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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ryugin-Michelin 2 star in Japan better than 3 star in California?

Roppongi 7-17-24
Roppongi Building 1F

6 pm- 2 am daily, closed Sundays

On my recent visit to Tokyo, I had the task of choosing one great meal. Initially, my intention was to explore the finest dining Tokyo had to offer over three nights and three amazing dinners. However, my plans changed and I felt it best to cut it down to just one. I still took advantage of Tokyo's great cuisine...I just wasn't able to fully utilize the list of Michelin rated restaurants I received from Kevin, of kevineats.com.

After a bit of soul searching, I decided on Ryugin. Per my research(and a generous helping hand from Thi), I found that Chef Seiji Yamamoto presented a non traditional kaiseke meal. I secured a 6:00 pm reservation and showed up on Ryugin's doorstep on my second night in Tokyo.

Upon seating, I was presented with two different meal options. The first, for about 21,000 yen, looked quite good. The second, for 27,650 yen, looked quite similar, with the main difference being an offering of Ryugin's House Special Soft-Shelled Turtle Soup. My waiter, Takeo, was extremely responsible and immediately relayed his concerns that Americans usually didn't like the soup. So...I opted for the meal with the turtle soup.

I proceeded to go over the sake menu, and Takeo came up with two great sakes to go with my food.

We started with an Ichiaban Dashi Soup with puree of Maitake mushrooms and conger eel.

The soup was slightly tangy and a fantastic start to the meal. Hidden in the soup was a nice piece of conger eel that gave a textural parade in my mouth. I was then presented with a deep fried sea urchin wrapped in seaweed.

The uni was accompanied by slightly seasoned sliced of Matsutake mushrooms and spinach. Lightly battered, it was rich and smooth. Next, we had Aichi figs with port flavored foie gras terrine and sesame cream.

This picture doesn't do it justice. The terrine was silky smooth and delicately flavored. The figs were tender and a bit sweet. The combination, with the sesame cream, was absolute heaven.

Each bite melted in my mouth and I began to realize the depth of the Chef's skills and culinary knowledge.

After this bit of heaven, the dish I'd been waiting for all night came. Blue japanese swimming crab meat and Shanghai River crab eggs, on top of tender abalone. The crab was topped with apple vinager gelee.

The last time I had Shanghai River crab eggs was 25 years ago in China. I remember begging my parents to bring back some crabs each time they went back for 4 or 5 years after that. The chef added the Japanese Blue Swimmer crabmeat because the meat of the Shanghai River crab lacks in flavor. With the tender and sweet abalone, I felt like I could have died and been happy. This dish was everything I could have ever wanted in a last meal. I contemplated begging for one more serving, but refrained.

The next dish was the infamous soft-shelled turtle soup. Meat from the turtle was minced and wrapped in napa cabbage, making meatballs in the soup. A piece of turtle skin topped it all.

The soup was encapsulated with the flavor imparted by fried leeks. Overall, this was thought provoking and...weird. Good, but strange. I've been trying to figure out how to describe the flavors, but I can't. I'm just happy I was able to try something so different.
The next dish was an assortment of sashimi.

We had saury, Japanese bluefin toro, slightly seared lobster claw meat from the English Channel, and Japanese squid topped with incredible Beluga caviar. Each offering was the best I'd ever had. The chef came out and poured the house made soy himself. This is where I learned he was only the tender age of 38. I praised him on his grasp of food, secretly hoping he would hook me up.

The next dish was Japanese ankimo with house made tofu.

Never have I had ankimo that had no hint of fishiness, and such a pleasant sweetness. At this point, I truly felt like I was on a journey. Next was a chargrilled seaperch.

The fish was encrusted with rice that was crisped. The image of the fish was actually sauce that I was instructed to rub the fish into. Freeze dried tofu and lotus root rounded out the flavors of the dish.

The next dish was Japanese pigeon.

The rare pigeon meat, with its slight game-like taste, was thought provoking and, quite frankly, close to being the best dish of the night. If it wasn't for memories of Shanghai crab eggs, this would be the deal maker. Paired with soy mash topped with seasonal white truffle shavings, this gorgeous dish made me rethink life. The generous portion of white truffle shavings completely engulfed its aroma into the soy mash. I immediately promised myself to shop for white truffles as soon as I returned($250 a truffle on the internet. I'm rethinking my posture on the issue)

The last savory dish served was a chargrilled Pacific Saury and shaved chestnut form Kyoto, on rice, with miso soup.

The saury was a bit fishy, but paired with the charred skin and the salty miso, this dish was quite good. I'd like to think this dish was better than I remembered, but every single dish prior to this was awe inspiring, and this dish fell a bit short of that.

Now we had the finishing touches, to cleanse the palate and to enrichen the tongue.

Ginger gelee made with six degrees pressure with fresh Asian pears. The ginger gelee bubbled from the CO2. The flavor was overwhelmingly strong of ginger, but was tempered nicely by the pear.

Caramel ice cream with 'Wasnbon Sugar'. Served with grated milk curd and a genmai tea on the side(not pictured). The caramel ice cream, topped with what was essentially dried condensed milk shavings, was familiar, yet new. The shavings melted on my tongue along with the ice cream, and left a slightly burnt sugar flavor.

Baked yuzu and orange cake, served on a red maple leaf presentation. The cake, slightly tangy, slightly sweet, was an amazing finish to this culinary journey. Slight hints of orange peel, with the tartness of yuzu, balanced well on the palate, and left me refreshed.

Overall, this was a thought provoking meal that took me on a journey I'd never been on before. This was an excercise on the use of the best ingredients available, not only in Japan, but in the world. It was a meeting of old world kaiseke with new world ingredients that included the implementation of state of the art tactics and new world flavor combinations, along with classic pairings.

So the question comes to mind...is a Michelin 2 star in Japan better than a Michelin 3 star in California? My answer is juvenile, at best, as I've only been to one 3 star in California, and one 2 star in Japan. But based on my minimal experience, I would give a resounding yes. Maybe my tastes have something to do with it...I've grown up with many of these Asian flavors. To pair them with my favorite non-Asian flavors, and to do it successfully, makes me think so. Ryugin was an eye opener, and 8 days later, I'm still smiling at the memories of that crabmeat on my tongue.

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