I n Tokyo, the tradition of a high-end restaurant with a very exclusive clientele still thrives. In quiet corners of this famously gastronomic city, chefs of immense talent and dedication preside over tiny restaurants that are difficult, if not impossible, for the uninitiated to enter. Here, the concept of omotenashi, an idea of service that incorporates premium ingredients, meticulous attention to detail and fierce commitment to offering each customer an exemplary dining experience, is no abstract idea but a driving principle.
Take Kawamura, for example, which is famous for three things: superb beef, inaccessibility and prices that are, even by the standards of Tokyo fine dining, high. Not for nothing is Chef Kawamura one of Japan’s biggest importers of Alba’s heady white truffles.
There is a mystique about Kawamura that begins with the location. To say it is nondescript is an understatement. In a back street in Ginza in an undistinguished building is an unexceptional door that could lead to… a storeroom? A broom cupboard? In fact, behind the door is the tiniest and most exclusive of restaurants: a jewel. A reservation for one of the eight seats at the L-shaped counter can only be had by invitation. Once there, the diner is seduced by dish after perfect dish, not all of them meaty: abalone with Beluga caviar; an oyster, freshly shucked, battered and 81deep-fried; and white truffle, should the season be right, in everything from pasta dishes to ice-cream and as a pure truffle ‘chip’.
The meat, however, is the main event. Kobe is a kind of wagyu, the distinctively marbled, tender, prized top tier of Japanese beef. The cows can only come from the Tajima strain of the Japanese Black breed, and must be raised in Hyogo Prefecture (where the port-city of Kobe is the prefectural capital). This is the meat that, Chef Kawamura says, he has worked so hard to champion: it is, he feels, in a class of its own.
At his restaurant, which may be the world’s most exclusive and intimate steakhouse club, that admiration for his main ingredient marbles every beef dish, from a clear, intense and unexpectedly sweet consommé to a silky wagyu tartare and steaks so tender they can almost be sliced with a spoon. Chef Kawamura has the beef cooking over a low heat throughout the seating and, when it is served, the fat is body temperature and the meat medium-rare. There is no seasoning because Chef Kawamura believes it is best to taste the beef unadulterated.
He has said that the dishes he prepares are “orthodox or simple” and it is the ingredients that shine. When Mikael Jonsson – then-Head Chef of his own Michelin-starred restaurant, Hedone, in London – visited, he wrote that the beef was “so good that superlatives like ‘exceptional’, ‘extraordinary’ or ‘as good as it will ever get’ all seemed insufficient.” Incidentally, regarding those Michelin stars, it is said that Kawamura has declined any such recognition by the venerable French organisation, preferring to keep itself a culinary secret to all but a select audience.
The meal typically ends with a perfect French flan with a caramel sauce. For diners who are loath to end the experience, Chef Kawamura offers the option of the most indulgent takeaway ever, in the form of a wooden box snugly fitted with four precisely tailored and deeply filled beef katsu sandwiches to savour at home.
These days, Tokyo’s Kagurazaka neighbourhood is a fashionable place to shop, but in the Edo period it was an entertainment district notable for its geisha houses. Some of these houses survive, hidden away in narrow alleys. Behind the Zenkoku-ji Temple, and equally lowkey, is a tan-coloured, varnish-wood slatted door, set in a charcoal-grey wooden wall. The most minimal of signs indicates what is beyond, which is a stone path through an open courtyard, cleansed daily with water in accordance with the traditions of Japan’s Shinto religion, past a pond filled with fish, leading to Kagurazaka Ishikawa.
Kimono-clad ladies welcome diners inside to where Chef Hideki Ishikawa cooks with such fervour and delicacy that this, his flagship restaurant (he has three others in the city), is one of 12 places in Tokyo to have been awarded three stars in the Michelin Guide – which it has held onto since the red book made its Tokyo debut in 2008.
