A Contemporary Twist on Traditional Japanese Kaiseki : Nihonryori Ryugin
Ground Floor, 7-17-24 Roppongi, Minato, Tokyo 106-0032
Did you know that Tokyo has more Michelin starred restaurants than anywhere else in the world? With 234 stars, Tokyo is the top culinary destination outside of Paris covered by Michelin.
Making reservations in one of the top food capitals in the world proved to be quite the arduous adventure. Top restaurants in Japan are simply difficult to book. If you take into consideration the time difference, the limited seating (many great restaurants only hold 20 or less people), the Japanese websites that don't always translate so easily and the fact that many of these restaurants will only take reservations by phone, one might get discouraged (strike 1). Let's also include the fact that reservations are prioritized for Japanese patrons, not tourists (strike 2) and finally "introduction dining" (strike 3). It's as if the cards are stacked against us before we even begin.
Fear not food enthusiasts, there are ways! After trying to secure reservations and failing miserably for all of the reasons above, I decided there had to be a better way and there was. For those of you who have an American Express or Chase Sapphire Reserve, you have access to some of the best concierges in the business. Quickly, I picked up the phone and gave them a call. I went through my "wish-list" of restaurants and they shared which restaurants they could assist with. However, one thing I found quite interesting was the fact that they would not secure reservations for me the day that I arrived. Not sure if they were worried about a flight delay or the fact that jet lag would be fierce, but despite my borderline begging, it wasn't happening. ( Note: If these credit card concierges aren't readily available to you, I'd recommend using my hotel concierge.)
Imagine my excitement when I received a reservation confirmation for Nihonryori Ryugin. Queue the incessant clapping, I was over the moon!
Nihonryori Ryugin fuses traditional kaiseki with modern twists of molecular gastronomy. The menu changes frequently to reflect the current season and the availability of ingredients. Aside from the three-star Michelin rating, which seems to be a yearly occurrence, Chef Seiji Yamamoto has received numerous accolades. In 2017, Nihonryori Ryugin was named Number 52 on the World's 50 Best List and in 2018 named Number 9 on Asia's 50 Best List. Pretty impressive, if you ask me.
The dinnerware used throughout service dates back hundreds of years and has become an integral party telling the history of Japan. Chef Seiji Yamamoto has a fondness for dragons so apropos that this was the first plate for the evening.
Our guide for the evening brought a colorful array of chopsticks to our table allowing us to choose our favorite for the evening. (Tip: These are cleaned and given to each patron at the end of the evening as a favor from the restaurant.)
Beginning with a variety of sensations, Chef Yamamoto served Sea Urchin from Hokkaido and Green Peas from Aichi. Isn't this serving piece exquisite? I love how the colors of the food harmonize with the colors in the plate.
Our next course was Iidako Octopus from Hyogo served with Bamboo Shoots from Kyoto.
In addition to this intriguing tasting menu, we chose the wine/saké pairing knowing that it would intentionally highlight specific flavors of each dish. Below you will find our first set of saké glasses for the courses above. Absolutely exquisite. While I won't bore you with photos of glassware, I will note that they just kept getting prettier and more unique as we moved through the menu.
Our next course was a Sakura Rice Cake from Kagawa. This dish had a dumpling-like texture and was quite lovely. It neutralized the palate before we moved into the seafood courses for the evening.
Arriving quickly thereafter was Tilefish from Tokushima served with Bamboo Shoots from Kyoto.
Our next course made me a little apprehensive because I've only heard the horror stories when it comes to this next fish. With that said, you can imagine my face when our guide presented the course below, Wild Blowfish.
Blowfish is a highly prized delicacy but if it is not prepared properly, it can cause paralysis in your motor nerves and in severe cases can result in death. Did I expect to die in a three-star Michelin restaurant? Absolutely not, but don't think I was a little on edge.
