Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

Ryugin: Refined flair in the dragon's lair

by Robbie Swinnerton

It’s that season once again, when we pause, look back and savor some of the outstanding meals we have enjoyed over the past year. High on that list has to be going back to eat at Ryugin last month.

This brilliant, high-end Japanese restaurant on the outer fringe of Roppongi is no secret now. How could it be with three consecutive appearances in the mighty Michelin Guide? But when it first opened, back in December 2003, it quietly built up a loyal following and an almost cult reputation on the strength of the innovative approach of its young chef, Seiji Yamamoto.

Just 33 when he set up Ryugin, Yamamoto took inspiration from the new-wave culinary techniques being developed in Europe, especially Spain, adapting them to the Japanese tradition. However, although his cuisine was well worthy of its two-star status, there was one drawback — the setting just didn’t look or feel as exciting as the food that was being served.

All that changed this year. In February, Ryugin underwent a major refurbishment, emerging transformed as if from a chrysalis. Out went the sleek but bland interior that could have been anywhere in the world; in its place is an ornate, elaborate dining room that is one of a kind.

The first thing you notice is the small dragon rising up to greet you at the door. Even if you didn’t know the meaning of the “ryu” in Ryugin, it becomes clear very soon. These mythical creatures crop up throughout, along the walls, adorning the serving dishes (though sometimes this only becomes apparent after you have finished eating), even peering out from the coasters you rest your glass on.

And then there are the Chinese ceramic platters. Set like trophies against the walls, there are more than a score of them, all in vibrant, spot-lit colors, some as big as shields. More light filters through washi-covered panels running in a narrow band just under the ceiling. With no windows, you are in a cocoonlike bubble of oriental opulence. There’s no trace of Zen minimalism here — this is power decor for power dining, Ryugin-style.

Yamamoto’s cuisine is complex and flavorful, in no way dwarfed by the vibrancy of the new look. Ironically, though, at the same time as he has ramped up the decor, he has toned down his use of “molecular” bells and whistles, reverting to a style that is much closer to the classical Japanese principles of kaiseki ryori in which he was trained.

There are no longer any a la carte options, just one omakase chef’s special menu each day. It’s an elaborate presentation of 12 courses that melds traditional kaiseki principles — fresh seasonal ingredients presented in ways that draw out their inherent flavors — but served in an order that draws on the Western gastronomic model.

Instead of dishes based around the various cooking techniques (grilled, simmered, deep-fried, etc.), Yamamoto serves them in procession from hors d’oeuvres, through the fish course, then meat, and ending with dessert — albeit interspersed with rice and noodles. Combined with the Western accents (no tatami mats here; you keep your shoes on throughout), it makes his superb cuisine accessible to everyone, even first-time visitors to Tokyo.

Autumn/winter is always our favorite time of year for Japanese cuisine. The seasonal bounty of seafood, mushrooms and other produce was beautifully reflected throughout our lavish dinner.

The three small zensai appetizers that opened the meal encapsulated the way Yamamoto combines the humble foods of the farmhouse and monastery with prime seasonal ingredients worthy of a shogun. To start, a scoop of okara (the soybean lees left over when making tofu) was mixed with asari and hamaguri clams and served on a plain, unadorned, hand- thrown plate.

By contrast, the next dish featured a small croquette of breaded ebi-imo yam topped with slices of the tenderest abalone we’ve had the pleasure of tasting in a while. And this was followed by dark, rich kani-miso of Shanghai crab, which was juxtaposed with the white pincer meat of waterigani swimmer crab, seasoned with a jelly of tart cider vinegar and tiny cubes of crisp nashi pear.

The suimono clear soup arrived in makie lacquer bowls of black and gold, decorated with fearsome dragons with red eyes and mouths. Removing the lids, our nostrils were assailed by the musky scent of matsutake mushroom along with the heady aroma of freshly made dashi soup stock. Yamamoto prepares the dashi from scratch, shaving the katsuo-bushi (bonito flakes) for each customer only after they have sat down and ordered.

There were creamy-rich an-kimo (monkfish liver, described on the menu as “fish foie gras”) set in a puree of burdock root; pan-fried managatsuo (“harvest fish”) coated with a thick “skin” of crispy popped rice; and cubes of Iwate wagyu beef char-grilled rare, and served with shiitake mushrooms and figs.

In some restaurants, the arrival of rice — a miniature donburi rice bowl topped with grilled anago (conger eel) — pickles and miso soup signifies the end of the meal. Here it was only the midpoint. Handmade soba noodles, served chilled with a soy sauce tsuyu dip, provided a welcome contrast to the intense flavors that came before, while also satisfying any lingering hunger.

We closed with three separate desserts: a refreshing sorbet of orange and kinmokusei (“fragrant olive”); cubes of light jelly made to evoke the look of traditional warabi-mochi but made with gelatin and coconut milk; and, to close the meal, light miniature oyaki (crepes) folded over chestnut cream.

Since the day’s menu is fixed, the only decision-making required is what to drink with your meal. Ryugin boasts a substantial wine cellar. But now Yamamoto has moved toward a more traditional style of cuisine, sake is probably the better bet. We picked out a delectable yamahai from Ishikawa Prefecture that had all the body and complexity required to match the richness of the food. You can also order a tasting flight of the six contrasting styles of sake to provide a counterpoint of tastes through the meal.

“Flavor is paramount,” Yamamoto likes to say. His are both subtle and profound. And to ensure that nothing detracts from them, he has made Ryugin entirely no-smoking and also asks people not to arrive daubed with cologne or perfume. Just two more reasons why we are already looking forward to our next visit to this remarkable restaurant.

Besides its regular Sunday day off, Ryugin will also be closed on the following days over the holiday season: Dec. 23 & 31, Jan. 1-5 & 11.