Sitting down to a kaiseki dinner is rarely a casual decision, least of all in Ginza. Like going to kabuki or shopping for pearls at Mikimoto, you need to budget time and cash for a multi-course meal of traditional cuisine in the glittering heart of Tokyo.
There are exceptions to that rule, but few are more approachable or affordable than Ginza Maru. Just a short block from the department stores, fashion emporiums and milling tourists on the main thoroughfare, this compact second-floor restaurant is a haven of understated calm.
Open exactly a year now, this is the younger, smaller sibling of the excellent Rakushokushu Maru, close to Omotesando. The look is similar: clean, spare decor; timber beams and sliding screen-style partitions to break up the space; counter seats overlooking the open kitchen; and four tables farther back by the windows.
At midday the menu is pared back to a few choices of teishoku set meals, most based around seafood. Few people linger very long. Even so, the quality shines out as many notches above average.
But Maru shows its true colors at dinner. The cheaper of the two omakase set meals (¥6,000 and ¥8,000) follows the standard kaiseki formula through seven courses, all spelled out with commendable precision on the English-language menu.
As at any high-end ryōriya, the exact composition follows the seasonal availability of seafood and produce. The obvious difference, though, is in the kind and quality of the food served.
Although it is now peak mushroom season, you will find shiitake mushrooms rather than matsutake on your plate. Likewise, instead of ise-ebi lobster you are more likely to be served ebi-imo, a superior kind of taro yam. But even with humbler ingredients, there is plenty of expertise in evidence in the cooking.
A typical autumn sakizuke appetizer might comprise new-season persimmon set on a base of rikyu-fu — spongy wheat gluten that is used in Buddhist vegetarian cuisine — topped with creamed tofu and cashew.
The sashimi is glistening fresh. As of last week, it included a side dish of hamo eel from the Inland Sea that was briefly seared over charcoal, then chopped with shiso leaf and daubed with tangy red bainiku (pickled ume plum) sauce.
The most elaborate course is the hassun, an edible anthology of autumn flavors such as chestnuts and ginkgo nuts, with pressed mackerel sushi and wild duck, plus a small bowl of uni urchin on creamy-fresh yuba (soy-milk skin).
To conclude, there is fluffy rice straight from the donabe hot pot, served with soup and a small cruet of seasoned ikura (salmon roe). Dessert is either the house-special steamed custard or perhaps matcha kanten jelly.
Maru is far enough under the radar that you can often book the same day, but it’s worth phoning ahead to snare a counter seat. That way you get to order wagyū beef or other grilled dishes off the small a la carte menu.
2F Ichigo Ginza 612 Bldg., 6-12-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; 03-5537-7420; www.maru-mayfont.jp/ginza; open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. (LO) and 5:30-9 p.m. (LO); closed Sun. and holidays; nearest station Ginza; no smoking; lunch from ¥1,050; dinner menus from ¥6,000; major cards accepted; English menu; English spoken. Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.