Tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) expressed the four principles of chanoyu, the Japanese ‘Way of Tea’, with four characters: Wa Kei Sei Jaku (harmony, respect, purity, tranquility). They are the principles that practitioners of tea integrate into their craft and their daily lives, and what has now become synonymous with Japanese hospitality. Peace, humility and selflessness are how the Japanese try to live (albeit with a hefty dose of shyness), and the service industry is also built on these teachings. Such Japanese hospitality is taken to an entirely different level in a traditional ryotei where a diner can experience ultimate bliss through a kaiseki meal.
Japanese hospitality begins the moment one calls to make a reservation at a place like Kohaku, a quaint ryotei that opened last fall in Kagurazaka, a beautiful neighborhood in Tokyo where real geisha can still be seen walking along the cobblestone streets. Through winding roads, narrow alleyways and mysterious staircases lit with lanterns, Kagurazaka seems like a maze, but it is one of the most charming areas of the city where one can time travel back to old Tokyo. While many ryotei in Kagurazaka maintain a strict policy of ‘Ichigen sama okotowari’ (‘We respectfully decline first time customers. Reservations are only made with the introduction from a regular customer’) as a way to honor and respect their regular patrons, most, like Kohaku, have an open door policy.
‘Thank you very much for calling Kohaku. We will be awaiting your arrival on your reservation day,’ they said, promptly following the call with a fax of a map and directions to the restaurant. On the evening of my dinner, they indeed were waiting for my arrival out in front of the restaurant entrance with beautiful Japanese umbrellas ready to protect me from the light drizzle of rain that the dark grey clouds were about to deliver. Welcome, they said with warm smiles, addressing me by my name as if they knew me, and I instantly felt like I was coming home to a familiar place.
Kohaku is the more casual sister restaurant to famed 3 Michelin star Ishikawa, a traditional ryotei in Kagurazaka run by Chef Hideki Ishikawa. Kohaku’s chef and owner, Koji Koizumi, was at Ishikawa from the very beginning, serving as Ishikawa’s right hand man for years. When Ishikawa moved his Michelin feted establishment to a new location in 2008, it was an easy decision to trust Koizumi to make something special out of that space. While Ishikawa stays true to traditional Japanese kaiseki flavors and concepts, Kohaku ventures into the modern, incorporating ingredients not usually associated with Japanese cuisine and giving kaiseki an avant garde twist.
The kaiseki begins with a delectable dish of uni in its own spiny receptacle, filled with layers of light refreshing flavors and crisp textures. Diced cucumbers, crunchy and fresh, are followed by slippery junsai that slide across my tongue like water-striders on a pond. Chilled yuzu gelée, perfectly sweet and tart, add bright summer notes to the buttery sea urchin for a memorable dish that starts the kaiseki off on a high note.
Chef Koizumi’s food at Kohaku can perhaps be classified as nouveau kaiseki, introducing a different way to enjoy this elegant style of Japanese cuisine. His playfulness can be seen throughout his courses, enough to intrigue the diner’s curiosity but fortunately without compromising classic flavors and preparation. There is nothing more important in Japanese cuisine than tradition, and he stays faithful to that concept while presenting his tasteful creativity. The temari sushi course, for one, delightfully perfumed with the enticing aromas of roasted sesame seeds and green yuzu rinds, showcases that prized brininess unique to caviar while bringing a level of familiarity and comfort to this non-native roe.
Yet at the same time, he excels and ultimately impresses with simple seasonal dishes like deep fried ayu, sweet finger-sized river fish eaten whole from head to tail, the slight bitterness of its intestines and a smidgen of seaweed salt the perfect complements to the watermelon-like flavors of its succulent flesh.
As with any traditional kaiseki meal, great care is taken in choosing the correct vessels for food and beverage, for it forms the framework within which to showcase the art. One can feel the sensibility of a chef through the ceramics and glasses that are used, and my moment of adoration for Chef Koizumi came when our sake arrived, perfectly chilled in a gorgeous hand hammered pewter cup, ready to pour into the most perfect little brown-glazed ochokos that made our sake taste unforgettable.
