As our 2016 resolution Mr. B and I vowed to concentrate our culinary adventures on exploring Japanese fine dining to learn more about the subtleties of Japanese cooking philosophy and savor the best this magnificent cuisine has to offer. So far we have enjoyed teppanyaki style of dining at Ukai-tei in Omotesando which without a doubt was an unforgettable experience. For our recent night-out with our new great friends Mandy and Caleb (fellow food enthusiasts) we headed out to glitzy Ginza district for a very special kaiseki dinner at a cozy local restaurant Ginza Maru, which Japan Times describes as “a haven of understated calm”. This luxurious style of cooking and ceremonial banquet serving originated in Kyoto centuries ago. It is an experience that is unique to Japan and often times it does not come cheap. Expect a traditional, multi-course, Japanese meal which typically involves the use of fresh, seasonal ingredients. These ingredients change monthly and include daily specials of fish, sashimi, grilled items, fresh vegetables and regional delicacies. Kaiseki is a type of art form that balances the taste, texture, appearance, and colors of food. Each course is prepared in ways that aim to enhance their flavor. Kaiseki dining is not just about the food, but an overall experience, so the artistic presentation of the courses as well as ambiance of the dining hall plays a huge role. Modern kaiseki draws on a number of traditional Japanese cuisines, notably the following four traditions: imperial court cuisine, Buddhist cuisine of temples, samurai cuisine of warrior households and tea ceremony cuisine. Not all kaiseki dinners have to be brutally expensive though. I read many wonderful reviews about Ginza Maru and thought it might have been a great introduction to kaiseki meal for us all. And I am happy to report I was not disappointed.
Located just off the main avenue in Ginza, this little restaurant has minimalist yet very pleasant ambiance with wooden panels and sliding screen-style dividers. You have an option to dine at a long counter overlooking an open kitchen, although as a group of four we were kindly seated at one of the four tables farther back by the windows. Soon after we put the orders a set of exquisitely designed and elaborately plated dishes started flowing our way. As an appetizer (shiizakana) we were served a salad of ripe blossoms (harvested on mountain slopes and forest floors around Japan) wrapped in dried persimmon and generously covered in a dollop of white tofu and a few strings of yuzu rind. As soon as we took a first bite a unanimous chorus of “mmm…” and “ooooh…” was heard. A mélange of flavors and textures was astounding: a bit of crunch from vegetables, refreshing aroma of the yuzu zest, smoky flavor and of course that absolutely luscious creamy yet incredibly airy tofu cream which had just the right amount of sweetness to it. I have never ever tasted tofu this tasty or smooth. In fact, only good manners forbid me to lick the remainder of tofu off the plate. To quote my friend Mandy “I wanted to cry when this dish ended.” It was perfection and I want to write a novel about it. But I better move on….
Next course (suimono) was Ozoni, a creamy soup with mochi and vegetables, carrot and satoimo (taro root). Our waitress informed us that this is a traditional New Year’s soup in Japan and that all the ingredients were sourced directly from Kyoto. Simple, yet flavorful – very pleasing in a cold winter night. It was a bit tricky eating mochi though as it is very sticky. The texture reminded me of the grits.
As a third course we received a beautiful platter of sashimi. A selection of colorful morsels of raw fish included mackerel, red sea brim, tuna and creamy uni and was served with a side of real wasabi and slices of radish. Everything was glistening fresh. We couldn’t have enough of it!
Next up, a trio of main courses was served. When putting an order you have an option to choose between grilled fish or a wagyu steak for an additional 1,000 yen. Three of us opted to upgrade, while Mandy chose to stick to a healthier pescaterian option. A blogger in me secretly rejoiced because I’d get to see and feature both options. 😉 Let’s see all the courses up-close.
Squid, yuzu and greens salad with creamy vinegar, ginger and miso dressing – great flavor combination which packed a punch and resulted in a delicious and very refreshing bite. Croquette of snow crab. This is what Japanese-style comfort food tastes like – perfectly crispy shell filled with flavorful warm crab cream. A true highlight of the menu which I shall remember for a very long time!
Mandy’s grilled fish was a mackerel which had been marinated in miso paste for 4 days. It was served with a side of black beans and tamago, traditional Japanese omelet cake. She said fish was cooked perfectly and tasted lovely. Our beef steak was served with shaved daikon on top. It was a classic wagyu, fatty and succulent. Not as outstanding as the one we had tried at Ukai-tei, but still very good. I also loved tamago, sweet and soft accompaniment to a savory dish. At this point we were getting quite full. Thankfully, the courses were served with sufficient intervals in-between to let the food settle and provide time for conversation.
Our fifth course was quite unusual and new to us all. Red sea brim fillet covered in creamy tofu was served with vegetable jelly and bamboo shoots. In terms of texture the dish was very soft and the fish was cooked well. However, it did not quite hit the spot for me.
The show does not end here as we still had a whole pot of donabe gohan (clay pot rice), traditional ending to a tasting menu, to tackle. With additional 1,500 yen we upgraded it to Takikomi gohan. Think of it as a Japanese version of pilaf. Perfectly steamed fluffy rice is seasoned with dashi and soy sauce along with some greens and snow crab. On a side, we had pickled vegetables and miso soup to enjoy. Gohan was so good we each had a second round!
Last but certainly not least, we had a choice of a dessert and per recommendation of our incredibly nice English-speaking (!) waitress we opted for Mushi Purin, a pudding custard which has been restaurant’s specialty for years. This is actually a very common dessert in Japan and is even often featured in anime. However, let me tell you more about Ginza Maru’s version. Slightly bitter coffee-flavored caramel sauce “hiding” on the bottom wonderfully complimented the sweetness of this luscious and silky-smooth custard, making for a dessert that sent us all to heaven. It was a true revelation. In fact, I did not want it to end. Ever.
Overall, we ended up spending almost three hours in the restaurant indulging in all the delicacies and chatting the night away. Food is important, however having people to share it with is priceless and I am so happy we have made some new great friends here in Japan!
Thoughts and details:
Sometimes in our quest for the “best” we forget what is good. Ginza Maru may not have Michelin-stars or be as exclusive as the introduction-only places, but it does serve as a wonderful introduction to kaiseki and a reliable option for seasoned eaters. Ginza Maru might have lacked the use of sophisticated crockery and served ingredients that are less pricey (e.g. shiitake instead of matsutake mushrooms) compared to more high-end and elegant kaiseki ryotei style of dining. However, even with humbler ingredients, all the courses were good and a few were outstanding. On top of all their hospitality and service was superb. I would definitely recommend this restaurant in a heartbeat, especially if you are on a budget but still want to experience authentic Japanese dining. Even though I had to engage the help of a Japanese speaking friend to make a reservation, staff were very friendly and knowledgeable and our server spoke very good English.
- Address: ICHIGO GINZA 612 Bldg. 2F, 6-12-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
- Access: 3 minutes from Ginza station, exit A3
- Telephone: 03-5537-7420
- Hours: Lunch: 11:30am – 2pm (LO 1:30pm) Dinner: 5:30pm – 11pm (LO 9pm)
- Closed On: Sunday, Holidays