Kaiseki is the holy grail of Japanese cuisine, Japan’s version of high-end cuisine. Many have had culinary revelations while enjoying this multi-course feast.
Kaiseki is as delicious as it can be mysterious to foreign palates. Even well-trained chefs stare at it in perplexity, and don’t recognize the techniques being used. Whereas sushi, tempura and other Japanese foods travelled abroad with ease, kaiseki has largely stayed in Japan, bound by its zealous use of seasonal products.
The structure of a kaiseki meal varies from place to place, but almost always includes an appetizer, a sashimi course, something simmered, something grilled and something steamed. There is always a soup, rice and pickles. Depending on the restaurant, you may find also find a cocktail, something fried, and a dessert (which often involves seasonal fruit) and other variations.
The menu at a kaiseki restaurant follows the seasons, and the offerings keep on changing to accommodate what becomes available. The attention to detail is incredible; many presentations include edible leaves and flowers to resemble landscapes and the dishes are presented in beautiful pottery. One famous kaiseki chef even brings water from Kyoto to his Tokyo restaurant to avoid harsh tastes in his boiled dishes.
Shojin cuisine can be as complex as kaiseki food, but is completely vegetarian. Shojin food came to Japan together with Buddhism approximately 1,500 years ago, and preparing it is part of the training for Zen monks. They do not use any meat, and also discourage waste, so they use practically every edible part of a vegetable (for example, use both the leaves and the root of a carrot). Just like kaiseki, shojin food follows the seasons.
Because of their complexity, a kaiseki or shojin meal can be quite expensive. However, this is definitely something you want to try at least once, and is worth every penny. Below you’ll find a selection of Tokyo restaurants where to enjoy these superb meals. Most of them are used to foreign clienteles and have English service available. Make sure you make reservations!
Nadaman (Akasaka) -- This institution dates back to 1830 and has been the favorite of many Japanese personalities. Soseki Natsume, a famous Japanese writer, was one of the customers. Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and many other foreign VIPs have dined here as well. The kitchen was under the leadership of Koumei Nakamura for a while, who was Iron Chef Japanese in the popular TV show.
Kappou Shimamura (Tokyo) -- Another classic in Tokyo, with over 150 years of history. The restaurant counts former Prime Ministers as patrons.
Toyoda (Ginza) -- They put a lot of emphasis in preparing the perfect dashi, which is the base broth for a lot of Japanese cuisine. Toyoda is an extremely popular kaiseki restaurant, and recognized as one of the best.
Akasaka Kikunoi (Akasaka) -- The Tokyo branch of a famous Kyoto kaiseki restaurant. Chef Yoshihiro Murata is world-famous for advancing classical Japanese cooking, and he often appears in TV and print. Though the foundations are Japanese, the chefs at Kikunoi are free to experiment with the food and update classical combinations.
Hamada-ya (Tokyo) -- For the ultimate meal complete with Geisha entertainment, head to Hamada-ya. The food is exquisite, and the restaurant can arrange for entertainment. The building is itself a historical monument.
Kanetanaka (Shibuya) -- A beautiful room that overlooks a stage where Noh performances take place. The Shibuya location is a branch of their home in Shimbashi.
Kanda (Roppongi) -- Only the freshest ingredients make it to Kanda’s menu. The chefs may adjust the dishes to suit a customer or a particular beverage better, and the food is reputed to be among the best in the city.
Kakiden (Shinjuku) -- If you want to learn more about manners during a kaiseki meal, kakiden offers lessons (in Japanese). They are classical in their approach to kaiseki food, and the interior was conceived by a renowned Japanese designer.
Hanasansho (Shimbashi) -- Kaiseki food with a view. Located on the 25th floor of the Park Hotel, they serve classical Kaiseki meals prepared with vegetables from a 400-year-old farm in Kyoto.
Koju (Shimbashi) -- The owner of Koju is a sommelier, and he knows how to combine classical Japanese cooking with wine. The food has a few contemporary touches to it, and is some of the best in the city.
Kosetsu (Ginza) -- Kosetsu is famous for their soba noodles, and at lunch time they offer a “soba kaiseki” course that will introduce the noodles in multiple variations
Tsukiji Jisaku (Tsukiji) -- The building that houses this restaurant used to be the home of the founder of Mitsubishi, and the location is stunning. A great place for entertaining.
Daigo (Roppongi) -- Daigo is one of they city’s top shojin restaurants. A meal can involve as many as fifteen courses or more, served in soothing traditional rooms.
Geshinkyo (Harajuku) -- The head chef at Geshinkyo studied shojin cuisine at a temple in Kyoto before opening his restaurant in Harajuku. He is known for pushing the boundaries of the cuisine and coming up with new creative dishes like mochi pizza.