was a welcome distraction at the very end.

Here is a photo of the chef of KISAKU -- apparently the restaurant is also named after him.
He was warm, welcoming and engaged throughout the meal -- even though he sliced, prepared, cooked and plated each and every dish. All the cooking happens behind this counter, it was so interesting to watch him cook the whole time.
There is only one other person in the restaurant to help him -- a young waitress who serves drinks, clears the plates, washes the dishes and serves as cashier.
I speak very little and very bad Nihongo but that has never stopped me from always trying to converse with the Japanese in Tokyo.
Throughout the meal, as he was busy cooking behind the counter, I talked to him -- addressing him as Chef san and asking him about each dish, telling him how great and awesome his food was.
He conversed with me in Nihongo, always cheerful and quite amused as I muddled along. My friend added to the merriment by translating the more difficult parts of the conversation.
As we were about to leave, I wanted to thank him for such a terrific dinner.
Oishii or delicious in Nihongo was somehow too trite and couldn't capture just how much I had enjoyed myself and how I really loved everything I ate.
So I asked my friend -- how do you say "melts in the mouth" in Nihongo?
"Chef san", I said, " Zenbu wa kuchi no naka toberu!
Everything just melted in my mouth!
As I was leaving, I bowed to him and said "Gochisosama deshita"
It was a feast!
Chef Kisaku -- see you next time I am in Tokyo!

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