We may be lovers of food, but by no means are we experts in Japan’s rich food culture. Despite this lack of knowledge we do have one finely tuned skill and love — researching. For our short two night maiden voyage to Japan we had to stay laser focused. It is easy for food obsessed people like ourselves to get overwhelmed when one can literally walk in any joint off the street and have a good meal — really there are endless food options. To be certain that we spend our time wisely we decided that we must call in the big guns, our friends and food bloggers skinnybib and tomostyle for a no bs list of where to go. With their help combined with some insights gleaned from the Michelin guide, luxeats and Tablelog ( with google translate ) we were able to put together a solid list.
After intense debates, complicated by an interesting reservations systems (reservations need to be made through the concierge of the Hotel where you are staying ) we were able to book the three restaurants that were worth traveling for: RyuGin, Sawada and Den.
First stop was Ryugin where we had a wonderful Kaiseki style dinner (more to come on this in a future post).
That night, Jose insisted on shutting the light blocking shades in the hotel room and because of this we managed sleep through the morning and into the afternoon. We thankfully were awakened up by a call from our nervous friend and guide Tomo, wondering where we were. It was 12pm and we were late for our lunch at Sawada — not the best way to start a trip! We threw on some clothes, hopped in a cab and arrived there 1hour late. Many of you reading this are from NYC where being late for dinner is considered by many as standard procedure. If you plan to go to Tokyo, let me warn you, restaurants take reservations very seriously and one must be on time, or even better, arrive 15 minutes early. The experience at Sawada suffered greatly as a result of our tardiness. While the food was very good, we could tell that the pissed off chef held back and did not allow us to experience the full glory of this place.
After a shopping spree, where we bought everything from beautiful Kiriko glasses 薩摩切子 to the incredible friXion erasable pilot pens, it was time for dinner at Den. To be honest after our serious and somewhat inhospitable lunch at Sawada we didn’t know what to expect from Den, would it be yet another formal almost ritual-like Kaiseki dinner. Thankfully Den surprised us, so much so that i can honestly say that it was unlike any other place we have been to.
Let’s start with the location. Den is not your standard 2 Michelin star restaurant: they do not wave in foodies like they do big planes into an airport, instead they are much more discreet, leaving the diners up to their own navigational skills to find this subtly marked establishment in Jimbocho. (Side note- The experience of finding most restaurants in Tokyo is akin to being a part of a scavenger hunt in a labyrinth, you are bound to get lost. In this device centric society being lost and vulnerable is so unfamiliar that it triggers a strange invigorating sense. If you have the time, I highly recommend getting lost.)
Anyway, don’t get intimidated, the restaurant is not that hard to find, the best way is to arrive is via the Jimbocho station subway stop. Take exit 3 up to the street level. When you exit the train station and walk on the right hand side, you will find a 7 eleven, and the restaurant will be in that alley on the left.
Chef background: Young Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa, like many of his Europeans counterparts, is taking the traditional cooking of his country, in this case Japan and Kaiseki, and giving it a modernist, intellectual and innovative twist. Zaiyou’s unique approach is hard to classify under any current food movements or trends, but if I had to summarize it I would say he is doing something like a playful Terroir focused Kaiseki.
Den not only is technical, intellectual and inventive Kaiseki 2 Michelin starred food –it often went rogue, masking itself as comedy club led by the stand up comedian himself, chef Zaiyu. Let me tell you bringing playfulness and humor into a dinner goes a long way… why do most of the best restaurants feel the need to prescribe to such soulless formality?
Food: Diner started with an amuse-bouche: Monaka wafer. Monaka is a Japanese sweet similar to a ice-cream sandwich, but traditionally filled in with adzuki bean jam. As we said things are not as they appear, the Monaka was stuffed with rich foie gras, dried Japanese persimmon and pickled radish. Quite a thoughtful sweet sour combination that worked very well for our western palate.
The next course was the Hassun (八寸): the seasonal dish, and was the most surprising of the night. The explosive combination of junsai, passion fruit, fish roe, caulerpa lentillifera and lotus leaf created flavors and
We were completely surprised when the next course came out in a rebranded KFC box. This was the moment when we saw Zaiyou’s true comedic genius. As hilarious as the box was, it was what was in the box that truly blew us away. (Side Note: from what we hear, eating KFC on Christmas is a Japanese tradition. Somewhat similar to the Jewish tradition of eating Chinese food)
The Wait staff: The staff has a great deal of fun with the diners, often breaking into fits of laughter when …hearing a few of our requests. “Can you pose with your KFC box?” Unlike many places the servers and chefs are very intent on knowing what you really think of the food, often lingering behind you as you take your first bite.
The Sea Bass crudo was a brilliant dish! The fish was artfully paired with a sweet and tangy plum sauce. This sweet addition took the fish to new heights.
In between the dishes the chef taught us a bit about wasabi and allowed me to try grinding it down into the familiar puree like texture. We also learned that the wasabi root has two different flavor profiles. One side of the root is mild while the other side has a spicier bite to it.
Below the chef shows us a dirty potato from the garden and then proceeds to place it in my dish. Dont worry it wasn’t really a dirt coated potato…
Overview: Den’s website says food is intended to make people happy, homemade dishes that bring a smile. I think they have this worked out to a T for when we walked down the alley after dinner Jose and I were smiling ear to ear. – Don’t open a shop unless you like to smile – Chinese Proverb
Serious cooking does not have to go hand in hand with a serious rigid dining experience. Cooking, like many disciplines i.e. design or art, is about a diversity of approaches…I will take hands down the fun one.
Overall a great an unique experience, the best one on this trip to Tokyo and perhaps one of the top dinners ever. Indeed a restaurant that is worth a trip no matter how far away you might be.
Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa
Jimbocho, Kanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo