I don’t know about you, but I love special dates, holidays, birthdays and anniversaries and never miss an opportunity to plan an outing and date night around them. I’m particularly cheesy in regards to Valentine’s Day, flowers, hearts and all that
jazz romance. While we should all strive to cherish our sweethearts every day, it’s still wonderful to have a special day for celebrating love, don’t you agree? For our romantic night-out Mr. B and I booked a table at two Michelin-starred Akasaka Kikunoi in Tokyo where we experienced what might have been one of the most traditional forms of kaiseki ryori. Kaiseki ryori is often referred to as Japanese haute cuisine. Elaborate and luxurious, it is traditional Japanese multicourse dinner that originated from tea drinking ceremonies in the 16th century in Kyoto. In a Western context, it is similar to a tasting menu from a fine dining restaurant. To quote Anthony Bourdain kaiseki is “a multi-course, ultra-refined, obsessively local and seasonal and very traditional”.
Artistic presentation is paramount – a dedication to visual appeal means that colors and shapes are just as important as aromas, textures, and flavors. Details count – food is prepared with pride and care, and everything from a bowl’s shape to a dish’s finishing garnish carries meaning. Every dish is plated like a masterpiece, delicate, colorful and balanced. Akasaka Kikunoi is a two Michelin-starred outpost of Kikunoi located in Kyoto, where it is considered to be one of the best kaiseki restaurants boasting with 3 Michelin stars. The restaurant is a prized creation of Yoshihiro Murata, the third generation chef of Kikunoi who has earned numerous accolades and total of 7 Michelin stars. He even has his own book with Ferran Adria’s introduction.
The offshoot of the renowned restaurant in Tokyo seems to bring the best of Kyoto to the capital. From the bamboo-lined, lantern-lit path to the simple, traditional wooden decor of the rooms (with either chairs or tatami mats), Kikunoi is a microcosm of traditional Kyoto. Bamboos, by the way, are brought directly from Kyoto!We were warmly greeted by a kimono-clad hostess who took our coats off and ushered us into the main dining room. The restaurant features a counter as well as private seating tables. Eager to observe the kitchen frenzy, we chose to sit by the counter. This also allowed us to communicate a little with the Chefs who prepared our food. Luckily, they spoke a little English. On top of all, we had a view of a beautiful Japanese garden strategically located right behind the counter and could be perfectly seen through floor-to ceiling windows. Right as we were seated the Assistant Chef served us a “welcome drink”, very smooth and flavorful warm sake which was infused with ume (Japanese plum) flavor. It set just the right tone for the evening and inspired us to pair the rest of the meal with Kikunoi’s house made bottle of cold sake. It was very delicate and smooth with just a hint of sweetness. Just the way I like it! Soon, a succession of elaborately prepared and exquisitely plated courses started coming our way. Steamed prawn and grated red kabura turnip dumpling in gelatinous prawn sauce was complimented with a touch of wasabi. Prawn was a star of the show and its flavors shone through every bite. Simple, light and pleasant on the palate. The second course was presented in a box and exquisitely arranged like jewels reflecting upcoming cherry blossom season. It contained assortment of appetizers featuring seasonal ingredients. Pickled vegetables on the upper left were infused with wasabi flavor – quite unexpected and interesting twist. The “Horse Reins Sushi” was topped with a duo of marinated prawn and mackerel. The rice was perfectly cooked and very dense, although a bit overpowering in comparison to the thinly sliced fish. Cooked whitebait was tasty with a side of bright green rapini dressed in mustard. The latter balanced out the umami flavor with its pure, natural taste. I also loved those creamy sweet black beans. Flower-shaped ume agar-agar jelly although beautiful, didn’t quite have much of a taste to it. The rectangular pieces of cod roe terrine were truly delightful. They packed a lot of flavor and had a nice grainy texture. I’m afraid I cannot say the same about the yellow fuki bud marinated in miso. It quite honestly tasted like grass. Lastly, that cute pink flower was made of tofu, lovely sweet and smooth bite. The presentation of the next set of appetizers blew my mind. Don’t you love this salad bowl?! We enjoyed selection of sashimi that we got: delicate morsels of tai (red sea brim) which was chewy and had a very clean flavor; and super tender prawn generously topped with that beautiful blue dollop of prawn roe. It not only added texture to the bite, but pleasantly enriched it with subtle umami flavor. However, nothing was quite as delightful as the last appetizer. Just look at those beautiful slices of chutoro