Deeply satisfying dinner at Goryu Kubo
Goryu Kubo, recently crowned with two Michelin stars, is an insider’s secret even amongst the food obsessed Tokyo dining set. The insiders speak about it in hushed, reverent tones and there is an unspoken agreement why this unassuming restaurant in Nishi-Azabu has skyrocketed from obscurity to two stars in less than three years. I was curious to sample its famed seasonal, kaiseki cuisine with a close friend, an Italian foodie who now calls Tokyo home. It turned out to be one of the best meals I have had in a long, long time. As my friend and I stood outside the restaurant saying goodbye to the chef and hostess, a bag of nicely crafted onigiri, made of leftover rice, in hand, I tried to piece together why a dinner which featured no dairy, no gluten, no sauces, foams or other culinary pyrotechnics, no real dessert to speak of was so utterly satisfying and in some inexplicable way, ultimately moving.
The taxi glided past the neon glitz and skyscrapers of Roppongi and dropped us off at a quiet turn at the edge of Nishi-Azabu. The bustle of Tokyo behind us, we entered a narrow street, which felt straight out of a film noir set, with low slung houses with dimly lit lanterns and clandestine speakeasies at every turn. We reached a white squat building that looked like a closed clothing store and turned at its edge to the basement to find Goryu Kubo. Through a narrow passage, we walked past a private dining room with tatami mats and sliding doors into a small dining bar with only six stools and a smiling chef to welcome us. The hostess, who spoke perfect English, seated us and discreetly whisked away our shopping bags. As is traditional with kaiseki cuisine, it was an omakase menu: seasonal dishes chosen by the chef. My friend had already chosen the more elaborate of the two available menus upon reservation, which is often customary, to avoid the awkwardness of having to commit to the price in front of the chef.
Jade green edible spheres
We settled for a tiny glass of chilled Japanese beer as our aperitif and the kitchen started with the first of its multicourse magic. A small dark plate with a dollop of fresh autumn rice topped with three large, bright green, fresh gingko nuts. Amused by being served warm rice as an amuse bouche, I curiously dug in. The warm, freshly scented rice contrasted perfectly with the nutty, earthy yet fresh taste of the gingko nuts. The hostess explained that early autumn is time to harvest gingko nuts, which are shelled and soaked in hot water to reveal these jade green edible spheres that taste like a cross between fresh edamame and camembert cheese. As we moved on to the first of our three sakes of the evening, the first of the fish dishes arrived from the kitchen. This was a snapper with tofu, the grilled buttery taste of the fish and its crisp caramelized skin contrasted well with the silky smooth yet utterly fresh tofu. It was totally different from any other tofu I had eaten and reminded me of the difference between high quality, store-bought ricotta and one made at home with the freshest whey and milk and gently heated to perfection.
Rice and Gingko
The next three fish dishes celebrated the late summer or early fall fishes from the eastern Japanese seaboard, accompanied with seasonal vegetables, each prepared simply yet to spectacular effect: a Striped Jack sashimi with zucchini flower had the texture of a marbled meat, an Iwate prefecture Japanese spider crab with fresh mushroom and a Hokkaido channel rock fish called Kinki grilled and served with kinome leaves and Sancho pepper, creating the most warming, buttery sensation that comes with perfect grilling and brings out the best of the firm white cod-like flesh.
As we transitioned to funky craft sake from Kyushu called Slam Dunk, the kitchen took it up a notch: a grilled, late summer fish called Sanma (Pacific saury) served with grated daikon, soy and sudachi, a lime-like Japanese citrus. I’m told that in traditional Japanese cooking, nothing signals the arrival of autumn like a Sanma, which has a mackerel-like fatty consistency. I bite into the accompanying smoked, dried fish vertebrae which provide a contrasting crispy texture to the fish. My friend explained that Takeshi Kubo, the owner chef of the restaurant, has his own supply chain of fishermen who he knows by name and relies on for the freshest seasonal catch. The two pieces of melt-in-your mouth Wagyu beef with mushroom were excellent and reinforced the fatty texture of the Sanma before it.
Just when I expected the final rice and miso course, we shifted gears to a Dassai 23 sake. The 23 in the name denotes that 77 percent of the rice has been polished off to focus on the unadulterated kernel that is mixed with the purest of waters to create a smooth sake with a lightly aromatic bouquet. The parade of seasonal treasures continued with steamed abalone (awabi) with kinukawa eggplant followed by a charcoal grilled unagi (eel) with a lovely lacquered glazing. My friend and I drifted off into a conversation catching up on old friends, work, and life, realizing how easy it is to reconnect after three years of not seeing each other. The warm, comforting, utterly homely yet deceptively sophisticated dishes blend perfectly into the rhythm of our friendly banter.
The cook came back with a pot of rice and opened up the lid to show us luminous autumn rice mixed with crab that he cooked for four hours. It is served with a delicious miso with late summer mushrooms. Each dining party gets its own rice pot cooked for them. They generously offered seconds, but I refused, satisfied and sated with the parade of dishes that came before. My friend smiled: this meant he got to take a doggie bag of this crab rice and share it with his daughter at breakfast. This will be the first time I walk out of a multi-starred restaurant with a doggie bag, I thought, smiling. The bowl of homemade yakisoba (buckwheat noodles) in a cold broth topped with sudachi slices, that followed the rice, was tangy and refreshing. The chef cleared our plates, picked up a large, juicy white peach and went on to expertly peel off its skin with a sushi knife. Dessert was a couple of slices of just-ripe peach slices served with peach jelly, followed by sencha tea. No chocolate fondants, friandises, buttery pastry crusts or creams. Just glorious late summer fruit, simply presented. As we walked off the street, the chef and hostess who had stepped out to say goodbye stood patiently watching us leave. We strolled into the night and stole a backward glance. They stood until their guests were completely out of sight.
Proust’s madeleine refers to involuntary memory which doesn’t rely on the conscious effort of remembering a reference, an event or a place. It refers to an unconscious connection to something deep in our memory’s hard drive – a Dutch pea soup on a winter’s evening or an Alphonso mango in the heat of an Indian summer. You cannot explain why it brings a rush of emotion. And why, without any fuss, it is so deeply satisfying. Even without the reference of Japan’s amazing seasonal bounties, Goryu Kubo connects food to something deep and comforting. No wonder my friend was looking forward to his doggie bag breakfast with his daughter.
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No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.
— Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
Goryu Kubo: www.goryu-kubo.com
港区Nishiazabu, 2 Chome−15−1, 三澤ビル
T: +81 3 6427 6727