Japanese cuisine at its loftiest is elegant and profound, uplifting, sometimes even transcendent. It can be taut as a tea ceremony or exquisite as a furisode kimono. But inventive, irreverent, humorous? Only at Den.
From the very first bite — most likely a monaka wafer stuffed with rich foie gras — to the final mouthful — invariably a trompe l’oeil dessert — dinner at Den unfolds with a series of unothodoxies, visual puns, witticisms and even conjuring tricks. Whether it’s your first visit or your 30th, there is only one way to approach it: Expect the unexpected.
Not that you’d guess it from the outside. Facing onto a quiet pedestrian-only alley just steps away from the Jimbocho crossing, the dark timber facade looks nothing but traditional. Carefully illuminated and with only a small kanji character on an unobtrusive stick-on seal to identify that you have come to the right place, it feels as discreet and refined as a high-end kaiseki (formal Japanese) restaurant in Kagurazaka.
It’s no coincidence. Den’s youthful owner-chef, Zaiyu Hasegawa, has a family connection with that old-school nightlife district. That is where he began his career, working at Unotoku, an exclusive ryotei (high-end restaurant) where clients are entertained by geisha as they dine. He also learned under other chefs in the area, including a short stint with kaiseki master Hideki Ishikawa.
By the time he was 29, Hasegawa had opened Den. It was a rapid rise, and that upward trajectory is still continuing. Within five years — Hasegawa celebrated his anniversary last month with a full-on collaboration dinner with his friend, chef Hiroyasu Kawate of Florilège — Den has moved from an insiders’ secret to one of the most sought-after bookings in the city.
Still in his mid-30s, Hasegawa and his crew wear old-fashioned chef’s jackets, with white shirts and formal neckties (often plaid). They work in the open kitchen with stern focus on their faces. Which only makes the contrast greater when he hands you a course of deep-fried chicken wings, served in a genuine KFC box, and announces it as Dentucky Fried Chicken.
Of course, the comparison stops there. Not only does he use tebasaki wings from flavorful Daisen jidori, a breed of chicken from Tottori Prefecture, he stuffs them with a variety of ingredients. On one occasion they might include red rice, pine nuts and carrot, to conjure up associations with the chicken in Korean samgyetang soup. On another it could be diced burdock and lotus root, recalling the Fukuoka regional specialty chikuzen-ni.
Debuted for the first time in December as a festive special, Hasegawa’s so-called DFC is a homage to the Japanese predilection for fried chicken as Christmas dinner. Hasegawa has already developed five different variations on this theme. And the reaction from customers has been so positive he says he plans to keep them in his repertoire year-round.
Don’t get the wrong idea: Hasegawa is firmly rooted in the traditions of his illustrious teachers, and his cooking is underpinned by an almost luminous depth of flavor. You realize that from the first sip of his fragrant dashi broth, perhaps in a warming soup featuring aigamo duck breast paired with slivers of negi leek.
Each course is arranged on the plate with as much attention to detail as it’s prepared. A slice of perfectly grilled sawara (seerfish) is accompanied by slivers of colorful seasonal vegetables under a smooth, thick ankake clear sauce. This is confident cuisine that is subtle and serious. Except that when you pick up the golden-yellow ginkgo nuts, you find they have all been branded with little faces staring up at you.
Hasegawa is not the first chef to bend the centuries-old rules of Japanese cuisine by, say, slipping a little dairy food into his dishes. One of the most memorable items from his late-winter full-course set menu is cod milt set into a soft cube with milk and kuzu starch (similar to goma-dōfu), which he dredges lightly with breadcrumbs and crisp-fries golden-brown.
This is, of course, Hasegawa’s take on that simplest of comfort foods, the humble cream korokke. Deep-fried croquettes are a staple of everyday eating, but he elevates them to a level of delicate sophistication. Even if you weren’t brought up on Japanese home cooking, it will likely bring a smile to your face.
Another of Den’s signature dishes is the “salad” that is served in the middle of the meal. At any restaurant, this selection of vegetables — some raw, others cooked, most of them grown organically in his sister’s market garden in western Tokyo — would be a standout. As a key element of a Japanese meal based on the kaiseki conventions, it would be considered a step too far by many purists.
“I cook modern cuisine,” Hasegawa says, “without limits or preconceptions. My only aim is to serve my guests food that is delicious. But I also want to amaze them, to make some magic, to see them eat and then leave with smiles on their faces.”
At its finest, all cooking is imbued with magic. But few restaurants anywhere, let alone in Japan, manage to make it so much fun. Hasegawa is a chef with a serious future ahead of him. At Den, he is creating a new and very individual approach to Japanese cuisine.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.