What an eventful 12 months it’s been for Zaiyu Hasegawa and his team at Den. This time last year he had just closed his hugely in-demand restaurant — at the busiest season — and relocated across the city. At the time it seemed like a leap into the unknown, a step sideways rather than ahead. Now it’s starting to look like a stroke of genius.
After nine years at his iconic Jinbocho address, Hasegawa was ready for change. He had moved into the premises as an unknown 29-year-old, soon turning Den into an under-the-radar insiders’ secret — and from there into one of Tokyo’s must-visit addresses for visitors from home and abroad.
But he was beginning to feel the physical limitations of the discreet entrance and narrow corridors, the intimate nine-seat counter and private rooms hidden away upstairs. The new Den, on the northern edge of Jingumae, could hardly be more different.
It is open and spacious, all on one floor and with just one small private chamber. The kitchen is larger, and although it’s open to the dining room, allowing diners to watch Hasegawa and his crew at work, everyone sits at tables rather than at a counter overlooking the chefs’ workspace.
There is none of the implied formality of the old place. From the moment you step inside, it feels relaxed. This, of course, has always been the magic of Den, but the welcome from Hasegawa’s wife, Emi, and the floor staff is now warmer than ever.
Hasegawa’s approach is often pigeonholed as “contemporary” (or “innovative”) Japanese. He himself has variously referred to it as “the ultimate home cooking” or simply “Tokyo cuisine.” What’s certain is that he remains deeply rooted in the washoku (Japanese cuisine) tradition, but with a boundless ability to incorporate outside influences. This is food unlike anywhere else in the city.
Just about every course has become a signature dish: the monaka wafers stuffed with foie gras; the gorgeous Den salad with its emoji carrots and inevitable stray edible ant; and the modern-classic Dentucky Fried Chicken wings served in their custom box.
So too the seasonal specials, such as Hasegawa’s rich, savory turtle soup with its dramatic skeletal presentation, and his exquisite summer tomato water with passionfruit and basil seed, served under a gleaming fresh-picked lotus leaf. And, as ever, the culmination of the meal is a serving of arguably the best rice you will ever taste — cooked in a clay pot with seafood, vegetables or wagyu beef.
But there’s one dish that might have to be retired now. Since Den was docked one of the two Michelin stars it gained in 2013, the second dessert has always been served in a mock Starbucks mug with the name changed to “Star Comebacks.”
Last month, those two richly deserved stars were reinstated in the 2018 Michelin guide. With a newly published cookbook, a continuing stream of collaborations with top chefs and a growing presence on the World’s 50 Best restaurant list, 2018 looks to be as busy as ever for Hasegawa and Team Den.
Tasting menu from ¥15,000; English spoken
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5