Tucked away on a side street off Aoyama-dori, a few blocks from Omotesando subway station, Maru is a rare combination of casual yet sophisticated dining, serving high quality izakaya or bistro fare with a refined kaiseki, or haute cuisine sensibility.
We discovered Maru and its warm, stylish basement premises well over a decade ago, and have kept returning over the years. While its style in both food and presentation is consistently high, the most surprising thing about this chic yet lively Japanese eatery is that far from becoming stale over the years, it has simply kept evolving; its cuisine is still an inimitable blend of classic and contemporary, but is now even better than we recall from numerous dinners past.
The atmosphere in the wood-lined room with its long timber counter and half a dozen tables is friendly and animated. Among the thoughtful touches, the helpful staff are dressed in traditional Japanese indigo-dyed trousers and loose tops, happy to explain each course, down to the region from where the ingredients are sourced.
The ambience is devoid of the stuffiness that sometimes characterizes more traditional and conservative Japanese restaurants, yet the interior features both the simple designs of classic Japanese minimalist decor and a dash of European design traits in the bespoke, wooden furniture. The clean, simple but high quality surroundings bear the hallmark of Japanese aesthetics.
The cuisine is a creative take on kaiseki, or formal dining, incorporating both an enduring respect for fresh ingredients and a willingness to think out of the box and bring tradition into the modern age. The outstanding feature is the way Maru’s approach to food is rooted in deep kaiseki traditions of Kyo-ryori, or traditional Kyoto kaiseki concepts.
On a recent visit, we ordered the tasting menu, which was an extraordinarily reasonable Y5,500 per head. This must be one of the best value dining experiences in town, and we don’t say that lightly.
The range, quality, care and artistry that goes into the series of offerings in a course dinner at Maru owe much to the founder Keiji Mori, who trained as an apprentice at a leading ryotei, or kaiseki establishment in Kyoto in his teens.
The Kyoto restaurant has long closed but Mori spent years working his way up from a junior kitchenhand to nikata, one of the most senior positions in a kaiseki operation which oversees the all important dashi stock, which forms the basis of traditional Japanese cuisine.
Mori once recalled how in his ryotei days he decided to change the restaurant’s supplier of katsuobushi, or dried, shaved bonito flakes. “I had more than a few customers come to me after their meals, saying ‘ you changed the dashi’ – that was how rigorous many of our customers were.”
Such is the rigor Mori applies to his approach at Maru, and the more recent addition of Maru Ginza, a chic, slightly more upmarket establishment (which manages to offer bargain lunch sets) off the main drag of the affluent shopping district.
Maru Aoyama has maintained the flexibility of an izakaya, or more casual bistro, with an à la carte menu, which reflects Mori’s kaiseki roots including his fine appreciation of seasonality and quality of ingredients. But the course menus here reflect a creative streak and interest in cuisine trends elsewhere given Mori’s travels abroad and earlier stint in America where he learned English.
Our meal on a recent evening began with a small serving of seaweed and bamboo shoot simmered in a light dashi broth, which was the perfect way to whet our appetites.
Then came a soup of puréed tougan, or winter melon, tofu and uni (sea urchin). This was again seasoned with the lightest of dashi, with slices of ginger added for pungency, making for a soup that was both warming and delicate.
Although tougan is often referred to as a melon, it has no distinct taste of its own and absorbs the flavor of the broth in which it is cooked.
Next came three dishes on a tray featuring beautifully arranged fish, chicken and vegetables.
Sakana kasuzuke, or fish marinated in sake lees (a yeast by-product of sake production) is a staple of Japanese kaiseki ryori, and the evening’s fish – a piece of kinmedai (red snapper) – had the silky texture and flavor of kasuzuke. When we enquired, it turned out that this red snapper was not marinated in sake lees but in shiokoji, or salt-marinated rice malt, a new taste for us which was possibly superior to the standard kasuzuke .
Originally used in the Tohoku region of northeast Japan to pickle vegetables and fish, shiokoji has gained renewed attention in Japanese home cooking and is now being used to season everything from pork to sweet potatoes.
