Secret Tokyo eats – Michelin star quality without the price tag

Japanese-food-Michelin-star-dining-kaiseki-19Blink and you'll miss it: the stylish, subtle signage of 77-year-old 
restaurant Nihonbashi Yukari, owned by the Nonaga family.

If it’s good enough for the Emperor, it’s good enough for me. 

According to Chef Kimio Nonaga, the Nonaga family has been serving the Japanese Imperial Household Agency across three generations, assisting imperial garden parties and the imperial harvest festival.

Before you think I sank my life savings into one meal, remember that I’m always on the lookout for VFM (Value For Money)And Nihonbashi Yukari, a restaurant in the traditional Nihonbashi district of Tokyo, has VFM in spades. ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠

The dining surrounds are minimalistic.  Then again, Philippe Starck furniture becomes redundant in the realm of Chef Nonaga, a sassy natural entertainer of a chef who presents dish after dish to overwhelm the eyes and mouth in equal parts.

At the end of this post, I’ll share some hot tips on how to get the most out of this restaurant, if you intend to visit.

Japanese-food-Michelin-star-dining-kaiseki-16Why Nihonbashi Yukari

So, out of all the restaurants in Tokyo, why did I pick this one for the special occasion, splash-out dinner?

1. Because it came with a hearty VFM endorsement by Yukari Sakamoto – resident fount of Japanese culinary knowledge, chef, food guide and journalist.  She revealed that the Michelin men expressed interest in the restaurant some time ago, but Chef Nonaga had decided against participating.  Add that to the fact that the imperial family are customers, and you get an inkling about the quality of food here.

2. Because Chef Nonaga, who excels at cooking by the seasons, creates dishes every bit as enticing as Michelin-starred restaurants.  At least, that was my initial visual impression before visiting the restaurant, and he more than lived up to my expectations.

But here’s the rub: Chef Nonaga’s 9-course kaiseki-style dinner was 10,500 JPY (US$109) plus tax.  My research revealed that I’d easily pay double or more of that at officially-starred restaurants in Japan.

Oh, and in case you get the wrong idea of Japan or FITK, my meals in Japan were largely below 3,000 JPY.

Other exceptional aspects

Pedigree. 

  • Chef Nonaga is a third-generation chef.  The restaurant has been running for a whopping 77 years.
  • His grandfather started it in 1935, the year the Dalai Lama and Elvis Presley were born.  Later, Chef Nonaga’s father took over, then Chef Nonaga himself.
  • I ask him whether he feels the pressure of filling the shoes of his father and grandfather.  Candidly, he admits feeling it in the early days, but now it is his life and he loves it (wide grin).  As for the future generation, he produces a picture of his 7-year-old son baking biscuits.

Celebrity.

  • Chef Nonaga won the 2002 Iron Chef Japan Cup.  More gruelling than the usual Iron Chef episodes, competing for the Cup required him to win two challenges.
  • In the final challenge, he trumped Chen Kenichi in the Battle of the Bird.  For Iron Chef enthusiasts: the bird in question was Ingii chicken.
  • While we’re dropping names, he’s on home-cooking, back-slapping terms with Tetsuya Wakuda (and has the iPad pictures to prove it).

Show-and-tell. 

  • Chef Nonaga is captivating.
  • That’s saying a lot, because he speaks little English, and my Japanese is infinitely worse than his English.  Still, language was no barrier, thanks to his trusty iPad being an extension of him.

The Tumbler of TemptationJapanese-food-Michelin-star-dining-kaiseki-17

Chef Nonaga’s parents still grace the restaurant with their presence.  Some of the crockery is unique because Chef Nonaga’s father created them.  Like the beer tumbler that stole my heart.

I don’t even like the taste of beer!  But by golly, it sure tasted heavenly here.

Like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the tumbler stands at an angle.  Its textured surface and ideal diameter make it a delight to hold.  The lip curves out, with a thickness that is just so, making a joy of imbibing.