Tiny pinky crustaceans called sakura ebi, or cherry shrimp from Suruga Bay in Shizuoka prefecture, colorfully dot the surface of the warm somen noodle dish served in a white miso broth with shiitake mushrooms, mitsuba herbs and shaved white negi. It’s a comforting dish, one that satisfies any craving, transporting its recipient to a full course of blissful slurping and a habit-forming shrimp high.
Early summer bounties unite in joyous celebration in a luscious creamy black truffle sauce brimming with beautiful earthy notes. I bite into the thin stalk of himetake bamboo shoot and it reciprocates with a vigorous crunch and a delicate milky flavor. Juicy mizu nasu eggplants from Senshu are as sweet as apples and the ainame fillet, a rock fish only found in Japan around this time of year, tastes as happy as it looks to be bathing in truffle sauce.
Chef Koizumi keeps the kegani hairy crab dish simple with a cut of asparagus and yuzu gelée, for the sweetness of the Hokkaido crab does not require much more than those little accents, and simplicity, after all, is one of the hallmarks of Japanese cuisine.
There is no summer ingredient that symbolizes the mastery of a Japanese chef better than hamo, or pike conger, a long powerful fish whose razor sharp teeth and vicious face are no indication of its delicate sweet white flesh. Hamo are laden with rows of tiny coarse bones that are impossible to remove, and only a skillful chef with superior knife skills can perform honegiri, making precise incisions into the bones without cutting through the skin. The result of Chef Koizumi’s workmanship is tender hamo, flesh and bones, tossed with myoga, shiso and hamo skin that has been blanched in hot water, proudly served on a bed of chilled pickled plum gelée that has been sieved to a fine texture. Little dollops of grated ginger, wasabi and spicy daikon radish allow the diner to enjoy different flavors to augment the tartness of the ume sauce.
The high collagen content of suppon, or snapping turtle, naturally renders its hearty broth gelatinous and silky, and viscous enough for the little bits of sweet corn, winter melon, snap peas, scallops and tiger prawns to appear suspended in time and place. The turtle soup is comforting, and like nutrient rich liquid gold it glides down my palate and invigorates me with its Midas touch.
The wanmono course (rice dish) of a kaiseki meal signifies the impending end to the culinary experience, and we are given 2 choices, of which we take both. Wagyu beef, slow braised to exquisite tenderness and quickly pan seared with sweet corn and young onions, is served on a bed of warm white rice and nori.
The triumphant winner however, is a truffle zousui, a soft rice soup simmered in katsuo kombu dashi and garnished with corn and plentiful shavings of summer black truffle. Ocean and land gently embrace in a delicious collaboration of delicate aromas and flavors for an ultimate experience of pure goodness.
Sweet Yubari melons at its juiciest summer peak are highlighted in the dessert course as a bright orange melon soup with rum bavarois, sherry sorbet and a drizzle of kuromitsu (brown sugar syrup), all neatly presented in beautiful red lacquerware.
This beautiful kaiseki meal at Kohaku, course after delicious course, shows an honest and straight look into how Chef Koizumi sees the world. It’s a world that joyously celebrates the seasons, that gracefully moves within the subtleties of Japanese art forms, that lovingly honours the harmony between man and nature, that cultivates mutual open-mindedness between traditional and modern, and flowing through it all like a gentle stream is a sense of comfort and peace, unperturbed. It’s a world created on the principles of Wa Kei Sei Jaku (harmony, respect, purity, tranquility)- a world that I would love to visit again, perhaps on another drizzly summer evening where they will be waiting for me outside, welcoming me back under those majestic Japanese umbrellas.
Kohaku 虎白 3-4 Kagurazaka Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo Japan 03-5225-0807
Update: Kohaku was awarded 2 Michelin stars for the 2012 Tokyo Michelin Guide- well deserved!
Random trivia: Did you know that Yubari melons are the most expensive melons in the world? A pair of Yubaris sold for 2.5 million yen (~USD 23,800) in 2008′s first harvest auction in Sapporo, Hokkaido. They usually sell for USD 50-100 in the market.