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Kagura: Refined traditional dining minus the airs and graces

by Robbie Swinnerton

Akasaka’s restaurants are an eclectic mix. Cheek-by-jowl with the raucous pubs, ramen counters and Korean kimchee kitchens, you find inscrutable anonymous facades, many of them exclusive ryōtei (traditional restaurants) reserved for politicians and captains of industry.

Kagura does not operate at that rarefied level. But even so, it gives little away from the outside save for the kanji characters of its name illuminated on the wall, and a concise menu (also in Japanese) by the imposing dark-wood door.

It’s certainly not the sort of place you’d enter on a whim. And even if you did, you’d be turned away, as it’s invariably full. If you like the intricacy of high-end Japanese cuisine but in a relaxed setting, then it’s well worth picking up the phone to make that booking.

Firstly, it’s beautifully designed, in a stylish modern take on tradition. Apart from a chunky wooden table to one side, big enough for four well-padded armchairs, everyone sits at a long, low counter that runs diagonally across the room (be warned, some of the seats are just cushions on the hard wooden floor). The rest of the chamber remains unused. Having this much empty space around you is a rare luxury in Tokyo.

There are no chefs behind that counter. The food is prepared out of sight in the kitchen downstairs and ferried to you by an efficient team of kimono-clad waitresses. Like the decor, it beautifully straddles the intersect between traditional and contemporary.

Unless you have guests to impress, the middle of the three menu options (¥8,000, ¥12,000 or ¥15,000) should be more than adequate. It comprises eight separate dishes, before concluding with the usual rice course and light dessert.

At this time of year as we segue into summer, the appetizers are likely to include junsai, a refreshing water plant that has a natural jelly-like coating around its crunchy inner stem. There will be tofu dishes and seafood, all delicate and intended to coax your appetite into action.

Right now the sashimi plate is katsuo-tataki, the classic recipe in which Shikoku skipjack is lightly seared over a fire of burning rice straw to impart a smoky accent to the raw red flesh. Other highlights of the current menu are a vivid jade-green soup made from crushed peas, served with white asparagus; and morsels of sushi rice topped with anago (conger eel) and bright red, aromatic myōga bud.

The “main course” is shabu-shabu of premium wagyū beef, which you prepare for yourself in a casserole heated up at the table. The remaining dashi broth will then be used to prepare a soft, rich omelet, again right by your seat, served over the rice that signifies the end of the meal.

Kagura was set up by Fukumitsuya, one of Ishikawa Prefecture’s best sake breweries. A bottle of its finest daiginjō makes the perfect accompaniment to cuisine of such a high standard.

At lunch, Kagura offers much simpler set meals based around ni-anago (simmered conger) served as ochazuke (drenched in hot green tea). Only a dozen servings are prepared each day, so calling ahead is just as imperative as at dinner

5-5-9 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-3585-3030; www.kagura-akasaka.com; 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. (L.O.) and 5:30-10 p.m. (L.O.), closed Sat. lunch, Sun.; nearest station Akasaka; no smoking; lunch ¥1,600; dinner from ¥8,000 (plus drinks); major cards OK; no menu; little English spoken. Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.