As you drink, the beer foam draws circles inside the tumbler.

The Entertainer

As advised by Yukari, we booked seats at the counter, which seats fewer than 10 people.

Throughout the evening, while Chef Nonaga plated up on the other side, he conversed with all who sat at the counter.  P1030645

With our group of 4 curious, fun-loving foreigners, Chef Nonaga:

  • answered our questions with enthusiasm and grins,
  • patiently explained ingredients using pictures on his iPad, and
  • hammed it up for our clicking cameras.  We lapped it all up.

With the elderly customer seated near us, Chef Nonaga switched to a calmer, deferential demeanour.

Quick, somebody give this man a corporate gig already…he multi-tasks with ease and has great people skills!

Speaking of hamming it up, the backdrop to Chef Nonaga’s counter was this (animal-lovers, look away NOW):

P1030641Bear "prosciutto" - cured bear leg.  Not part of our meal.

And so, to the 9-course dinner.

1. Otoshi course: the amuse-bouche

(Pictured in the blue and white cup with the 2nd course below) Chawanmushi – a steamed savoury egg custard.  Very silky.  It slithers off the spoon if one is greedy and takes too much.  It encases flavour bursts of seafood and other treasures, topped with a pinch of fragrant coarse black pepper.

2. Zensai course: the appetiser

P1030626Black lacquer bowl:  Blanched greens with bonito shavings.

Plate (clockwise from top): 

  • Chicken liver pate resembling foie gras.  Smooth, creamy, uber-yummy.
  • Sushi using cured salmon, topped with grated ginger.
  • Garnish of rosy petals.
  • Cod roe, a winter delicacy.  There’s nothing like popping eggs by the hundreds!

3. Owan course: the soup

Does this emerald jewel of a soup really belong to the same food group as chicken noodle Continental Cup-a-Soup?

P1030630The soup contained:

  • puréed Komatsuma greens – the cause of the gelatinous consistency,
  • a precision-cut, membrane-thin slice of daikon radish,
  • Kyoto carrot – being auspiciously red, this is a must-eat veggie at Japanese New Year celebrations,
  • a yellow sliver of yuzu peel (a winter fruit with a heavenly citrus scent).  It’s traditional to the Japanese and trendy to the Westerners,
  • shiitake mushroom,
  • cod fish cake.

I felt beyond virtuous drinking this arresting zen soup full of flavours and textures.  I think 6 raisins would’ve been more fattening than this.CAS2CAS1

As for Cup-a-Soup, don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my fair share, in a bid to get free mugs personalised with my kids’ names.  Fortunately I have only 2 kids, otherwise I’d still be working through all those new and exciting flavours.

4. Otsukari course: the sashimi   

Japanese-food-Michelin-star-dining-kaiseki-14

From left:Japanese-food-Michelin-star-dining-kaiseki-13

  • Yellow: A mound of chrysanthemum petals.
  • White: Blanched anago (saltwater conger eel).  The thinking person’s alternative to unagi (freshwater eel often served grilled and sweet).
    ~ The anago was satisfyingly chewy, with no muddy aftertaste.  Of course!  It’s a saltwater creature.
    ~ We were intensely curious about this new taste and texture.  Ever obliging, Chef Nonaga showed us iPad pictures of the whole eel, then reached under the counter to produce a tray of fillets.
    ~ To demonstrate how he prepared the dish, he proceeded to score a fillet at lightning speed.
    ~ He then explained he would blanch it make it curl.
  • Purple buds: Sesame blooms.
  • White with scorch marks: Big-fin reef squid.  Look carefully and you’ll see that only one corner per diamond has been scorched.  This slightly slimy sashimi was a perfect match for natto dressing (see below).
  • Green: Freshly grated wasabi.
  • Pink: Unctuously fatty, almost crunchy sashimi.
  • Top right: Grilled and glazed fatty tuna with grated daikon.  I love, love, love this. ♥ ♥ ♥

There were two dipping sauces: soy sauce, and a natto dressing.  Japanese-food-Michelin-star-dining-kaiseki-14

Natto is made from soy beans so fermented that they leave a mucous-like trail between your chopsticks and your bowl.  It’s whiffy.  It overflows with beneficial bacteria.  Natto with rice is a common Japanese breakfast.  Many non-Japanese can’t stomach it.  I confess I am not a fan.

