Rikyu: Playing games with traditional ‘kaiseki’ cuisine


Special To The Japan Times

Tsukasa Yamaguchi likes to play. But not much of what he does behind the counter of Rikyo, which he opened nearly two years ago, suggests this. Like many of his contemporaries working in haute cuisine restaurants, Yamaguchi has the manner and intensity of a surgeon. If you look closely, you’ll see his lighter side shine through in only a few dishes during his elaborate nine-course lunch.

Although Yamaguchi’s lunch menu is anchored to the principles of kaiseki ryōri (traditional multicourse cuisine) he isn’t averse to adapting the rules and changing things, analogous to the frequent updates tech companies send our way. However, Yamaguchi’s changes — the layer of ume (plum) jelly he tucks inside fish tempura, for example — are updates that actually work.

Lunch opened with a pale pink turnip soup enlivened by a verdurous sprig of steamed seri (Japanese parsley) and accompanied by a sprinkling of pink peppercorns. The soup was a fitting and piquant amuse-bouche. As with chefs the world over, Yamaguchi is influenced by the current Nordic cooking trend. After a plate of delectable sashimi was served there was another soup: This time a clear dashi containing simmered vegetables, including daikon cooked to the exact point where the fibrous root didn’t disintegrate under the weight of the dashi it had soaked up. The result was an umami-laden tender chunk of radish. That Yamaguchi managed to coax so much from a stubborn vegetable was a visceral pleasure.

The yakimono (flame-grilled or pan-fried) course that arrived midway through the meal was something I would have certainly ordered were there a menu. Broiled buri (yellowtail) in teriyaki sauce, guarded by a lotus root and topped with a hat of shredded spring onions. Yellowtail is the ideal candidate for teriyaki and Yamaguchi’s concoction was supreme — sweet without being too sentimental.

It was in the sumono and aemono (vinegared and dressed dishes) course that Yamaguchi revealed his playfulness. Although Osaka has mostly avoided snow in the recent cold spell, flakes of snow adorned this serving. I wrongly assumed it was some sort of salt, but the flakes were completely tasteless shavings of dried mochi (pounded rice cake). The other garnish, a sprig of cherry blossom, signalled the better weather to come.

The salads were tiny, yet packed full of ingredients and flavors: yellow miso spread over broccoli and smelt, topped with black sesame seeds, three black soy beans skewered by pine needles and a bite-sized chunk of miso-glazed salmon. It was a posturing yet lighhearted dish.

One other notable “update” to the kaiseki tradition was the rice dish, which once more showed he has tenacious handle on complimentary ingredients. Yamaguchi’s okayu (rice porridge) — a dish often served when someone is ill — came with greens, roasted walnuts and a dollop of ume jam. Lunch closed on a sweet note: chestnut and mikan (Japanese citrus) ice-cream.

Kaiseki ryōri is in good hands with Yamaguchi and his assistant: They respect the tradition they are carrying while understanding that, just like an operating system, it needs to be updated to stay alive.