Kikunoi: Kappo cuisine and ryotei dining in Akasaka

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TOKYO — When dining in Japan, one name keeps coming up — Yoshihiro Murata, the third generation chef-owner of Kikunoi Honten in Kyoto.

Murata’s family restaurant, first opened in 1912, is renowned as the best for Kyoto-style kaiseki (a traditional, multi-course dinner). Less known is Murata’s Tokyo restaurant, Kikunoi Akasaka, which centres on a blend of kappo and ryotei style dining instead.

But what is kappo and what is ryotei?

This is the question we ask ourselves as we walk up the bamboo-lined entrance to the restaurant, in a quieter part of the Akasaka neighbourhood.

We enter a waiting area, partly shielded by rice-paper walls. There’s a sense of exclusivity, of entering another realm — at least another realm of dining different from washoku, the traditional cuisine of Japan.

Washoku has frankly become commonplace and is eaten the world over. Dishes could be as simple as a bowl of steamed white rice served with miso soup to shops focusing on just one item such as sushi, tempura and soba. We are all more fortunate for this slice of gastronomic globalisation.

However, it does mean that subtler styles of Japanese cuisine such as kappo and ryotei fly completely below our radar. What we do know, ahead of our visit, is that both feature seasonal ingredients cooked using traditional methods and classic recipes, but this is where the similarities end, apparently.

Kappo-style restaurants showcase the skill of the chef, almost a performance. Diners usually sit at a counter where they can see the chef in action and even ask him questions. Definitely a more casual form of Japanese fine dining. This, much to our delight, is what we’ve requested for.

Some of the other guests, those dressed to the nines, are headed for a ryotei feast a far more formal and stately affair. Instead of open counter seating, they will enjoy the privacy of partitioned tatami-mat rooms. The chef doesn’t make an appearance; servers in traditional kimonos will bring every course to their table. The service and seclusion are but two parts of the entire experience; there’s the food, of course, but also the specific décor of your room.

In this Instagram-friendly age, we think we made the right choice; it’s more fun to see chefs slicing sashimi and adding the minute, artistic touches to every plate before serving. Either way, a kappo or a ryotei meal is a special occasion meant to be savoured with all of our available senses.

We sit down and are immediately welcomed with an aperitif of sake served in a shallow bowl. No ordinary sake this, but liquor with the lightest hint of cherry blossoms to start our meal. After the sakitzuke (not unlike the French amuse-bouche), we are wowed with Kikunoi’s signature hassun — an assortment of delicately prepared appetisers.

Here is some tai kinome-zushi (vinegared sea bream and Shiroita kombu sushi, flecked with peppery kinome buds), iidako (roe-filled baby octopus) and issun mame (boiled soramame or small broad beans). There is a sakura theme: hanabira udo (cherry-blossom-shaped slices of udo or mountain asparagus), hanami dango (a panache of shrimp, avocado and abalone skewered to resemble rice dumplings eaten while viewing cherry blossoms) and hanabira yurine (steamed lily bulb petals topped with seasoned salmon roe). Last but not least, the chocho nagaimo (butterfly-shaped slices of Chinese yams simmered in lightly seasoned dashi and covered with crumbled egg yolk).

Utterly beautiful and mind-boggling, which to begin with first? We turn to the chef for help. He smiles; it’s up to us. Explore. And explore we do, morsel by morsel.

Perhaps the best opportunity to witness the skill of the chefs is during the mukouzuke course, typically freshly sliced pieces of seasonal sashimi. We watch the senior chef rolling the wasabi paste, a role denoting his rank. Every cut is the culmination of years of practice.

Our first sashimi platter is a pairing of tai (red sea bream) and kinmedai (snapper) accompanied by some ponzu (Japanese citrus) jelly, seaweed, curls of carrot and udo stalk, and freshly-grated wasabi. Next is some squid sashimi, dusted with dried nori seaweed powder and served with a dipping sauce of the black squid ink.

The chef advises not to dip the kinmedai into soy sauce nor add wasabi, the way we would with the sea bream, as the snapper already has ponzu jelly. We’re glad we listened; the citrus gives the kinmedai such a breathtaking brightness.

For the futamono or “lidded dish”, the chef has wrapped slices of wakasa tilefish around crushed glutinous rice — flavoured with salt-preserved cherry blossoms — with a salted cherry blossom leaf. The entire package is then steamed and covered with gin-an (thickened bonito broth), bracken fern heads, toasted rice crackers and ginger juice. The aroma that greets us as we lift the lid of the bowl evokes the scent of cherry blossom trees in full bloom.

Truly a feast for the senses!

The yakimono or grilled dishes are exemplary in their Japanese restrain: First we enjoy slices of grilled smoked yamame (cherry salmon) and almost rare duck breast. Then the pièce de résistance — a basket of grilled bamboo shoot, sliced neatly into halves, on a pile of green bamboo leaves. Unbelievably tender, smoky and sweet; the chef tells us the bamboo had only been harvested earlier in the morning. (Perhaps sweetened by the morning dew?)

After two back-to-back grilled dishes, a break or kuchinaoshi is much appreciated. Even the palate cleanser is something special here at Kikunoi. Yes, it’s a strawberry sorbet but one infused with fresh wasabi. Sweet, cool and spicy, all at once. Consider our palates cleansed!

A platter of sliced abalone and tender rapini shoots arrives for our shiizakana (hotpot) course. It’s basically shabu-shabu time; a do-it-yourself interlude so we can partake of the action in cooking at least part of our meal. (The part that is the least complicated — how hard can it be the dip, swish, remove and chew, right?) Simple but so nourishing and satisfying.

My favourite course of the night is testament to how big a fan tong (literally “rice bin” in Cantonese) I am. The chef scoops up our gohan rice course directly from a claypot — aromatic bamboo shoot rice riddled with flakes of kinome leaf.

To go with this, we have some ko no mono (seasonal pickled vegetables such as rapini, daikon radish and giant kelp) as well as a surprisingly light green pea soup, with a deep fried shrimp dumpling floating like a raft on its surface.

Small details make such a difference.

What better way to end our sumptuous meal than with some mizumono (dessert)? At Kikunoi, it’s a case of East meets West. First, a roasted barley ice cream dusted with miso powder — giving it a partly coffee-like and partly fermented flavour — accompanied with chewy mochi dumplings topped with oozing sweet adzuki beans.

Then, perhaps to refresh any weary palates (though we are hard-pressed to imagine any at the counter; everyone is beaming), a cold sweet soup of basil purée with crunchy basil seeds and custardy almond tofu. Familiar yet unusual, defying description and expectations — much like our meal at Kikunoi Akaska.

As we leave the restaurant, I’m not sure we are wiser as to the intricacies of kappo vs. ryotei but we know a great time when we’ve had one.