In a video created by the Onigiri Society, a non-profit that disseminates information on Japanese rice balls, Hiromitsu Nozaki, the chef proprietor of Japanese restaurant Waketokuyama, http://japonica.info/waketokuyama-refined-japanese-cuisine-in-elegant-surroundings/ talks about his love of rice and, particularly, of onigiri rice balls. He reminisces about coming home from school and finding huge onigiri in the cabinet, which his mother had made for him as a snack. For Nozaki, those rice balls were full of his mother’s love for him.
Such memories and the clear contentment with which Nozaki shoves a rice ball into his mouth towards the end of the video, offer a glimpse of the joy and deep reverence he feels for the ingredients he uses.
We were able to share a little of that joy on a recent visit to Waketokuyama, after a long absence due in part to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Waketokuyama is located in Hiroo, a chic part of Tokyo favored by foreign residents, in a building designed by world-renowned architect, Kengo Kuma.
Once inside the restaurant we were escorted to a sparse and pristine private room where we felt completely secluded and far from the world beyond.
As soon as our drinks were served, our meal began with a small ball of minced scallop wrapped in soft tomato flesh, which sat in a bowl of dashi gelée and was garnished with bright green edamame, topped with fine strands of ginger. The dashi gelée provided all the umami this dish needed, while the ginger gave it an extra zing.
In a reflection of chef Nozaki’s love of simplicity, while the dish itself clearly required considerable preparation, each of the ingredients was presented in a simple form and allowed to shine through on its own.
The ensuing appetizer was an assortment of small bites, including slices of eel layered to look like a serving of sushi, a ball of glutinous dark rice topped with grilled ginko nuts and a small dish of peach pieces topped with a sesame sauce, which was a surprisingly delicious combination.
The owan, or clear soup, featured hamo, or daggertooth pike conger (a type of sea eel) and was a welcome warm dish even on the hot and humid evening when we visited. Deep green slices of leek, a piece of young corn, eggplant and myoga (Japanese ginger) added piquant contrast to the soft flesh of the fish.
Hamo is a feature of Kyoto cuisine in the summer, when the fish stock up on fat and nutrients to prepare for their egg-laying in the fall. Sipping the umami-rich, fragrant broth, which was also made from hamo, transported me to gastronomic heaven.
After the otsukuri, or sashimi course, of flounder, tuna and octopus, we were treated to Waketokuyama’s specialty – abalone topped with iwanori – a kind of seaweed that grows in rock crevices along the shore – with a side of fried corn. It smelled like a Japanese beach in a remote seaside village, where you will find seaweed washed up on the shore.
The next dish was something of a surprise – deep-fried ayu (river fish) cooked in a broth and topped with vegetables. Commonly, ayu is served plainly grilled, so this was new to us. The ayu was de-boned but left with its innards, which gave it the delicious bitterness that has earned ayu such a following that there are restaurants dedicated to serving just this fish.
I was already quite full by this time but I could not resist tasting the next course, which consisted of a few slices of beef from Saga Prefecture on a bed of green vegetables. Again, this dish displayed perfection in both simplicity and execution, with the beef very tender, tasty and not too heavy.
The penultimate dish was also one of the highlights of the meal – rice cooked in an earthen pot with uni, sea urchin, topped with fresh seaweed.
True to chef Nozaki’s love of rice, this was a delicious combination worthy of a meal on its own.
A dessert of peaches and mango served with green tea closed the meal on a sweet note.
On our way out, chef Nozaki came out to see us off – a generous gesture considered standard hospitality at most high-end Japanese restaurants. As we drove off, waving to the chef and his staff bowing towards our cab, we marveled at chef Nozaki’s ability to maintain the high standards of Waketokuyama, more than three decades after he opening his deservedly famous restaurant.