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Kagurazaka GiroGiro: Kyoto import brings a youthful buzz to kaiseki

by Robbie Swinnerton

The plate is a deep turquoise blue, hand-thrown and uneven. The sliver of fish on top, its skin grilled to a burnished copper, sits on a jade green sauce. The place mat depicts a neon psychedelic geisha. Welcome to the Technicolor world of dining, GiroGiro style.

There are plenty of restaurants that have come up with new twists on Japan’s traditional kaiseki cuisine. But few have had such an impact or taken it so far into alternative territory as GiroGiro Hitoshina. Over the past five years, it has gone from Kyoto’s most happening little under-the-radar scene to one of the most talked-about dinner spots in the old capital. It has spawned branches in Paris and Hawaii. Now it has arrived in Tokyo.

Fittingly, GiroGiro has touched down in one of the few neighborhoods in the metropolis that can hold a candle to Kyoto in terms of atmosphere. Kagurazaka boasts winding cobbled alleys, sudden inclines, even occasional glimpses of geisha. And despite gentrification in recent years, it has long concealed an irreverent, alternative side.

The location is a perfect fit. From a busy main boulevard, you head along a quiet, pedestrian-only side street. Then you turn again down an alley so narrow you can’t extend your arms fully, illuminated only by small lights at ankle height.

It feels hushed and a bit exclusive — but only until you slide open the retro-styled door of wood and frosted glass and step inside. GiroGiro has a second-floor dining room with private alcoves, accessed by a wooden staircase. But the place to sit is downstairs at the narrow counter that runs three sides of the bright, boisterous open kitchen.

Not only do you see your and everyone else’s dinner being prepared, you get to observe — and be part of, if your Japanese bantering skills are up to par — the repartee and interaction that is an essential facet of the GiroGiro experience.

The kitchen crew may not have the exuberant haircuts of their counterparts at the Kyoto mothership restaurant, but they’re the antithesis of the stolid, silent high-end chefs of stereotype. So go ahead and chat.

The guy at the front, the head chef, is called Tara-chan (literally, “Codfish”). His second in command is Katsuo-chan (“Bonito”). Why have they adopted stage names? Because at GiroGiro, dinner is as much a performance as a culinary art.

Make no mistake, though: The cuisine they serve is no joke at all. There’s no menu, apart from the drinks list. Each day they prepare a single omakase (leave it up to the chef) meal that comprises nine courses, many of them quite complex and creative. And at ¥4,500 all in (not counting your drinks, of course) it’s a veritable bargain.

As always with Japanese cuisine, the exact composition of the meal will vary with the season. They change their menu around the middle of each month so, for the next week or so, they will still feature plenty of autumn produce.

The meal opens with a flourish. Known in kaiseki parlance as the sakizuke, the first course should set the tone for the whole meal. That bold blue plate certainly makes a statement; but so does the fish, a sliver of managatsuo (pomfret) seasoned with miso and left to dry overnight to firm up the texture before being sliced and grilled.

Things get even more interesting with the zensai starter tray. On the current menu, the intricate arrangement of nibbles included deep-fried ginkgo nuts; dashimaki omelet stuffed with dark burdock root pâté; and an-kimo (monkfish liver) topped with a gelée prepared from ponzu (rice vinegar with soy sauce).

As a centerpiece, there is a cute ceramic container in the shape of a mandarin duck, which holds homemade shiokara (piquant, lightly fermented squid guts). And scattered on the tray were little chips made from kabocha squash, formed into the shape of miniature yellow ginkgo leaves.

Behind all the lighthearted showmanship there is clearly serious intent. And this makes it even easier to relax and enjoy the numerous courses that follow: a warming winter soup thickened with grated daikon concealing deep-fried cod milt; a simple sashimi; and a patty of sushi rice topped with creamy uni (sea urchin) and crunchy arare crackers little bigger than the head of a pin.

The “main” course was another standout: slivers of foie gras sandwiched between batter-fried slices of lotus root. Such an unconventional recipe demands and gets an arresting presentation. Folded into a leaf of green sasa (bamboo grass), it’s served on a curving white ceramic edged with swirling patterns of purple and green.

The meal draws to a close with a refreshing citrus sorbet, rice and homemade nukazuke pickles, a light dessert and a cup of smoky bancha tea. After two and half hours, the performance is over, and it’s time to head out into the Kagurazaka night.

When the original GiroGiro was first becoming known, its approach seemed so out of place in Kyoto that I called it “punk kaiseki.” Here in anything-goes Tokyo, it seems a lot less outrageous. But it’s every bit as satisfying and fun.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.