“The ritual is not prayer but kaiseki, with a devotion to seasonality and to making the most of every morsel”
Diners take their place at the seven-seat counter or in one of the private rooms, which accommodate up to six people each. If the atmosphere here, too, has something of a temple about it, that is not accidental. The ritual is not prayer but kaiseki – multi-course cuisine – with a devotion to seasonality and to making the most of every morsel. The precision and minimalism of execution have something worshipful about them. Alternatively, the exquisite dishes – such as crispy sea turtle croquettes, horsehair crab with dashi jelly, or wagyu beef done shabu-shabu style (in a hotpot with stock and, in this case, fern) – could be seen as the height of hedonism, each one a masterpiece of flavour and texture, served on its own beautiful piece of crockery.
Jun Yukimura came from Kyoto to the old-school Azabu-Juban area of Tokyo to open Azabu Yukimura in 2000, and its instant popularity has never flagged – although given he has just 10 seats at the counter plus an additional table for four, popularity may not be what he was seeking.
Despite the fact that Chef Yukimura’s restaurant is on the main street, there is no signboard, just a small business card. An elevator takes guests up to the third floor and a small restaurant of polished wood, with an intimate half-hexagonal counter seating 10 and a table for four to six diners.
The influence of a quarter-century spent learning his trade in his home town is still strong: Chef Yukimura sources most of his ingredients from Kyoto. These include the famous Taiza-gani: snow crabs from Taiza port, where the depth of the water close to shore and the diminutive size of the boats mean that, between November and March, small numbers of crabs are landed, auctioned and eaten as fresh as they could be. With this delicacy and many others – charcoal-grilled ayu (sweetfish); pike conger eel, delicately sliced by the chef using knives by Aritsugu, once the manufacturer of swords for samurai and emperors; soba noodles with grated dried mullet roe; the succulent marbled beef from Matsusaka, 75 miles southeast of Kyoto – Chef Yukimura plays elegantly with the gastronomic traditions of that city. He has, he says, a passion for promoting the culinary traditions and produce of Kyoto, and seasonal produce is central to his cooking. Both statements that, for anyone who has the chance to sit at his counter, watch him work and taste his superb food, are surplus to requirements. Nothing else in this tiny restaurant is.
“Between November and March, taiza-gani snow crabs are landed, auctioned and eaten as fresh as they could be”
You may, of course, choose to drink wine but, should you order sake, staff will bring a tray with an assortment of glasses, each unique in colour and shape, part of Chef Yukimura’s collection of antique and modern artists’ creations. Select a glass, then select your sake.
Azabu Yukimara has two sister restaurants: Azabu Rokkaku, opened in 2008, and Azabu Shingetsu, opened in 2009. The main reason behind the two newer restaurants, says Yukimara, who was born in 1960, is to create opportunities for younger chefs to excel.
Sitting snug in a cul-de-sac behind the US Embassy, Matsukawa is another tiny invitation-only Michelin-declining establishment where Tadayoshi Matsukawa serves beautiful kaiseki to a select few – with the additional caveat that the bill must be paid in cash. There is a little more to see from the outside compared to the other institutions in this essay: the restaurant has large windows that allows passers-by to partially see into two private dining rooms – partially, because the blinds are half drawn so that only the lower half of the room is visible. The effect by night is quite beautiful, like a living painting.
The scene inside is similarly enticing: as with all these restaurants, the lighting is low and soft, and chefs are in their impeccable whites. There are seven seats at the counter and three private rooms.
A meal at Matsukawa always involves the best seasonal ingredients, so there are Taiza-gani crabs and possibly fugu sashimi in winter; spring brings togekuri-gani (helmet crab) and clams; summer might see soba noodles served in a hollowed-out block of ice. All year round, the dashi stock is intense and savoury, the abalone cut thick, its richness balanced by an enlivening squeeze of the Japanese citrus known as sudachi; dessert is often mizu-yokan – yokan is a jelly made of red beans and mizu means water in Japanese – a silky, pillow-soft delight that melts on the tongue.
Matsukawa is frequently cited as the best restaurant in Japan. But, given the minimalist capacity and exceptional quality of all the places mentioned, there is competition for that particular accolade.