This birthday I was given a clear directive from friends: no Japanese food, and I can't make the reservation. Harsh! Well, I suppose they did have just cause given that last year I had taken them to an izakaya that, despite having high ranking on tabelog (I was yet to discover the disparity between rankings and reality), was abysmal and resulted in the entire party coming down with food poisoning.
However, after employing a little diplomacy, I was able to wrestle back control with the compromise of a Japanese restaurant in the painfully hip environs of Nakameguro.
Named after the chi-chi neighbourhood it is located in, Higashiyama is patronised by local tarento, the design/fashion clique and a small coterie of foreigners who have no doubt stumbled across praising reviews - that damn 'the New York Times effect'. From the street, there is little in the way of signage to indicate Higashiyama's existence, but once you make your way along the path to the rear of the building, an open courtyard is revealed with a striking water feature bathed in subtle lighting.
Higashiyama is the flagship restaurant of the Simplicity, a design company which promotes its vision of bringing Japanese lifestyle and culture to the global stage through the fields of architecture, interior design, food and food related design products.
Before being seated, guests are lead to a dimly lit alcove, which is in effect a showcase for the wabi-sabi designs produced by the Simplicity workshops.
On display are ceramics, tableware, woodwork, metalware, along with a selection elegantly presented Japanese sweets from their wagashi shop, Higashiya... all conveniently available for purchase, of course.
Counter seats overlooking the immaculate kitchen would be my preference, but given the number in our group it was impractical. We were more than happy, however, with seats at the large communal table in the central dining room. There are also smaller tables set along the atrium windows with views over the courtyard for more intimate dining.
The attention to detail is impressive. The place settings, with thick cotton napkins, metal chopstick holders and hand-crafted ohashi, beautifully complement the food.
The menu could be best described as contemporary Japanese washoku utilizing the best of seasonal and locally sourced produce. The menu is available a la carte or there is a choice of prix fixe courses which range from ¥3,500, for a 2 course option, to a more elaborate ¥8,000 wagyu course. We stumped for the ¥3,500 course with two of us supplementing our course with sashimi moriawase (for me), and a gobo & nanohana (burdock root and rapeseed greens) salad in a goma & kurumi (sesame and walnut) dressing (for the Greek).
A simple appetiser of homemade tofu and lightly pickled Kyoto vegetables started the meal. The silken tofu was accompanied with Iburi Jio sea salt, from Akita, which is smoked with cherry wood. The wonderful smoky flavour and aroma that this artisanal salt imparted to the dish was a revelation. So good, in fact, that I kept nibbling at it long after the tofu was gone.
All this talk of food, and I have failed to mention the drinks menu, which is comprised of a good selection of sake, shouchu, as well as French & New World wines from some fairly reputable vineyards. I was tempted by rieslings from Serensin Estate (New Zealand) and Hugel (Alsace), but bubbles were the order of the day, so we selected a pleasant semi-seco Cava instead.
Confusion reigned, however, when two large platters of sashimi arrived along with a large ceramic bowl of the gobo and nanohana salad. Impressed with the generous portions, we greedily dived into the food before the realisation slowly dawned on us that our waiter had ordered each dish for the whole table. An expensive mistake which took our economical course option to well over ¥6,500 per person.
An entree of Hokkaido snow crab, kazunoko (dried herring roe), micro greens and yuzu salad arrived in an impressive urushi (lacquerware) bowl. The contrasting flavours and textures of the soft, sweet crab meat, the spongy, crunchy kazunoko, and the crisp zesty vegetables made for a bit of a party in my mouth, and brought smiles to the all the faces at the table.
All except me, of course. Due to my non-meat eating ways, the kitchen kindly allowed me to order a main from the a la carte list. My teriyaki glazed buri (yellowtail) steak was served with its traditional accompaniment of grated daikon, and some grilled sweet potato - yum! The glaze was sweet and smoky, and the fish was grilled to what seems to be the standard Japanese level of 'done': cooked all the way through, though I personally prefer my fish cooked a little under. I also thought the dish lacked some acidity, and was screaming out for a big wedge of lemon; a small quibble easily remedied once the required citrus was procured from the kitchen. Again, the presentation was spot on, and I seriously contemplated smuggling the gold leaf urushi plate home in my bag.
A covertly orchestrated platter of matcha and vanilla panacotta was the surprise finale to the meal. Decadently rich, without being cloying and mellowed out with a warm bowl of houjicha, it was the perfect note to finish on. Note the candle holder is a big chunk of mizujokan... God is in the details.
Overall, a pleasant meal was had by all, though our experience was slightly soured when then bill arrived; with drinks, the total came to around ¥9,000 per person. Therefore the waiter's ordering snafu had added an extra ¥3,000 to each person's meal. As it was a special day my companions, bless them, preferred to pay up rather than make a fuss, which was incredibly generous and gracious of them. Definitely a lesson learned.
No good night out is complete without a 二次会 (after party), so the more robust drinkers in our group (the Greek and I), carried on the festivities in the lower level Higashiyama Lounge. Accessed by diners from the restaurant or via a discrete street entrance, the lounge bar is a destination in itself. The interior is a continuation of the industrial minimalist design of the main building, with the noir-ish lighting, luxe seating and jazz/soul BGM creating a sense greater intimacy. Supping Ron Zacapa 20 year Guatemalan rum in this environment one could easily forget the passage of time. And indeed we did. So if points were based on the hour one stumbles out the door, Higashiyama would be awarded an impressive 5 and a half stars (hick!)... minus 2 for the dent to the wallet.