The casual, stylish atmosphere and friendliness of the staff mask a seriousness and dedication to a mission of modernizing Japanese haute cuisine that is at the core of Tenoshima, a promising, newish kaiseki-style restaurant in Aoyama.
On meeting the affable chef and co-proprietor, Ryohei Hayashi, it is hard to imagine that such a seemingly easy-going person could have spent many years training at one of Japan’s most prominent kaiseki restaurants under the grueling tutelage of proprietor chef Yoshihiro Murata.
In the style of Kyoryori, or Kyoto cuisine, Tenoshima is rooted in traditional technique but adds interesting contemporary twists with its interpretation of indigenous Japanese dishes. The philosophy developed by Hayashi and his co-proprietor and partner Sari Hayashi is summed up on the restaurant’s website, which proclaims: “We would like to change the image of Japanese cuisine, which has been considered rigid and high-end. We believe that Japanese cuisine can be more enjoyable and relaxed.”
The professionalism of the staff is evident as soon as you step into the small restaurant, tucked away on the second floor of a nondescript building on a side street, very near yet far from the glitz of central Aoyama. Yet, there is none of the stiff formality typical of high-end, traditional Japanese restaurants. Sari Hayashi, a Finnish-trained chef who has worked at Japanese and foreign restaurants abroad and in Japan, acts as sommelier and general manager, and leads a small team who speak fluent English and are knowledgeable and attentive.
We visited Tenoshima on a cool evening during the rainy season. The open kitchen, elegant grey walls and wooden furniture create an atmosphere that is both stylish and cosy. From our table at one end of the small room, we had a good view of the kitchen where the staff were moving about efficiently and with clear purpose.
Tenoshima proudly states it uses fresh local ingredients sourced directly from farmers and fishermen from all around Japan, especially from the Seto Inland Sea, and freshness and seasonality indeed mark the array of dishes that form its course menu. The name, Tenoshima, comes from the island, Teshima, which is in the Inland Sea.
Our meal began with a small, delicate bowl of tofu topped with finely chopped cucumber and other summer vegetables and a dollop of uni, or sea urchin. The contrast of textures with the crunch of lightly cooked vegetables and the creamy uni added substance to this refreshing starter.
This was followed by another small bowl of soft-textured ingredients – sticky rice with crab cooked in a glutinous broth. Our server explained that the crab was a female watari-gani, or Japanese blue crab, which is fleshier than the male. The crabs happened to be in season when we visited.
The next course — deep-fried caciocavallo cheese and mochi (rice cake) in a savory broth – was something of a surprise, both because we had not come across caciocavallo cheese and because the idea of combining cheese with mochi seemed almost heretical. We learned that caciocavallo, from the acclaimed Yoshida Farm in Okayama Prefecture, is a form of stretched-curd cheese produced in southern Italy and similar to provolone. Served warm, it was almost as sticky as the rice cake.
Chef Hayashi topped the soup of two glutinous balls with a mix of finely chopped spring onion, myoga, or a form of Japanese ginger, mitsuba, or trefoil, and grated daikon radish.
As counter-intuitive as the concept seemed, the rich and flavorful caciocavallo paired well with the slightly sweet and chewy mochi.
After some heavy, sticky dishes relatively early in the meal, it was a pleasure to be served a simple dish of bonito and sea bass sashimi with a garnish of assorted sprouts.
For the bonito, which was lightly grilled on the outside, chef Hayashi prepared a subtly flavored soya sauce, which he made by marinating Chinese chives, or nira, in the sauce for a whole week. The flavor of the sauce further boosted the experience of eating delightfully fresh bonito sashimi.
The sea bass came with ponzu, a citrus-based sauce made with yuzu or sudachi, soy sauce and mirin (sweet rice wine), which is slightly tart and much lighter than the Chinese chive sauce.
Not surprisingly, the pace at which our table of three managed to finish each dish was beginning to slow by the time the fifth course arrived, particularly as it was heavier, rather than lighter, than the preceding dish – a croquette of hamo, or conger eel, and summer corn. Again, chef Hayashi combined two popular seasonal ingredients – eel, which is supposed to provide stamina on a blazing hot day, and corn, which is a popularly summer vegetable – in a most unexpected way.
The meal continued with slices of lean beef with broiled and braised zucchini – and expertly grilled sea bass for the non-meat eater, both artfully presented on chunky ceramic plates that gave the dish the feel of an outdoor picnic. The beef, from Hanaga, in Ehime Prefecture on the island of Shikoku, was a lean yet tender cut that was a welcome contrast with the fatty meat often served in high-end restaurants and was seasoned with an intense yuzu citrus-flavored sauce containing green onions.
The meal ended with not one, but two “shime” or “closing” courses, which are traditionally supposed to feature some form of carbohydrate.
The first was a small assortment of nigiri -zushi, and the second was a bowl of thin somen noodles in a subtle yet beautifully flavored soup of dried anchovy broth.
We finished with a panacotta of watermelon jelly, sake lees and creamy soy-milk, which provided a striking contrast of flavors and a delicious reminder of the hot and humid days to come.
The meal, and the engaging service, lived up to Tenoshima’s stated goals, using classic techniques, indigenous Japanese dishes and local quality ingredients to “make Japanese cuisine more approachable to people of all ages from all over the world.”
Tenoshima also offers special events and workshops in Japanese cuisine.
1-55 Building 2F, 1-3-21 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku, 107-0062 Tokyo
+81 (0)3-6316-2150 or Pocket Concierge (in English)