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Sougo: A next-generation take on temple cooking

by

Special To The Japan Times

It’s a dilemma faced by all practitioners of traditional arts and crafts. To keep their heritage alive, should they rigorously adhere to time-honored practices? Or bend a few rules and innovate? Chef Daisuke Nomura chose the second route. Sougo, his excellent restaurant in the heart of Roppongi, is the result.

Nomura was born into a family of chefs whose expertise is in shōjin ryōri, the vegetarian temple cooking that traces its roots back to the Zen Buddhist masters of the 13th century. The restaurant that his grandfather founded, Daigo, remains the preeminent place in Tokyo for shōjin meals served in the elaborate, multi-course Kyoto style.

But Nomura soon realized that with interest in shōjin cuisine dwindling, high-end dining was not the best platform to reach out to a new generation of Japanese diners who are increasingly sophisticated and internationalized.

“Daigo is quite pricey. You eat in small private rooms and the cooking is very traditional,” Nomura explains. “But at Sougo we use unorthodox ingredients and techniques never previously associated with this cuisine. It’s a new form of shōjin.”

Sougo’s open-plan dining room and relaxed buzz is certainly a major step away from the discreet formality exuded at Daigo. There is table seating as well as a counter looking onto an open kitchen — and even a bar area that stays open beyond midnight, in true Roppongi style.

Among shōjin traditionalists, it is still considered unorthodox even to serve tomatoes, let alone to shave truffles onto dishes. But Sougo’s biggest innovation is to ensure that its intricate, flavorful, vegetable-driven cuisine is attractive and accessible, even to those with little previous experience of the genre.

Last month’s seven-dish lunch menu opened with a simple composition of tōgan (winter squash), spaghetti squash and cucumber, garnished with yellow chrysanthemum petals and presented on a whole, gleaming-green lotus leaf. Rich in umami and light on the stomach, this made a perfect revivifying appetizer.

But there was more. An incision in the large leaf revealed another dish below: A chilled potage of fresh, seasonal sweet corn. This was unexpected, not just for its presentation but because corn soup is far from a standard dish in the shōjin cannon.

Other courses included a “miniature garden” of tender young vegetables that tips its hat obliquely to French chef Michel Bras’ classic Gargouillou salad. Next, a classic Kyoto dish, nasu no mizore (deep-fried eggplant in a broth thickened with grated daikon) was followed by home-made tofu encasing slices of juicy tomato. To close, rice and pickles led into a light dessert with an herbal infusion.

One major caveat: Buddhist temple cuisine has from the start shunned the use of all meat, fish and other animal products. But, as at Daigo, the standard dashi stock used at Sougo is prepared with katsuobushi (bonito flakes). However, Nomura is happy to prepare purely vegetarian dishes, if ordered at least a day in advance.

Open daily 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. (lunch); 2-5 p.m. (cafe time); 6-11 p.m. (dinner); 10 p.m.-5 a.m. (bar); set lunch from ¥1,500; dinner menu from ¥6,000, also a la carte. Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.