The ikebana alcove in the clattering, bustling train station; the Shinto shrine on the roof of a high-rise office building; a bonsai pine outside a garish love hotel: Tokyo throws up juxtapositions of this unlikely sort at every turn. So it comes as no surprise whatsoever to find contemporary ryori at its most stylish and serene, right behind a grimy gas stand.
Like all of the best restaurants, Banrekiryukodo is far more than just a filling station for the appetite; it is a haven for the spirit. Passing through the gateway and into its pocket-size garden, you leave the grubby banality of the street behind. Stepping stones guide you across a miniature sea of pebbles, past a dwarf maple and a stone tank of koi. The heavy wooden door seems to float in a wall of spotless glass. Slide it open and immediately you are ensconced.
At first glance, Banreki (for brevity’s sake, let’s abbreviate that unwieldy name) seems no larger than the average dining bar. A tremendous counter of polished wood — cut from a single akamatsu pine — runs the entire length of the long, low room. It is set with a dozen places, though it’s big enough to seat 20. There is no bar to look at, no open kitchen, no decoration at all, in fact, save for a small display of subtly lit ceramics and lacquer tableware.
There is more here than meets the eye. Banreki has another room at the back, albeit less atmospheric or intimate in scale, for those seeking greater privacy or who want to light up (the main counter seating is entirely nonsmoking). Or you may be ushered down a flight of narrow stairs with walls of packed mud to a basement where three small alcoves are furnished with low tables and comfortable banquettes. For total seclusion, there is also a small tatami room, with a horigotatsu leg well and exquisite furnishings.
Owner Kenji Miyoshi hails from Tokushima, on the north shore of Shikoku. Blending his rural background with a cutting-edge Tokyo sensibility, he has imbued Banreki with the kind of spare, organic simplicity that can only be obtained through painstaking traditional craftsmanship (and at considerable expense). Like the rest of his staff, he wears an tunic of hand-dyed indigo cotton. Once we were settled in with warm oshibori towels and aperitifs, he came over to greet us, carrying a tray displaying the primary ingredients of the evening’s meal — including lotus root, a giant cauliflower, gleaming flatfish and a massive, knobbly taraba-gani (king crab).
This was a simple but brilliant way to whet our appetites and raise our expectations for the meal ahead. We had already selected which of the set courses we wanted, when we called in our reservation. But Miyoshi took pains to confirm there were no ingredients we would prefer to avoid.
The basic 8,000 yen menu consists of seven individual courses, paralleling the traditional kaiseki formula but infused with contemporary touches. Our first dish was a small bowl of delicate shirako-dofu, a small cube of soft cod’s milt creamed and set with kuzu starch. This was served in a thick, hot tarako-jiru, a broth made from the roe of the cod, topped with few extra coils of that creamy fresh milt.
Clearly, this is not Japanese food for beginners. Not only are ingredients like shirako an acquired taste (and texture), but such subtlety and depths of flavor could easily pass unappreciated.
No such problem with the sashimi of premium buri (yellowtail) that followed. Slices of marbled white belly meat, almost as rich and fatty as o-toro tuna, were interspersed with leaner cuts. To balance this delectable oiliness, a small mound of sharply piquant grated daikon was served alongside the wasabi.
Crab croquettes at an establishment of this quality? In Japanese, at least, kani-korokke seems almost comically prosaic. But these were gleaming golden balls of deep-fried yam (starchy ebi-imo, a Kyoto specialty), containing chunks of fresh crab leg, taken from the same giant crab shown to us before the meal.
A generous fillet of nameta-garei (flounder) with thick, satisfying white meat and plump with pink roe, was cooked in the nitsuke style, simmered in a gently sweetened soy and dashi stock until absolutely tender. Paired with a couple of slices of naga-negi (Japanese leek), it was garnished with fragrant kinome leaf and a tangle of finely shredded ginger whose pungency had been tempered through long soaking in running water.
A small “potage” made with ginkgo nuts helped to revivify our appetites. Then on to our final main dish: Iwate pork, grilled and sliced, anointed with a thick sauce of grated lotus root (its blandness offset by a hint of savory miso), matched with a few unadorned vegetables — shishito (sweet green chilies) and cauliflower — of outstanding flavor.
Surprisingly, there was no rice course, or shokuji of any description. Instead, we segued directly to dessert — a generous scoop of homemade chestnut ice cream, topped with a thick layer of lightly sweetened red azuki bean jam and served between two crisp monaka wafers.
From start to finish, we were at table for over three hours, our food and conversation well enhanced by forays into the drinks list. Guided by Miyoshi, we matched some dishes with sake (including a fine Isojiman ginjo, from Shizuoka); others with shochu, and ended with red wine (a Faugeres, fruity but austere).
Banreki epitomizes the subtle alchemy of Japanese dining at its best — the interplay of space, design and lighting, with food of brilliant, complex simplicity and serving vessels of quiet beauty. This synergy, of course, has been at the heart of Japan’s cuisine for centuries. But here tradition meets a contemporary aesthetic that reflects the best of modern Tokyo. The results are remarkable.