27 January 2015
After a fortnight of fantastic eating during my exploration of Japan, namely Tokyo and Hiroshima, the trip reached its inevitable conclusion. I had saved one of the best of Tokyo, the 3-Michelin kaiseki specialist Yukimura [幸村] for my final dinner. I was hoping this will be one of those places that blow me away, and end the “3-star curse” for me.
Yukimura is probably the hardest place to find out of my 2 weeks in Japan, partly because the Google Street View of this location is blocked by a car and there was no clear look at the front of this building. But thanks to my hotel (Park Hotel Tokyo, very highly recommended!) concierge who booked this for me, she printed out a photo of the front — with all the necessary info.
I got to the restaurant in Azabu-juban a little early so wandered around the hilly area for a little bit before heading to the dodgy lift to the 3rd floor to Yukimura. This is another small place, with counter seats for 10 people and a small table on the side. At this early hour there was only 6 people (me included) seated as this meal was starting to move.
Interestingly, it was just chef and 3 assistants working all night. One of his assistants was female, which again is a good thing for Japan’s overly-masculine top restaurant scene. The assistants, as well as chef, take part in all aspects of prep and service, including drinks and clearing dishes. Sounds good, but it became a little problematic later — and may be a cultural issue I alluded to. I will elaborate later.
I ordered some of their house sake (the female assistant spoke good English) and looked forward to a wonderful evening. A large abalone shell was presented, and chef opened it for us and wishes us a happy new year.
Wow, this is beautiful. He explained (via the assistant) that these items were for the new year’s good luck, especially the black beans and the 3 different roes (mullet, cod, flying fish). The abalone was nice, as were the assortment of root vegetables and small whitefish. This was a very tasty selection, beautifully thought out and presented. If this was an example of what to come tonight, I will be extremely happy! Excellent!
The second course was presented in succession, almost as 3 mini-courses.
The first was a humble looking chawanmushi (egg custard), but was graced with the innards of namako (sea cucumber). Nice, added some depth to the egg.
The second, brought out quickly as we worked on the egg custard, was a beautiful presentation of a female snow crab (matsubagani) — including the roe. This was utterly delicious and a perfect seasonal dish. I was told that the male crab is coming next, and I see chef already prepping it with some slick knife skills.
We watched chef finish prepping the crabs and he showed us what was coming…
Wow. This will be excellent. They start grilling the legs on the wood grill in front of me. In the meantime, the soup service was next.
This is a miso soup with a touch of mustard and a giant mochi (rice cake) in the middle. I know it’s a new years thing, but I really dislike mochi in general. In this soup it was nearly inedible for me, like trying to eat something that reforms after every chew. I was so scared I was gonna choke to death on this (which, btw, happens often this time of year in Japan…). Sorry, traditional, but was a total miss for me.
At this point they brought out parts of the crab grilled whenever they are ready.
The leg was first to be presented, which was followed by another leg when we finished the first. Very nice though I have to say my right hand was getting sore from trying to get all the meat out with chopsticks.
Then the arm, then the claw. All very meaty and tasty. My hand was about to cramp at one point though…
Then we got the body, which chef quickly cleans to make it easy to eat. Good, as my right hand was really fatigued from 2 weeks of constant chopstick use — which it was not in shape for…
Then chef used the stock and insides of the crab, as well as additional meat, and cooked it like an omelette-ish thing within the shell. Very nice, lovely flavour in this item. I wish he had presented it in shell but he portioned each shell out to various diners for balance.
Mmm, enjoying this meal so far, especially with the seasonal snow crab. More sake! I was looking forward to the next course, the noodle course, as I’ve heard so much about some amazing stuff here.
Well, this is soba in a nice deep broth with a lot of daikon. It was good, but I had hoped for something a bit more interesting. Broth was very good, a clinical definition of umami, but after all that crab this seemed a little pale.
At this point the rest of the counter filled up and some people were out of sequence, so the service got a little choked up. This is a problem when there’s no one dedicated to the front of the house service. And more annoying, I noticed the 2 male assistants basically not wanting to do any drink service unless absolutely forced to (as much as standing around staring at people), and didn’t want to clear plates. Basically all of that work came down to chef himself and the female assistant (who was also working on the food). Sexism right there, very sad to see…
The next dish had been grilling for a bit, the kabocha or the Japanese winter squash, alongside honmoroko (willow shiner), coming from Lake Biwa. An interesting pair of delicacies, the kabocha sweet and the honmoroko deep. Kind of a “not bad” course though.
Then next up was braised giant Sakurajima daikon, which was very tasty but still, it’s just daikon in dashi. I know it’s the whole new year theme and these are beloved Kyoto and Kansai-region ingredients, but it’s falling a bit flat for me. The service issues were noticeable thanks partly to the out-of-sequence guys, as well as the 2 male assistants that seemed to not want to do their fair share.
At this point then the rice course came, signalling the near conclusion of the meal. Hmmm…it’s been a little anticlimactic since the crab course ended. The rice was nice, with the new year-themed beans, but it’s just rich on symbolism. Nowhere near as good as the excellent rice course at Den [傳] at the very start of the trip, nor as good as the very humble rice course at Nakashima [なかしま] in Hiroshima.
It was nice for chef to top up my sake on the house before the dessert course. He seems like a genuinely nice guy with great skills, and he enjoys chatting with the diners. He tried to explain the courses with his limited English, though it was the female assistant that had the English to properly explain the items. The 2 male assistants didn’t even try; they seem utterly disinterested. Even other diners seemed put off by them…
The dessert was strawberries with mascarpone. Very nice strawberries, as you’d expect.
Then a little traditional candy service and we were done — to be presented with a very hefty bill. I think the subtlety of some of this meal is lost to me. I generally don’t like kaiseki places that are too traditional because of that exact reason, which is why Den [傳] appealed to me so much. I love daikon and I eat it all the time, and appreciate the giant variety as a delicacy, but it seems to have ruled too much of the post-crab part of this menu.
I thanked chef as I took my leave, and the female assistant walked me out and down the elevator to the street. We chatted a bit and I encouraged her to break the male-dominated barriers and wished her continual success in this field, and she seemed genuinely appreciative of my comments. The best thing for haute Japanese cuisine is to have female chefs rise to the top.
I was slightly deflated and honestly still a little hungry after this, so it precipitated a visit to my “local” in Tokyo — which I will write about in the next post. But as for Yukimura, it certainly did not break my “3-star curse” at all. I think I may just avoid 3 Michelin places from now on, anywhere in the world…
1-5-5 Azabujuban, 3F, Minato-ku