Social distancing restrictions triggered by the coronavirus outbreak have yielded a few modest upsides, including making it much easier to book a table, even at the most popular restaurants in Japan — with the exception of some very special destinations, including Maison KEI.
Even though it is located in Gotenba, a city of less than 36,000, a good hour-and-a-half drive southwest of Tokyo, trying to book a table at this French restaurant requires patience, determination and above all, luck.
We ran out of patience after several unsuccessful phone calls and lacked the determination to persevere, but we lucked out when some good friends were able to secure a table and invited us to join them on a recent Sunday.
With the winter solstice more than two months past, the weather had turned warmer and the days longer, so that when we arrived at the restaurant for an early dinner we were still able to appreciate the expansive view from the windows looking over the surrounding woodlands towards a majestic Mr Fuji.
The eponymous chef, Kei Kobayashi, trained under Alain Ducasse among others, and was the first Japanese chef to win three Michelin stars for his establishment in Paris, Restaurant KEI, in 2020.
Kobayashi, who is from Nagano prefecture to the northwest of Tokyo, chose a different course from his father, a chef in a restaurant serving kaiseki, or traditional Japanese multi-course cuisine, after watching a documentary about French cuisine.
Maison KEI is a collaboration between Kobayashi and Toraya, the venerable Japanese confectionery maker, which came to fruition as a result of the friendship between Kobayashi and Toraya’s 18th generation president, Mitsuharu Kurokawa. Toraya is famous for its yokan, red bean-paste jelly, and has deep roots in the area where its main production factory is located.
The chef at Maison KEI is Kobayashi’s protégé, Mitsuyoshi Sato, who worked at Restaurant KEI for six years in Paris before coming to Gotenba. The restaurant opened in the middle of the pandemic in 2021 – but even that has not deterred eager customers.
The first thing that strikes guests at Maison KEI, particularly if it is still light outside, is the view from the windows that seem to span the entire length of the restaurant, with Mr Fuji as its centerpiece.
The décor is contemporary chic, with black armchairs encircling widely-spaced round tables of light wood.
Maison KEI serves traditional French cuisine with an emphasis on the quality of the ingredients, and, at times, a distinct Japanese touch.
The small gougère, which appeared as our first appetizer (compliments of the chef), fell into the traditional French category and was an apt introduction to the six-course meal we had ordered. It was made of choux pastry mixed with comté cheese and baked crisp and warm on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside.
This was followed by a bisque with langoustine from the nearby Suruga Bay, in keeping with Kobayashi’s philosophy of using top produce from local sources.
The langoustine provided a heady aroma and deep flavor, yet the soup itself was surprisingly light. And the inclusion of saikyo miso, a sweet, white miso originally from Kyoto, gave it a Japanese twist.
Next came a gratin of scallops from a well-known fishmonger, Sasue Maeda, who delivers seafood to top-end restaurants, including Narisawa, and made with Bourgignon butter. This creamy concoction was as French as could be but no doubt made less heavy to suit modern palates.
The following dish was both charming and surprising. It looked like a dessert, with a sprinkling of delicate flowers on a large ball of bubbles. The servers explained that they would sprinkle almond and black olive crumble on top and that we should mix the whole concoction thoroughly.
When we followed the instructions, the ball of bubbles turned into a salad with green sauce, which was a combination of lemon and rucola. The lemon gave the salad, aptly named Jardin des Légumes, a refreshing acidity, perfectly off-set by the sweetness of the crumble.
For our carbohydrates, we were served a dish of soft and smooth gnocchi made with two types of potato – Inca no Mezame (Awakening of Inca Potatoes), which has a higher sugar content than ordinary potatoes and is sticky and rich, and Kita Akari, or Northern Lights, which is soft, fluffy and sweet.
Next came kinmedai or golden eye snapper, with a saffron and lemon sauce. The chef was very generous with the saffron which added a slightly bitter touch to the kinmedai with its perfectly crisp scales and soft flesh.
For my main dish, the chicken breast came from the area around Mt Fuji bred by a famous chicken farmer, known familiarly as Aoki-san.
It was topped with prosciutto fat, shungiku (chrysanthemum leaves), a dollop of mustard and panko bread crumbs roasted over bamboo charcoal.
Although the salad was a visual and sensory delight, the chicken breast won top prize in my estimation. Its moist, tender texture was a revelation for someone who has tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to cook chicken breast that isn’t dried out and chewy.
We ended our sumptuous though not excessive dinner with a dessert of apple crumble, for some, and for others, strawberry meringue with black sugar and anko, or sweet bean paste, which was the only hint of the Toraya connection.
Finally, we received an additional surprise present of rice pudding with our coffees and herb teas.
The meal was a triumph, particularly given that the six-course dinner is priced at a reasonable Y9,000. A smaller, four-course option is just Y5,500 while lunch is Y4,500 for four dishes and Y8,500 for six.
Maison KEI may not be easy to book or drive to on a whim, but with Mt Fuji nearby and plenty of appealing nature spots in the vicinity, it can easily be the highlight of a delicious and scenic excursion from Tokyo.