龍吟 (Ryugin) - Tokyo, Japan

Dinner - Thursday, April 11, 2013

Ryugin is one of the more famous high-end Japanese restaurants in international dining circles, frequently appearing on "Best Of..." lists (whether you care for them or not). Doubtlessly, this is at least partly due to the fact that the establishment is very foreigner-friendly - reservations are easy to make from abroad, and the staff are fluent in English and French. The chef patron, Seiji Yamamoto, even has an outpost in Hong Kong.

The restaurant offers a single seasonal tasting menu before 9 pm, after which it shifts to an eclectic list of around 50 (!) à la carte items. We selected the tasting menu, hoping to discover what has made this restaurant such a darling around the world. Suffice to say, this meal completely lived up to our high expectations.

Sake cup selection
Cold sake service
Seasonal vegetables, hamaguri clam soup
We began with a bowl of 17 vegetables, each cooked separately, then combined and dressed with a sauce of pine nut and macadamia. I recall the warabi, white asparagus, shitake, and yamaimo as being particular standouts. With the salad, a shot of hamaguri clam soup accented with yuzu - sweet and refreshing. The clean and distinct flavours of this dish would set the tone for the rest of the meal.

Incidentally, as you look through the rest of the pictures (including the one above), you'll notice that the trays are wet, as if sprinkled with water. I can't be certain, but I believe it may be related to uchimizu, as a welcoming gesture to guests.

Grilled hotaru ika chawan mushi
Fuki paste, green peas, shiso
The firefly squid, in peak season, were perfectly cooked - crispy at the edges, slightly chewy throughout. Beneath, a creamy chawan mushi made with squid broth - my only complaint was that the custard was too thin (barely half-an-inch high). Garnished with puréed fuki and shiso flowers to balance the sweet and salty components, this was a standout dish.

Ichiban dashi with kuruma ebi dumpling
Simmered abalone, takenoko, mochi, sakura leaf
"Today's Array of Ocean's Delicacy, Ryugin style"
Clockwise from the bottom left, we were served: (i) raw aori ika and shiro ebi, with a konowata (sea cucumber innards) sauce; (ii) bonito sashimi; (iii) tai sashimi dressed with fuki and ponzu; (iv) raw hokigai and tairagai with wasabi flower and sudachi; (v) aori ika sashimi; (vi) abalone and tofu with crab (center).

Ingredient quality was amazing throughout - top-tier seafood was used. The simple aori ika (bottom right) was a true pleasure to eat - the surface carefully etched to maximize its delightful texture. My weakest bite was the bonito, which I found overly smoked (especially compared to the exemplary renditions we had at Sawada and even Takazawa).

Kinki fish, eggplant
Avocado, uni, Fuji apple
The kinki from Hokkaido is a saltwater fish prized for its sweetness and supple texture. Both qualities were enhanced by the grilling, even manifesting notes of woodsiness. The filet was stuffed with a piece of grilled eggplant - an unlikely combination that somehow worked very well here. On the other side of the dish, a large slice of grilled avocado topped with uni, nori and karasumi - rich. The fat from both compositions was cleverly cut by the side of Fuji apple slices pickled in ginger juice (certainly a big improvement over standard gari). A very masterfully executed course.

Chicken wing filled with sharksfin
Rich chicken starch sauce, Spring vegetables
"Luxurious" doesn't even begin to describe the textures in this bowl - the silkiness of the sauce left me at a loss for words. The skin-on chicken wing stuffed with braised sharksfin was so gelatinous - amazing. To keep textures alive, a hunk of fried sweetbread somehow managed to stay impossibly crispy in the sauce. Finally, a bright green nanohana floret added crunch and bitterness. Wow.

Binchotan-grilled Kuroge wagyu filet
Takenoko, fava beans, puréed fuki
Sansho pepper rice
Seasonal vegetables, tai, miso soup, pickles
Sakura ebi rice
The savory portion of the meal concluded with two rice dishes in succession. First, a sansho pepper rice that left that characteristic tingle on our tongues. It was buried under a cornucopia of Spring vegetables (an echo of the very first course, with the vegetables prepared differently) and dried tai floss. Following that, a smaller bowl of rice cooked in cherry blossom tea, heaped with fried sakura ebi (a cute play on words with the seasonal ingredients). Both rice courses were delicious (and surprisingly filling).

"One piece of Strawberry..."
This video nicely illustrates the amount of effort expended in the making of this deceivingly simple dessert. The hot strawberry jam had very little sourness and was only mildly sweet - indeed, the main impression was fruitiness. The inside of the frozen "strawberry" was filled with pachi pachi candy (the Japanese equivalent of pop rocks) - more than the obvious temperature contrast, both of us felt that the popping was the critical component that made the dish.

Baked Ginjou sake "Oyaki soufflé"
"Feathery soft serve" ice cream
Served with a mother-of-pearl spoon, this was a brilliant reinvention of the traditional dumpling - the warm soufflé stood high in its container, hiding a layer of anko (red bean paste), just like real oyaki. The buckwheat dough was permeated with the flavour of surprisingly boozy sake, lending a floral (and more adult) tone to the dessert. In stark contrast, the plain milk soft serve was a blast from the past. Excellent synergy between the hot and cold parts. As much as we enjoyed the strawberry course, this dessert was even better - more elegant, more thoughtful (and more Japanese?)

The meal concluded with the largest cup of matcha I've ever seen - the vessel was about six inches in diameter!

As we made our way back out onto the streets of Roppongi, we found Chef Yamamoto waiting to bid us goodbye. A brief chat was sufficient to leave the impression that he has a deep knowledge of the ingredients in this country. For me, that is what stood out most about this meal - impeccable sourcing. Combined with amazing technical precision (even by Japanese standards) with methods both old and new, and a good dose of inspiration, Ryugin rises above many of its peers. It will be on our list when we next return to Japan.

Side Roppongi Building, 1F
7-17-24 Roppongi
Minato, Tokyo 106-0032
Phone: (+81) 03-3423-8006