The minute we stepped through the traditional wood and stone entrance to Yoshizawa we were spirited away from the contemporary minimalism of Roppongi Hills, where this acclaimed Japanese restaurant is located, into a serene world of sliding doors and aromatic incense.
As we were led to our seats along a narrow, paved corridor flanked by private rooms behind sliding doors and latticed shoji screens, we could almost pretend we were walking along a pathway in 18th century Kyoto.
We had opted for seats in the main dining area, a wide counter at the far end of the restaurant – a decision partly prompted by the 5,000 yen additional charge for a private room. The choice turned out to be better than we could have guessed, as we were able to chat with the chefs and watch them as they deftly sliced vegetables, prepared other ingredients and created their works of culinary art.
The extra reward for our choice of counter seating came in the later part of the meal when the shoji screens were thrown open to reveal the soaring atrium and its cascading fountain.
It was lunch time, and the temperature outside was still high, but there was already a distinct edge of autumn in the air, making the timing and atmosphere just right for our seasonal favorites, from precious matsutake mushrooms to gingko nuts and lotus root.
Chef proprietor, Sadahisa Yoshizawa, began his apprenticeship in traditional kaiseki cuisine in Kyoto at the age of 19 before striking out on his own in the Ginza, where he opened Ibuki in 2010. In addition to Ibuki, he is chef proprietor of Yoshizawa in Ginza, both of which are known as “sister shops.”
Today he was fully engaged behind the counter and in the kitchen behind as master chef, overseeing the culinary show with his small team of apprentices and sous-chefs.
Setting the tone of the autumn theme, our first course came on a tray featuring deep-fried tofu with gingko nuts in a golden bowl set on pine leaves and flanked by a ceramic rabbit container.
“It’s made to look like the rabbit is looking up at the moon,” our server explained, referring to the custom of moon-viewing in the autumn, when the moon is said to be at its most beautiful. Inside the ceramic rabbit were a slice of fig and fat, fresh peanuts in a smooth sauce of sesame and cashew nuts.
The donbinmushi, or clear hot soup of dashi, chicken, a ball of minced hamo (daggertooth pike conger), mitsuba (trefoil) and matsutake mushroom, was one of the highlights of the meal. The dashi, particularly in dobinmushi, can make or break a kaiseki chef’s reputation. Yoshizawa’s exquisitely delicate broth was both heart and body-warming and a clear sign of his top notch culinary skills.
The hassun, an assortment of seasonal appetizers, lived up to its role as a showcase of the finest ingredients from both sea and land. A feast for the eye as much as the stomach, the beautifully arranged ingredients included a small cup containing fried scallop and kyo-mibuna (baby mizuna); gindara (sablefish), miso-marinated and grilled; ayu (sweet fish) with pungent kinome; and seared kamasu (barracuda) with grilled baby eggplant.
The next dish featured warayaki, a traditional method of grilling fish, particularly bonito, over a fire of straw, which originated in Kochi prefecture. By using straw, it is possible to attain higher temperatures than coal and lightly sear the fish while leaving the inside fresh.
Yoshizawa’s warayaki featured Spanish mackerel, which is a more flavorful fish than the more customary bonito and was served with very thin slices of garlic, wasabi and salt – a combination which provided seasoning and aroma but also brought out the delicate contrast between the grilled outer side of the fish and its soft flesh inside.
These days it is possible to buy renkon, or lotus root, all year round, but harvest time is actually early autumn, so it was the perfect time for a dish consisting of a dumpling of young lotus root topped with a perfectly broiled piece of anago, or sea eel, and a pinch of freshly grated wasabi for zing.
The shime, or closing dish, was rice, which we were fortunate to have served in four different stages of cooking. The first serving was al dente and as the rice sent through the different stages of cooking it became softer and fluffier.
This is a bonus for those sitting at the counter, we were told, because the rice in the early stages of cooking would have cooked further than intended while being delivered to the private rooms.
On our way out we were able to peek into one of the private rooms, which featured a screen copy of Korin Ogata’s “Irises.” The rooms are an option for those seeking privacy and tranquility. But we agreed that sitting at the counter, watching the chefs, including chef Yoshizawa himself, go about their work and hearing them exchange notes was more fun and enlightening experience.