You know when your expectations are so high reality can never live up to them. That was how I felt as I approached the entrance to Den in Tokyo’s Jingumae.
I have been following the career of chef Zaiyu Hasegawa for some time, from an up-and-comer to now #2 in Asia and #11 in the world, along with two Michelin stars.
His approach to food follows traditional kaiseki and seasonality but with a modern approach and whimsical touches.
Sue and I had been lucky enough to meet Zaiyu at a Belles Hot Chicken pop-up he hosted with Morgan McGlone last year. He was warm, charming and very approachable. There is a slight impishness about him, someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously.
And here we are again, this time with a hard-earned, actual reservation that took 382 phone calls to secure exactly two months to the day before our booking.
As we enter we are greeted excitedly by Emi, Zaiyu’s kimono-clad wife, they remember us from last year. Zaiyu smiles and waves out from the kitchen. They recall how Sue was much more interested in Zaiyu’s cute chihuahua Puchi Jr and said before we leave Puchi Jr would say hello.
The restaurant is small, seating today perhaps 20 guests with a private room for another four. There is a long counter table running parallel to the kitchen with diners seated only on the side looking into the kitchen. We are seated at one of only two separate tables.
We are offered beautiful cloth napkins which have been chosen to complement the colours we are wearing plus a choice of a complimentary sake or sparkling wine. Of course we take the sake.
From here the nine course menu unfolds. Each dish is presented and described by Emi, Zaiyu or any one of the 9-strong kitchen and front of house brigade. They are equally well-versed in the provenance of the ingredients and how they are prepared.
You can see how proud the younger members of this restaurant family are of the food they have cooked for you. At restaurant Den they embrace the philosophy of ‘omotenashi’, selfless hospitality, making diners feel a part of the family.
With no written menu we furiously write notes and photograph each dish then sit back to admire and appreciate the presentation and the beautiful crockery before taking a first bite.
Monaka filled with foie gras, sweet potato and pickled cucumber
Chawanmushi with oyster, kutzu-thickened dashi broth with soy, sake and butter
Dentucky chicken, a signature dish, the wing is deboned and stuffed with chestnut, maitake mushroom, rice and ginko nuts
Sashimi of Kue, giant groper from Shizuoka, aged five days and served with vinegared seaweed
Kamo and negi, duck breast with Japanese spring onion, eggplant and Jerusalem artichoke flower petals
The famous Den salad with 20 vegetables, raw and cooked, with kombu dressing
Soup with red konnyaku, daikon, winter melon, big-eyed red snapper and yuzu
Donabe rice with ikura, pickles and miso
Persimmon, grape and pomegranate with cream cheese mousse and rum jelly
What a spectacular feast – the gorgeous seasonal ingredients, the quirky twists in presentation, while still adhering to a traditional format. The simplicity of shojin ryori – buddhist cuisine, the multiple courses of samurai cuisine and the luxury of imperial cuisine.
The service is impeccable and sake recommendations just to our taste. As I look around the dining room there is always someone ready to catch my eye and if I look toward the kitchen Zaiyu-san looks up and beams back at me.
As each guest rises to leave Zaiyu and Emi leave their stations to have a chat, thank them for coming and then escort them out of the restaurant where they wave until the guests have disappeared from sight.
We, however, have one treat left. Puchi Jr is woken from where he sleeps behind the front desk and brought out to say hello. Puchi Jr gives us each his own special badge and a Puchi Jr shaped cookie.
While Sue coos over Puchi Jr I talk to Zaiyu about New Zealand and the wonderful fishing which I know he loves. I invite him to come to New Zealand one day.
We thank our gorgeous hosts for a wonderful evening as they lead us out.
Next time, they say, we can just email when we want to return.
Next time we will.
For more information follow the link to the Den website