Autumn is our reward for overcoming the extremes of summer. The harvest that comes with the season also makes it quite possibly the best time of year for eating out. Zeshin, opened more than three years ago by Hideyuki Ohishi, will make you wish autumn lasted the whole year.
The restaurant is located in the basement of an old office block behind the U.S. Consulate in the Kitashinchi district. Zeshin’s Japanese-style entrance is at complete odds with the monotony of the surrounding offices. Heading downstairs, the traditional style takes over, with pebbled gardens and a tiny pool. There’s also a tatami room, where meals are served on small, low wooden tables (ryokan-style) — an unmistakably Japanese setting for an unmistakably Japanese meal.
I dined alone at the small counter area in front of the open kitchen where chef Takakazu Sekine presides. The chef’s kaiseki (multicourse) lunch is ¥4,800 (and dinner is ¥12,000) — with a 10 percent service charge for both.
Lunch opened with kakinamasu, persimmon seasoned in vinegar and dressed in a creamy sesame dressing. There are times that you come across a dish and instantly want to learn how to remake it at home. Sekine’s kakinamasu is exactly that — you want to eat it again and again.
Knowing that I had little chance of re-creating this at home, I consoled myself with the next course: matsutake mushrooms and amadai (sweet sea bream) in a bowl of dashi, scented with a slice of yuzu citrus. Matsutake is another reason to love autumn — if you can get within sniffing distance of them. The mushrooms were quickly steamed before being added to the soup. The key here, with the fungus and the fish, is in the cooking: to take each ingredient right to the threshold where the flavors are at their fullest. For me, the dashi outshone the matsutake, which, while delicious, was slightly understated.
Zeshin follows close to the traditional strictures of kaiseki, but colors outside the lines a little. Nothing Sekine serves is shocking, but there are certain surprises and skills on display. His prawn stuffed with cream cheese, and Spanish mackerel studded with kernels of roasted rice — “Rice Krispies” — was unexpected. And his artful blade skills were clear when dicing up konbu seaweed to make a grass-like decoration.
Above all this is his dedication to freshness: the sashimi plate of katsuo tataki (skipjack tuna, the edges lightly seared) and sea bream was superb.
The hassun, a course of mixed seasonal food, was magnificently understated. Sekine presented it covered in fallen leaves — the easiest and most pleasurable foraging I’ve ever had to do, picking away the detritus to discover an array of delights. The fried walnuts glazed in shoyu were outstanding, as was the vinegar-pickled blue crab.
The eight course lunch ended with a bowl of matcha (green tea), a sharp bitter kick coming on the back of a dessert of mashed sweet potato and chestnuts.
Zeshin is in good company in Kitashinchi, where there is an abundance of upmarket kaiseki restaurants. I’d recommend Zeshin for its elegant and formal approach to traditional dining — and its addition of a few surprises.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5