of young Bluefin tuna! It was topped with a small dab of Japanese mustard and served with the specialty of Kikunoi – thick soy-marinated egg yolk sauce. The young tuna was soft and buttery, with a melt-in-your mouth richness that’s really hard to describe. This is most certainly the best tuna sashimi I have ever had so far. Which also reminds me that it’s high time we planned a visit to Tsukiji Market! The feast went on with Minced Duck Soup. The dish celebrated the awakening of the nature. They sprinkled water on the cover to create an illusion of dew. Inside, the design further reflected seasonal transitions with a giant slice of turnip and pieces of gold serving as “ice” trapping spring flowers inside. The highlight of the soup was meatball of duck, which was tender, juicy and incredibly flavorful, unadulterated with addition of spices. Selection of vegetables: Kujo onions, mache, arrowhead root and carrot all were nicely cooked, although not particularly exciting. The broth was luscious and delectable, quite pleasing to the palate on a cold winter day. Next, the apprentice showed us a platter of a handsome Snow Crab in all its glory. It was then whisked away, neatly sliced and brought back out to be grilled right in front of us. It was plated on a gorgeous piece of china with necessary utensils to scrub the meat off the shell. The grilled crab meat didn’t stand out as being particularly unique or unusual. What elevated it to a whole new level was the crab roe served on a side in its own shell. Pretty ghastly to look at, but it added a lot of dimension and really helped to bring out the crab flavor. The shell was then retrieved and the apprentice chef used the remnants to prepare absolutely flavorful crab broth in it to finish off the course. As a nice interlude to cleanse our palate and prepare us for three other main courses, we enjoyed the succession of two refreshing and incredibly flavorful palate cleansers. Both simple yet surprisingly really, really good. Japanese orange compote which looked exactly like an egg yolk with whites. Yuzu and wasabi sorbet: sweet, sour and spicy at the same time. Outstanding!After an adequate pause we were graced with yet another exquisitely presented dish. A steaming cod milt called shirako (literally, sperm of the fish) custard was dabbed with a red pepper paste and served in a pretty vessel made out of Sanpokan orange. It was accompanied with my favorite ponzu sauce which never fails to brighten up any dish. The apprentice chef told us to stir it into the custard. Overall, the dish was rich, creamy and absolutely scrumptious. Next course was a shabu-shabu (type of Japanese hot pot) with pork (wild boar), kujo onion, water cress, tofu, daikon radish, carrots and sake lees bisque. All sourced directly from Kyoto. As much as I wanted to love this dish, its main component – the broth – was lacking in flavor and did not have a pleasing taste. I did enjoy the pure tastes of the meat, tofu and daikon though. Luckily the next dish made up for the preceding disappointment. Noodle soup with turtle served with a side of pickles and hot black tea. Wow. Wakame (seaweed) noodles were cooked to perfection, while the broth was outstanding, flavorful and comforting. We finished off the feast with baked apple and vanilla ice cream. While it was a light and pleasing ending, there was nothing spectacular about it and it did not quite strike me as a Michelin-level dish. Thoughts and Details:
Service here is great, and the staff took really good care of us. On our way out, they offered to take our photo and also gave us umbrellas to keep making sure we didn’t get wet in the rain. It was nice to experience the most refined forms of Japanese kaiseki dining straight from the source. We enjoyed the interesting variety of cooking methods and flavors as well as the artistry of the dishes. As for the food, everything was perfectly executed and tasted good, but I’m afraid it was not exciting enough to bring us back. Sure, there were some dishes that I loved, such as the Minced Duck Soup, Fugu Milt Custard and Turtle Noodle Soup. However, there were many other dishes that failed to impress us or stand out as unique and mind-blowing. This can also be attributed to the fact that we were not particularly thrilled with the flavor profiles of currently featured seasonal ingredients. I cannot help to mention though that we enjoyed kaiseki dinner at a much lesser cost at Ginza Maru where every dish stood out and was memorable. This also serves as a good example that Michelin stars are not always a good benchmark for choosing restaurants in Tokyo. We do, however, plan on visiting other kaiseki restaurants as we explore Japanese food scene, perhaps more so in Kyoto, it is after all a cradle of this cuisine style.
Reservation is strongly encouraged. We booked a table for a Valentine’s night in November!
- Address: 6 Chome-13-8 Akasaka, Minato, Tokyo 107-0052
- Phone: 03-3568-6055