We had slotted one meal in Tokyo to explore a restaurant that covered a broader Japanese spectrum, in some kind of tasting course fashion. Usually this means kaiseki, the old-school Japanese parallel of a dégustation, which in some ways is as much about tradition, presentation, and performance as it is about food itself. But during research, Michelin 2-star RyuGin caught my eye, supposedly presenting a modern take on Japanese cuisine that was simply intriguing. Superlative reviews fom Chuck (a very dependable source!) and Exile Kiss vaulted RyuGin to the top of my list.
Located down a side alley in Roppongi, RyuGin has a fairly unassuming entrance that leads down to a small dining room of maybe 20 seats. The theme throughout as indicated by the name is dragons - and the decor feels decidedly Chinese, with blue porcelain lining the tables and calligraphy up on the walls. Service and presentation were delicate, with custom plates, glassware, and cutlery throughout the meal. The feeling in the room is quite unlike any place I have been to, and a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of Roppongi just a block or two away.
Chuck eloquently described RyuGin as an Eastern response to the Spanish molecular gastronomy movement. Exile Kiss dubbed it modern kaiseki. I'm not sure what I would call the place. It clearly has some Western influences in its contemporary style, but at the same time the cooking still seemed solidly grounded in Japanese technique and ingredients.
Chef Seiji Yamamoto, just 39 years old, opened RyuGin at the end of 2003. He's been quite the jetsetter, having participated in many culinary events throughout Japan and Europe. He's well entrenched in the modern cooking community, and based on the other reviews, has gone through some very experimental phases in his cooking. It seems that right now he's taken a step back and gone to some more traditional techniques. I'd say our meal reflected this - although we saw plenty of modern creativity, there wasn't any truly avant-garde molecular wizardry that I could detect.
The cost for the full dinner tasting at RyuGin was ¥23,100. The meal was impressive, eye-opening, and delicious, so here we go.
I get excited when I see a dish full of ingredients that I love and yet have never tried eating together. This one absolutely delivered, using the creaminess of the uni to bind the textures of mashed fava beans and soothing bamboo shoots. The uni and nori flavored the entire combination with the sea.
Abalone was perfectly tender, contrasting to the very slight chew of the kobashira. The mild, thick ginger sauce provided a delicate accompaniment. The waiter described the long flat green vegetables as potato stems - they had a texture somewhere between cooked onions and pickled bamboo shoots.
Yamamoto's reputation for visual flair is not undeserved. At this point we started to wonder if our entire meal would use the same color palette. It was not to be, but we were impressed enough after 3 dishes with completely different ingredients, flavors, and textures. This play on chawanmushi actually contained no eggs, and was served slightly chilled. It had a beautifully delicate, pudding-like texture, and intense corn flavor. Somehow, this reminded me of the cauliflower panna cotta at the French Laundry, with its combination of veggie-flavored custard and briny topping. This was absolutely delicious, and I could have eaten an entire bowl of it.
An earthy, umami-laced broth with some meaty conger eel and a gorgeous matsutake. Fish soup for the soul!
A sashimi course is standard in every RyuGin meal. Fish quality was pristine. Hamo had a fluffier texture than the eel in the soup. Kinmedai (sea bream) was supremely clean in flavor. Maguro had a pure, smooth texture. Ise ebi (spiny lobster) was my favorite - a bouncier, more muscular lobster that still had some of the "gooeyness" of raw shrimp.
Crab and apple vinegar provided an interesting, tangy flavor combination. I didn't like the addition of okra, which gave the dish a slimy texture. That's a bit of a personal taste issue though, I think. The Japanese have a place in their hearts for the slimy texture present in the inside of okra, or grated mountain yam (tororo). After years and years of trying, I've been unable to develop an appreciation for it. This was the only dish in the meal I wasn't too crazy about.
The meal bounced back in roaring fashion with this cooked fish preparation. The waiter called it sea perch - on Google, it also seems to go by "yellow stripe ruby snapper." In any case, this was by far one of the best fish dishes I've had in a very long time... it was like a twist on the ubiquitous miso-glazed black cod, stepped up 23 notches and pumped full of banned performance-enhancing BALCO steroids. The meat was moist, tender, and pretty much perfect, while the crunchy fried rice crust provided a textural contrast for each bite. Simply delicious.
This was a spin on nikujaga, which according to Wikipedia is a humble winter stew of sliced beef and potatoes. I've never tried it, but this version seems to be a daring departure, eschewing boiled potatoes for shoestrings, and using beautifully marbled Wagyu. Mixing this whole thing together, the potatoes added crunch to the melt-in-your mouth beef. The beef seemed to be lightly stewed (or maybe, lightly sous-vided), but never grilled. Very tasty.
I should mention that the dish looks small in the photo, but actually contained 3 generous slices of beef.
A fancier version of the traditional white rice + pickles end to the Japanese meal. The unagi don was more like unagi fried rice - the chunks of eel were fried crispy on the outside, and still very tender on the inside. The rice had the char of a hot wok.
When the waiter offered an extra noodle dish, I of course could not decline. This buckwheat soba was freshly made that day by Yamamoto's sous-chef. Sudachi is a small green Japanese citrus, which provided a zesty kick. The texture of the noodles was full of bounce and body, a stark contrast to the lifeless soba found in the US.
At this point, I had a brain fart and forgot to take a picture of the palate cleanser. It was a refreshing sudachi sorbet served with a few pieces of snow pear.
The baked chestnut cake seems to be another RyuGin standby. It was served on a glass plaque-style plate, backed with a decorative picture beneath it. Apparently the plate they use varies with the seasons, but always uses the chestnut cake as a visually-striking representation of the moon. The cake itself was pretty good, with a subtle but not overwhelming chestnut flavor.
This gelatinous version of the traditional red bean cake was incredibly smooth and light. Red bean is not my favorite dessert ingredient, but this had none of the "sandyness" I often find with red beans.
In the end, I was very happy with our meal at RyuGin. It was truly an experience unlike any I've had before. Yamamoto-san created new, groundbreaking combinations of ingredients and flavors in some dishes while reaching back to and modernizing tradition in others. Most importantly, the food was all really, really good. The place is getting a ton of buzz, and deservedly so. As Chuck said in his review, I think we'll be hearing a lot more about RyuGin in the coming years as it pushes for a third Michelin star.
And while the style is decidedly contemporary, Yamamoto-san certainly paid attention to Japanese traditions. As we left the building, the chef and 2 staff members appeared to lead us out and say a final goodbye. They stayed in front of the doorway, all bowing and waving good bye as we walked down the alley. We kept turning back to look and they kept waving, until we got to the main street and could no longer see the restaurant. You've gotta love that kind of hospitality.