Japanese cuisine is about subtraction, whereas Western cuisine is about addition. I believe it is easy to add things. Anyone can hide more ingredients in the broth, add side vegetables or add small dots of different sauces on the plate. In contrast, it takes extraordinary courage, hard work, and a unique sensibility to let ingredients speak for themselves, focus on enhancing their natural flavors, and present them in a striking yet understated manner.
Chef Hideki Ishikawa is a favorite of Michelin. If their taste is oftentimes debatable, in this case they are spot on. Ishikawa is a true three-star meal, from beginning to end. This is the place to fall in love with kaiseki.
Furthermore, Ishikawa’s road to success may not have been as straightforward as one may think. You can learn more about his journey in Lutz Hachmeister's 2010 documentary called "Three Stars". Towards the very end of the movie, the chef says: “My life used to be worthless and boring. I was never happy. That’s why I’m glad cooking has become the basis of my existence, especially because it allows me to make other people happy. I’m always thinking about work, day and night.” His demeanor is not as serious as you may think and, at times, jokes with or about his staff. I could tell that he is a good chef to work for.
The 2010 documentary states that Hideki-san had never been to neither Europe or North America. I asked him and he told me that he has been once to New York and plans to go again in 2017. In a way, I feel extremely guilty to have been able to travel to his restaurant, while he has not had similar opportunities. It is common for Western chefs to feel as though they need to travel the world to find inspiration, but, I ask, did that really help them? Perhaps it is wise to spend all of your time and energy on what is around you.
He offers you his rice with an open heart (rice in Japanese is gohan, which also means "meal"). His rice is from Niigata, his hometown. I was overcome by the feeling that Ishikawa truly offers his heart, story, work and passion to each guest that he receives. Your kaiseki dreams will come true at Ishikawa.
My first kaiseki meal was at a two-star lovely restaurant. The food at Ishikawa exceeded any and all expectations. The dashi was beyond anything I had imagined. The ultimate umami flavor, so strong, long-lasting, deep and sophisticated. The sashimi was pristine, the uni was complex (different from the softer and sweeter uni at Jiro), the vegetables were extremely flavorful. The ochazuke was perfect, and the tableware is truly exquisite. Even the décor, lighting and the other guests were chosen with care and had either been invited by regular guests, or were regulars. I was surprised at the quality of the guests, in fact, since their three Michelin stars would, I presume, attract foreigners. The tea was a mix of gyokuro and matcha blended together, something that can be typical of high-end sushi and kaiseki restaurants, although not always.
More importantly than what was the exact taste of the grilled and steamed dishes, is the long-lasting impression Ishikawa has had on me. After the meal, chef Ishikawa escorted me outside, asked me how I felt and said “Please come back”. For the first time in Tokyo and in my life, I had tears in my eyes as I turned the corner away from this restaurant. I felt extremely touched by him, his work, his food, his sensitivity, taste, generosity and warmth. As I walked down the entire street, chef Ishikawa bowed and waived to me, with a sincerity I could feel even without looking. I will be back.
Revisit: I have since revisited the restaurant. I would say that Ishikawa would be great for someone who has already been to Tagetsu, or even for a first timer. They have a full English translation of the menu.
Reservation: Ishikawa can be booked through Tableall (and of course your hotel concierge).
Note: The other restaurants in the Ishikawa family are Ren and Kohaku.
The only true voyage of discovery would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes.
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