Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tokyo Revisited: Kaiseki at the Ritz

Kaiseki at Hinokizaka TokyoWinter has been severe this year the world over. It was about five degrees (C) with a cold wind blowing when I walked out of Narita airport. As I drove over Rainbow Bridge, the red and purple hues of the evening sky reflected off gleaming skyscrapers in the distance and the waterways below - painting the most beautiful panaroma around me.

I was whisked into the lobby of the opulent Ritz-Carlton hotel located on the 45th floor of the tallest building in Tokyo. The soaring ceilings of the lobby lounge with its dazzling views of the city below makes this a great place for a quiet drink or an elaborate afternoon tea.

Some of the best restaurants in Asia are located within hotels. The Ritz in Tokyo is no exception. On one end of the cavernous lobby, Azure 45 and Towers Grill serve French and western fare. On the other, the extraordinary Japanese restaurant complex, housing four different eating places under one roof: Michelin-starred Hinokizaka with its traditional Kaiseki cuisine; Arita, the sushi bar; Shimizu, an intimate tempura experience; and Kutani, with its exceptional Teppanyaki fare.

Kaiseki is an elaborate multi-course dining experience. Food is cooked and served in a way that balances the flavors, texture and colors, presented artfully in plates that enhance the seasonal theme of the meal. The plated food looks so beautiful, it almost seems a shame to disturb it!

Kaiseki at Hinokizaka TokyoI had chosen the Hokuriku option from the three Kaiseki options in Hinokizaka. Hokyriku is a region located in the north-western part of Japan's main Honshu island and is known for its severe snowfalls. But the meal tonight would celebrate the fresh fish from that region.

I chose a glass of sake and sipped on it watching the city of Tokyo ablaze with lights far below me. While Tokyo can look pretty unremarkable during the day-time, the brightly lit neon signs and billboards tranforms this city in the late evenings and through the night.

Kaiseki at Hinokizaka TokyoI was presented with a small plate of thick sweet sake as an aperitif. The appetizers followed: greens from the north of the island with fine strands of raddish and a plate of crabmeat topped with salmon roe. Both dishes uniquely different and very nice!

Kaiseki at Hinokizaka Tokyo
Kaiseki at Hinokizaka TokyoThen came a lidded soup dish with white fish from Hokuriku served on a rice cake and topped with vegetables. The fish was awesome! Such freshness and flavor is something that is not easily matched. The dishes in which every course was served was unique and enhanced the experience considerably.

Kaiseki at Hinokizaka Tokyo
The sashimi platter was as delectible as it was arty in its presentation. Fatty salmon, shrimp and mackarel was served with two different dips: a special soy and a sashimi sauce. While I have seen people mix soy sauce with wasabi in the bowl as a dipping sauce for sushi and sashmi, Japanese foodies recommended a different procedure: put a little wasabi on the fish and then dip into the sauce before putting it in your mouth. I also discovered several alternatives to wasabi in Japan that enhance the flavors of sashimi.

Then came a pretty little dish that looked like a dessert. The waiter added some soup to it making it bubble and steam. The dish was amazing: home made tofu in melted cheese. One of things that stands out in Japanese cuisine is how much care is taken to preserve the natural flavors of ingredients. With so little addition of fat, salt and sugar, it is no wonder they are naturally skinny.

Next came the prime steak of Japanese steak and fried fish. Excellent stuff! Very flavorful and melt-in-the-mouth goodness. I am in love with Japanese steak now - the quality of the meat and the seasoning were completely divine.

The next course of Japanese radish in sesame sauce simmering over an open fire on the table was very interesting. Reminded me of a dish my mom used to serve during childhood days of the freshest raddish boiled and served with a simple topping of mustard oil and sea salt.

Then followed a refresher of seaweed and some kind of tofu with cucumber in a jell served in a hollowed out orange.

Finally, the rice set: an essential part of Japanese dinners. Served with Japanese pickles, a lightly fried mackarel and finely grated raddish with sticky rice and miso soup.

They did add a dessert at the end that seemed more for Western palates: mandarin ice-cream, strawberries and jelly topped with a really strong and sticky syrup.

I brought this fine meal to an end by finishing the cup of Japanese green tea. Oh what a meal! By the time I got up, I had spent almost three hours at the table.

Next post in this series: Shrines and Izakaya Dining


Subhabrata Maitra said...

Hi Shantanu,

i really admire your taste buds and envy your luck!

i am a sous chef working with taj mahal mumbai.

would like to treat you if you ever come to mumbai! meet me at GOLDEN DRAGON !


Shantanu said...

@Subhabrata: Hey, thanks for the comments! Will certainly get in touch when I am next there at the Taj.