A pair of ornamental cherry trees stand like attendants by a sturdy wooden gateway. A narrow flagstone path lined with bamboo and maples curves out of sight in the mid-distance. At one end you are on a nondescript backstreet in Akasaka; at the other lies Kyoto.
You have arrived at the Tokyo outpost of Kikunoi, one of the most illustrious of the exclusive ryōtei restaurants in the ancient capital. Though the setting hardly matches that of the Kyoto original on the tranquil, leafy slopes of the Higashiyama district, nonetheless this is a memorable, magical approach to any meal.
Make your way down that lantern-lit tunnel of foliage and you find yourself outside a freestanding two-story wooden house, modern but evoking the traditional tea-ceremony architecture. Even with the soaring buildings on all sides, it feels like you have left the metropolis far behind.
Kikunoi and its dynamic third-generation owner-chef, Yoshihiro Murata, need little introduction. He is one of the acknowledged masters of kaiseki, the intricate, formalized multicourse style of dining that is Japan’s de facto haute cuisine. And his two Kyoto restaurants — one a formal ryōtei; the other smaller and rather less straight-laced, in kappo (counter) style — boast international reputations.
Here in Tokyo, the Akasaka branch combines those two separate elements under the same roof. Upstairs you dine in secluded privacy at low tables in exquisite teahouse-style rooms. The main ground-floor dining room has a more open and relaxed feel, with seating either at tables, in tatami alcoves or at the two counters, where you can watch the chefs at work preparing your dinner.
And what a feast it is. The top-end menu will include some 15 separate plates, from the elaborate hassun appetizer platter to a “main” dish which, depending on the season, could be fugu pufferfish or crab in winter, ayu sweetfish during the hot months or morsels of rich wagyū beef with musky matsutake mushrooms as soon as autumn arrives.
It is now the supreme season for bamboo shoots. Dug each morning in hillside glades around Kyoto, they are shipped express to Tokyo while they are still tender but crisp, and have that distinctive sweet-edged sharpness of flavor.
Another specialty that reflects the spring is sakura-masu (cherry salmon), so called because its pink flesh evokes the blossoms on the trees outside.
Whatever the season, whatever the ingredient, the flavors are intense and vivid. Murata is famous for the depth of flavor he coaxes from his dashi cooking stock. Prepared from Hokkaido konbu kelp and premium bonito flakes, this is the source of the profound umami savor that underpins just about every course at Kikunoi.
If you order the full-course banquet, do not expect to leave your table for at least three and a half hours. Not that service is slow: The succession of plates is as well paced as they are beautifully presented.
But long, drawn-out occasions of that kind are not always feasible. In the middle of the day, the Kodaiji Feast bentō lunch offers a more concise, affordable introduction that is also lighter on the stomach.
Like a tasting menu in miniature, it is served in a lacquered six-compartment box, with a couple of extra bowls on the side. Each element will vary according to what produce and seafood are at the peak of their season. On a visit in February, this is what I was served.
In the middle there will be a small mix of appetizers, perhaps a slice of nama-fu (fresh, soft wheat gluten), a couple of cuts of kazunoko fish roe, some spring greens and three shiny, sweet-glazed black beans skewered on vivid green pine needles
You also will find a cube of goma-dōfu, sesame custard with the firm texture of tofu; a morsel of fish grilled with savory white miso in the saikyo-yaki style; and a small mound of cubed vegetables in a thick, white, tofu-based shira-ae dressing, reminiscent of the finest, creamiest potato salad you have ever tasted.
Expect to find some deep-fried tidbits and morsels of seafood simmered in fragrant dashi broth, plus a separate saucer of sashimi on the side. To close, there will be soup, rice and then dessert, perhaps a choice of fruit or a traditional Japanese confection.
This is the taste of Kyoto, rarefied but full of flavor and body. Purists may say differently, but at this elevated level of cuisine there is little to distinguish the Akasaka branch of Kikunoi from those in the old capital.
In fact, you could argue that this is the best of the three. Not only does it feel more accessible (many would say less stuffy), it offers the excitement of a visit to Kyoto — but without any need to ride the Shinkansen.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.