Mum and Dad love their fine dining, so with them visiting me in Tokyo I had to take them somewhere special. Last time I took them to 3-Michelin-Starred Ishikawa, making a vlog
about it that now makes me cringe. This time, another kaiseki restaurant that was in some ways very similar and in some ways extremely different. This time, I took them to Roppongi’s Ryugin, meaning ‘Dragon Song’, or at a stretch ‘Dragon’s Poetry Recital’, down a quiet road in the shadow of the imposing Roppongi Hills complex.
Ishikawa was more of an ultra-traditional kaiseki meal, whereas Ryugin has more of a modern twist, in cooking and experience alike. Neither was better than the other, and both had flaws as well as strengths, but both were certainly superb dining experiences and offered some of the best flavours I’ve ever enjoyed.
The primary difference between the two kaiseki restaurants was in service style. In Ishikawa we ate in a private room with each course brought through to us individually. It was nice to have very attentive service and privacy, but an open, western-style dining room like Ryugin’s is more comfortable for us and feels inclusive. It’s fun to see what others are getting and to relax in the wash of noise from other people’s chatter. We decided to start with nihonshu (saké), and I played it safe by ordering Nishida Denshu, which I know to be high-quality.
One interesting thing about Ryugin is the importance given to crafts and receptacles. We were given a choice of glasses to use, and they looked not dissimilar to fine jewels. The nihonshu itself was easy to drink, rich in flavour and complimented almost every course well, though perhaps was a bit indelicate to match with fish.
With ingredients drawn from around Japan, there was something very fitting about the first course – chawanmushi savory custard with eggs from Ibaraki (where we went earlier), yuba, or tofu skimmings, from Tokyo (where we were dining) and herring from Hokkaido (where we’re going soon). This was a lovely start, the chawanmushi extremely tasty but the herring in particular better-prepared than I’ve ever had the fish before, and a real pleasure to eat.
Our next dish came covered, with the kind staff freely conversing with us in English, except when I asked something in Japanese. It’s really the level of service that sets 3-Michelin-starred restaurants apart, and the staff here were excellent throughout, not only with us but with other tables nearby who were treated with courtesy but friendliness too.
The dish turned out to be crab with a topping of uni, or sea urchin. The crab was tasty but it was the uni that elevated the dish, the sweetness and creaminess defining the overall flavour. I’m never sure about uni, but when I actually eat it I don’t know why I don’t eat more. Well, Hokkaido’s the place to eat it so I’d better have some there!
The soup course was inventively served in a teapot, with tile fish and little prawn dumplings evocative of Chinese har gao, and an emphasis on the soup being made with water from Mt Fuji – which we were also given bottled as gifts at the end of the meal. The dumpling was very pleasant and while I never really think soup is a meal’s highlight, this was a solid addition to a strong menu.
For us, the meal faltered a little on the sashimi courses, which were much more pleasant at Ishikawa. ‘A Message from the Coast of Japan’ is one of the signature dishes of the restaurant, but this was a stripped down version with two kinds of fish rather than seven. And the first was fugu. I’ve had fugu raw before (as nigiri-zushi) and didn’t like it. It’s chewy and has no strong flavour that I enjoy. Here there were not only thin slices of fugu that were little better here than in the cheap Dotonbori restaurant I sampled the fish before, but scraps of fugu skin and flesh too. The yuzu dip was nice but I just can’t get on with blowfish sashimi. Perhaps I just have a very unsophisticated sashimi palate.
Next was more sashimi, this time stripe bonito. It wasn’t unpleasant like the fugu, but as sashimi it wasn’t what I would call delicious. I like the Western staples of tuna and salmon when it comes to sashimi, and might just be too inexperienced to enjoy this sort of fish, but generally I much prefer bold, simple flavours in my raw fish.
Somen noodles topped with shark’s fin followed. The somen was delicious, with a strong savoury flavour, but I wasn’t convinced by the shark’s fin. It’s something I’ve tried before, in China, and while its texture is very interesting in the mouth, it’s ultimately little more than an add-on to what it accompanies, rather tasteless on its own, and its production is so wasteful and cruel that I really could do without it. I’d much rather have just had the expertly-cooked somen.
Charcoal-grilled perch put things firmly back on track for me, with a grilled fish that was made delicious by the crispy skin. I’ve not had much perch before but I think I ought to try it again sometime.
The venison was an unusual choice in Japan and not quite as nice as Ishikawa’s duck, but was still quite delicious and well-judged in its sparse, somewhat hard accompaniments. The dish was tied together well, but perhaps could have done with some sort of sauce to bring a richer aftertaste.
Once again, rice followed the meat separately. Unlike in Ishikawa, I didn’t feel it was a shame meat and rice were separated, because the rice was cooked with pheasant and accompanied by miso soup this time. On the other hand, the rice wasn’t remarkable for its deliciousness like Ishikawa’s (harvested and cooked the same day), but was actually rather bland.
No such complaints for the desserts, which were by far the best I’ve had in Japan. The first was a little baby mandarin with milk tea ice cream and amazing little crunchy bits of sugar and pepper mixed together. The fruit was a little tart and the small granules were very sweet and the ice cream was in the middle but cold and creamy too, and they all wove together in the most wonderful and changeable way.
But that dish paled beside the superb final course, saké-based desserts served two ways – a hot soufflé and a cold ice cream with little meringue pearls. This was the most delicious meal, with the soft soufflé and the creamy, very slightly tangy ice cream matching one another so perfectly. I was by this time rather full, but could have happily eaten ten more such desserts. A very memorable highlight!
After that, just some matcha to round everything off, and gifts of the chopsticks we’d used, the fun dragon-themed placemats and the water from Mount Fuji. A less traditional but more casual and relaxed experience than Ishikawa, and a very fine companion, this meal excelled in starters and desserts and showcased high-quality Japanese cuisine from beginning to end.