Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

Nihonryori RyuGin: New address for a Tokyo classic

by Robbie Swinnerton

Contributing Writer

Even in Tokyo, a city that relentlessly reinvents itself, change never comes easy, no matter how celebrated a restaurant may be. The bigger the name, the greater the expectations, and few have larger reputations than Nihonryori RyuGin.

Chef Seiji Yamamoto’s contemporary take on Japan’s traditional cuisine has won him numerous plaudits and stars — RyuGin has been a fixture in the Tokyo Michelin Guide from the start — and an enduring presence on Best Restaurant lists. So when he announced he was moving away from his iconic Roppongi base, word traveled fast.

His new address, inside the imposing high-end Tokyo Midtown Hibiya mall, is just a short hop from the old neighborhood. But in terms of scale and layout, RyuGin 2.0 represents a major upgrade. At last, Yamamoto has a setting worthy of his culinary status, and of the well-heeled clientele who will favor this more salubrious and central location.

Instead of entering directly from the street, now the only access is via elevator, which deposits you in a dedicated hallway, itself bigger than many a Tokyo restaurant. This sense of spaciousness permeates the entire premises.

Gone are the numerous dragon motifs — inspired by the “ryū” in RyuGin — that gave the old place its intense (and, to some, claustrophobic) character. Here, everything is plush, comfortable and calm, with service as well-oiled and attentive as you’d expect at an exclusive upmarket ryokan inn.

What hasn’t changed, though, is the superb quality of Yamamoto’s kaiseki cuisine. The omakase tasting menu comprises eight courses, featuring more than a dozen dishes in total, segueing seamlessly from delicate appetizers and multiple servings of seafood to a meat “main course” — although in the Japanese culinary canon, the rice and miso soup that follow are the true culmination of the meal — and finally to light sweets and ceremonial matcha tea.

Those looking for fireworks on the plate may be slightly underwhelmed. Yamamoto has no need to showboat these days and his dabbles into molecular gastronomy are long gone, even his popular and long-running Minus-196° Candy Apple dessert. But there is a depth and clarity to his cooking now that rivals the best in Tokyo.

Certainly he uses standout ingredients, such as abalone, crab and shark’s fin. But what lodges in the memory are seemingly humbler elements: the profound fragrance of his crystal-clear dashi stock; the smoke-imbued katsuo tataki (seared fillets of sashimi skipjack) as firm and umami-rich as premium prosciutto; the wondrous “chrysanthemum” of finely slivered tofu that fills the miso soup bowl that accompanies your rice; even the silky-smooth an (red bean paste) in the taiyaki that will be your final dessert.

It’s a highly impressive feast that lives up to its big-ticket setting, and it comes with a price tag to match. Perhaps the only disconcerting aspect of the evening is the presence of two beautiful wild owls inside their own glass-fronted chamber, looking down on you as you wait to be seated.

Prior to the move, the question was whether RyuGin would hold on to its three stars when the 2019 Michelin Guide came out in early December. It did that and more: It has cemented Yamamoto’s place at the top.

Dinner menu from ¥35,600; English menu; English spoken

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5