One of the many reasons I seek out tasting experiences like Nihonryon Ryugin is not to amass a certain number of Michelin stars by a certain age or simply eat at "the best" restaurant in each city I visit. Rather, I seek out dining experiences that push my palate and challenge me to think outside the box. I find it so rewarding to see what inspires each of these chefs and how it translate into cuisine.
With that said, the next course REALLY challenged me. Chef Yamamoto served Shark Fin from Miyagi accompanied with Somen Noodles from Shodo Island.
This dish proved to be quite a challenge for my palate. While the broth and noodles tempered my nerves, I don't think it would be a dish I would necessarily seek out in the future.
As we said farewell to one of the more adventurous dishes of the evening, we were greeted with what the Chef called "Early Spring In a Plate" which highlighted Black-Throat Sea Perch from Chiba.
Moving mainland, our next dish was a bit more interactive, almost reminiscent of something you would find at Next Restaurant. For our dining pleasure, the next course was Olive Beef from Sanuki, which is from Chef Yamamoto's hometown. To say that this dish was out of this world, would be quite the understatement. This beef was quite flavorful and presented strong umami flavors, not to mention is basically melted in your mouth.
Our guide was kind enough to warn us not to fill obligated to eat all of the next dish. He then proceeded to bring out a pot of Pheasant Rice. For those of you up on Japanese culture, note that pheasant is Japan's national bird. As if this dish wasn't enough, we were also served Chrysanthemum Soup, which is also Japan's national flower.
Out of the two national dishes, I must say I was more fond of the pheasant rice. Not only was it hearty and chock full of flavor, but it was an elegant twist on a classic fried rice dish.
It was such a shame to see so much delicious food go to waste, but we could barely eat another bite.
You know that moment when you are certain that if you eat one more morsel of food that you will simply explode? Case in point, my current state. However, there's always something so alluring about dessert. Those feelings of fullness seem to dissipate and I can magically eat again... or so I think!
Our first dessert of the evening was Strawberry Milk which was out of this world. Remember I mentioned how extraordinary the strawberries were in Japan? ( Last seen here) This might be some of the best strawberry ice cream I've ever devoured, and yes it was devoured.
Our farewell for the evening was a tribute to Japan's National Fungus, Oryzae, also knowns as Koji. Chef Yamamoto presented us with Saké Ice Cream and a Saké Souffle.
Both desserts were simply splendid, however, I found the Saké Ice Cream and a Saké Souffle to be both flavorful and unique, especially the souffle, that's what dreams are made of!
Keeping with Japanese tradition, our meal concluded with a cup of Matcha tea. Kindly, I asked our guide if it would be possible to have Chef Yamamoto sign our menus from the evening. More than willing to oblige, he ran to the back and brought back additional slips of paper with the Chef's name. I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on the Japanese culture, so to be quite honest, I was terribly confused. Our guide went on to explain that Chef Yamamoto does not sign the menu because the ink from the pen would leak through and bleed all over the paper, hence the additional slip. Ah-hah!
Finally, we were escorted outside where we could express our gratitude to Chef Yamamoto for a memorable dining experience. It was my hope that we would be able to have a quick peek in the kitchen, but unfortunately, that didn't happen.
Dinner at Nihonryori Ryugin proved to be a very memorable experience and I would expect nothing less from a three-star Michelin restaurant. The service was impeccable and the tasting menu featured some of Japan's finest cuisine. I am incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity and to share it with one of my dearest friends.
Tariff: ¥27,000 and an additional 10% service charge will be added. I don't remember the exact price of our wine and saké flight, but my final charge that evening was approximately $500.00 USD. While this may seem a bit more on the expensive side, it's relatively reasonable considering the charge at Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi Hills.
Can't Miss: I had two dishes that I absolutely adored: Pheasant Rice and the Saké Ice Cream and Saké Souffle
Potential Pass: While I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to sample Shark Fin, I believe I would pass on this dish in the future.
Until Next Time!