‘This will surprise you,” says chef Kenichi Hashimoto as he hands me a glass of what appears to be beer. This serious-faced chef — who leads the kitchen at Kyoto’s Ryozanpaku, a two-Michelin-starred kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) restaurant — waits for me to take a sip. He then explains that this fizzy drink is, in fact, a “super-highball” made with Suntory Hitomi (a rare single cask whisky from 1991) and soda, poured in alternating layers and capped with a thick head of creamy foam.
“The foam is also made of whisky, but the recipe is top secret,” he says, before breaking into a smile and hitting me with a round of untranslatable Japanese puns (many of which were cringe-worthy but endearing nonetheless).
Hashimoto traveled to Tokyo last week — along with his arsenal of dad jokes — to prepare a special kaiseki dinner with Japanese whisky pairing at The Ritz-Carlton’s Hinokizaka restaurant. The meal was part of the 4th Annual Asia-Pacific Food and Wine Festival, a spectacular five-day series of events hosted by The Ritz-Carlton. Held for the first time in Tokyo, this year’s festival featured 11 top chefs and artisans from France, Peru, Spain, Singapore and Japan — including Paco Perez, whose three restaurants in Spain have garnered a total of five Michelin stars, and Peru’s Virgilio Martinez, of Central Restaurante, which was recently named No. 1 in the S. Pellegrino list of Latin America’s 50 best restaurants. Each event features a different winery, brewery, or distillery.
The point of the festival, says food and beverage director Ranim Ben Romdhane, is to “give people new experiences and perspectives on food pairing.”
Although pairing whisky with kaiseki, which is characterized by delicacy, sounded like an awkward juxtaposition, the dinner with Hashimoto was eye opening. The chef didn’t merely serve the whisky straight; he manipulated the spirit in subtle ways, playing with temperature and flavor accents to complement his cuisine. An elegant matsutake mushroom broth with hamo (conger eel), prawns, and gingko nuts, echoed the complexity of Suntory’s Hibiki 17 Year Old Whisky, which was served over cubes of ice flecked with yuzu (Japanese citrus) zest. A warm drink of Suntory’s Yamazaki 12 Year Old Whisky, mixed with water and dashi broth highlighted the sweet and smoky flavors of Hashimoto’s Japanese-style lobster bouillabaisse. The most striking combination, however, was the light aspic of vinegared crab, garnished with fresh figs and chrysanthemum petals, which Hashimoto paired with a fresh cocktail made from Suntory’s Kakubin whisky and smoked lemon sorbet. The fruity sweetness of the sorbet and the umami undertones of the whisky harmonized the elements of the dish beautifully.
Hashimoto, who is also a sommelier, first came up with the concept for his “whisky kaiseki” tasting menu in 2012. The versatility of Japanese whisky had inspired him to start playing with pairings. Although a handful of restaurants abroad — most notably at Hong Kong’s modern Japanese restaurant Ronin — have started introducing whisky to accompany a meal, few offer the precise pairings that can be found at Hashimoto’s Ryozanpaku restaurant.
A self-taught chef with a penchant for whimsy, Hashimoto says that he wanted “to break the rules of kaiseki.” He is constantly playing with new pairings, and working with the liquor also gave him the freedom to create experimental cocktails.
“With wine and sake, you have to serve it as it is, but with whisky there are no rules,” he says. It makes sense. Whisky, after all, has always been the drink of choice for rebels.
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