The shiokoji brought out the umami of the red snapper without making it as dominant as some kasuzuke can taste.
The fish came with a tasty accompaniment of gobo, or shredded burdock root, marinated in a creamy sesame sauce.
The second dish on the tray was chicken tataki, or thin slices of lightly seared raw chicken, while the third dish was a small salad of avocado and strawberries. The strawberry-avocado dish was a striking mixture, both in terms of texture and flavor, and reflected Mori’s interest in experimenting with unusual flavor combinations – on previous occasions we’ve tasted persimmon with tofu cream, and other fruit, vegetable and herb arrangements.
It being spring, no Japanese kaiseki meal would be complete without a serving of hotaru ika, or firefly squid, and sure enough our next course was an assortment of hotaru ika, wakegi onion and gyojya garlic.
Spring is the season for firefly squid, which are caught when they surface from deep below the surface of the water to spawn along a stretch of ocean off the coast of Toyama prefecture in western Japan.
The gyojya garlic is a specialty of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, and a seasonal ingredient since naturally grown specimens (as opposed to those grown in greenhouses) become available in the spring.
The wakegi and gyojya garlic, which has far less odor than ordinary garlic, added a bit of zing to the softly braised hotaru ika.
After a number of other exquisite morsels and dishes, the meal closed with Maru’s signature dish: simple donabe gohan, or rice cooked in an earthenware pot.
The rice was accompanied by an intensely flavored aka miso (red miso) soup, a side of chirimen-jyako (dried young sardines) seasoned with sansho (Japanese prickly ash) and a generous serving of assorted pickles, which we ordered separately to the tasting menu. We also splashed out on some other accompaniments including ikura shoyu-zuke (marinated salmon roe).
Cooking rice in a donabe gives it a special taste and moist texture that is often lacking in rice cooked in an electric rice-cooker, although a number of Japanese cooking ware manufacturers have done a relatively good job of replicating the donabe effect.
Still, there is nothing like closing a good meal with a bowl of rice that has just the right combination of stickiness and fluffiness and is almost sweet in taste.
We can only advise that while the tasting menu is quite filling, it is definitely worth saving space for the donabe gohan, which is a specialty of Maru, and splashing out on extra side dishes to accompany the rice.
In further evidence of his dedication to quality and culinary innovation, Mori’s idea for Ginza Maru, which he opened two years ago in the Ginza, takes the Maru concept one notch further.
Nestled on the second floor of a small building behind the newish luxury shopping complex, Gion Six, Ginza Maru boasts a similarly contemporary Japanese style and welcoming approach yet features a more elegant and restrained atmosphere, with its slate and wood interior and long counter.
An evening kaiseki menu of about Y8,000 a head contains even more delights. Again, the course here is a bargain for the quality and attention to detail, but unlike the flagship Maru Aoyama, is the only option in the evening.
But daytime shoppers should avail themselves of what is possibly the best value traditional teishoku lunch in the Ginza – from about Y1,050, you can choose a hearty meal from a small but thoughtful selection of grilled fish, and a few alternatives such as kakuni buta, slow-braised pork belly or sometimes a chicken dish.
The menu is limited, with no vegetarian options although the restaurant staff are so accommodating that options are possible.
The meal comes with a side dish, rice, pickles and miso soup, with dessert of the day at a modest additional price.
Both these establishments reassure us that for all the commercialization and growing fame of Japanese cuisine, pioneers such as Keiji Mori are not only upholding traditional standards but bringing them forward into the contemporary age in affordable, thoughtful and always innovative ways.
Aoyama KT Bld/B1F,5-50-8,Jingumae,Shibuya-ku,TOKYO
Website : http://www.maru-mayfont.jp/aoyama/index_eng.html
Mon-Fri 17：30～24：00（Lo, 23:00)
7 days a week(Except the new year’s eve and New Year’s day holidays)
2F, Ichigo Ginza 612 Building, 6‑12‑15 Ginza, Chuo‑ku
+81 (0)3 5537 7420