Japanese haute cuisine is an art form that takes many years to master, so it is heartening to see young chefs trained in this rigorous tradition using their well-honed skills to come up with contemporary takes on time-honored dishes.
One of the best of these inventive chefs I encountered recently is Taichi Asai, whose eponymous kaiseki restaurant is located on a quiet back street off Roppongi-dori in the Nishi Azabu neighborhood.
Restaurant Asai, as it is called in English, is one of a growing number of smallish establishments that dot the warren of side streets about two blocks from the Nishi-Azabu crossing on the Roppongi side.
We visited on a warm, sunny afternoon and were surprised to find that this Japanese kaiseki, or multi-course, eatery is housed in a building that looks like it is made almost entirely of glass and black steel frames.
With an arrangement of potted roses in front of the entrance to welcome guests, the restaurant is easy to miss as it looks more like an Italian ristorante or French boutique than a place that serves inspired interpretations of traditional Japanese cuisine.
But once inside, guests are transported to a bygone time and place – Showa era Japan, when neighborhoods were more tightly knit, meals were much more communal and life was simpler than it is today, in spite of the frenetic economic growth the country was undergoing at the time.
Asai’s decor was lovingly assembled by the chef who personally searched far and wide for the right tiles (small and red) to adorn part of the open-plan kitchen and retro-patterned glass wall that shields the private dining room, among other touches.
The decor may be a taste of the past but the cuisine is decidedly of this age.
Chef Asai trained in the techniques of traditional cuisine in his native Kyoto, and worked at kaiseki restaurants both in Kyoto and Tokyo before embarking on his own venture.
The first dish of our Y3,500 course was uni, or sea urchin, and sugar-snap peas, topped with menegi (green onion sprouts), a gelée made with soft-shelled turtle broth and jyunsai, or water shield, an aquatic plant with a slimy texture that often features in summer dishes.
The contrasting flavors and textures of this unusual grouping of ingredients was both refreshing and flavorsome.
The second course also featured a summer ingredient – hamo, or daggertooth pike conger, which is common in Kyoto kaiseki meals in the summer.
Chef Asai had seared the hamo and immediately dipped it in cold water – a cooking technique known in Japan as “yakishimo” that gives it a silky texture and smoky flavor.
This was then topped with hanasansho, or Szechuan pepper, and garnished with a side of warabi, a kind of wild, edible fern. The delicate and delicious broth of the dish, I learned to my surprise, was made with dried shark’s fin.
Not surprisingly, each dish took some time for preparation and we watched with awe as the kitchen staff, including the sommelier, worked assiduously behind the counter where we were seated.
Even as they went about their duties diligently, the staff were all smiles whenever we had a question, and chef Asai was relaxed enough to spend time identifying the ingredients for us and chatting with us about how he came to start his own restaurant.
The eclectic style of Restaurant Asai was evident when the third course arrived – a beautifully arranged plate of cold pasta garnished with raw octopus and sea grapes, a kind of kelp.
This was a very unusual, but nonetheless delicious, pasta with a sauce made from hawasabi, or horseradish leaves.
The main course was roast duck with a sauce made from sansho, or Japanese pepper plant – clearly one of the chef’s favorite sources of seasoning at this time of year.
The succulent duck was complimented by sides of eggplant from Kyoto and manganji green peppers, which are larger than ordinary green peppers and mild tasting.
For the rice course, we were given a choice of shrimp curry rice or white rice with chirimen (dried young sardines) and dried mullet roe, topped, again, with Japanese sansho pepper.
Although I was absolutely full, I managed a few mouthfuls of my choice, which was the white rice – comfort food for anyone who has grown up in Japan.
The Y3,500 lunch course was an absolute steal, although it would perhaps have been a bit tough on anyone with an aversion to Japanese sansho pepper.
Restaurant Asai is rather small, with seating for a maximum of 21 guests, so be sure to reserve in advance. The chance to enjoy fusion cuisine of the highest quality in a room that evokes a gentler, slower-paced era is an experience that is not easy to come by even in a city with as many dining choices as Tokyo has to offer.
Address : 1F Sawataka Building, 1-9-11 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Phone : 03-6432-9345
Website : http://asai.webcrow.jp/
Open : Mondays to Saturdays 12:00-13:30 and 17:30-22:00
Closed : Sundays and national holidays
Lunch courses : Y3,500, Y6,000, Y10,000
Dinner courses : Y13,000