But Chef Nonaga has a cunning way with natto.  He tempered its funkiness with chilli and miso, and the resulting unstringy sauce was delightfully more-ish.  Like spicy bean paste except much more complex.

5. Yakimono course: the grilled dish

Winter yellowtail fish in teriyaki sauce, with daikon, pickled lotus root and deep-fried onions.

Japanese-food-Michelin-star-dining-kaiseki-12 Japanese-food-Michelin-star-dining-kaiseki-10

Chef Nonaga whipped out his iPad to show us pictures of yellowtail in its various forms: whole fish for sale at the Tsukiji market, a close-up on his kitchen bench, and the different cuts.

There was even a shot of its belly that was especially fatty because it was winter.  It was this part of the fish that he had grilled to a crisp for our dish.

This course was served on a little toadstool-shaped platter handmade by Chef Nonaga’s father, who personally brought it to us.  (Cue reverent looks.)

6. Sunomono course: the vinegared dish

If the Iron Chef secret ingredient had been strawberries, I bet Chef Nonaga would have made this dish.  It’s the strawberry, soy sauce and vinegar dressing that ties the dish together.  Japanese-food-Michelin-star-dining-kaiseki-9

Three different discs:

  • (right) Barely grilled scallop.
  • (centre) Crab meat wrapped in a long, thin slice of daikon.
  • (left) Monkfish liver – A delight!  It was fatty and creamy, without the gamey taste or powdery consistency you sometimes get from mammalian liver.

Three different greens:

  • (top) Seaweed.
  • (middle) Chives.
  • (bottom) Cherry blossom leaves.  Surprisingly bitter, these were a good foil for the rich monkfish liver and sweet dressing.

These were all handsomely arranged on a giant scallop shell, which rested on a stabilising bed of pine needles.

7. Tomemono course – the final course

Except it wasn’t the final course.  It wasn’t even the penultimate course.  But I wasn’t complaining.

Japanese-food-Michelin-star-dining-kaiseki-8 Japanese-food-Michelin-star-dining-kaiseki-7 Japanese-food-Michelin-star-dining-kaiseki-6

Cod, grated turnip, gluten and wasabi, surrounded by a lightly gelatinous consomme.  All eaten with a pleasingly smooth and curved wooden spoon.  This is holiday food you’d be proud to tell your cardiologist about.

Chef Nonaga showed us iPad pictures of the perfectly round and smooth turnips bought from the market.  Turnip is at its best in winter, and Japan in December is flooded with flawless specimens.

8. Shokuji course – the rice dish

Japanese-food-Michelin-star-dining-kaiseki-4

A delicate congee with:

  • local chicken, finely shredded into single muscle fibres,
  • egg,
  • shark’s fin, and
  • house-made pickles.  The wasabi with soy beans and sake were very salty and slightly pungent, a punchy condiment for the subtle congee.

I want Chef Nonaga to cook this for me when I’m immobilised by the flu.

9. Dessert

Chef Nonaga is no slouch at desserts.  And now he has left me forever pining for this ice cream 8,000 km away.

Japanese-food-Michelin-star-dining-kaiseki-3What’s in this phenomenal dessert, you ask.

Roasted soy bean powder.  Malty and faintly nutty.  I love new ice cream flavours!

Sweetened black beans embedded in the ice cream.  These taste like sticky, chewy sweets, except with protein content.

Gooey melted brown sugar.

Crunchy rice pops.

The metal-and-wood teaspoon is so exquisite it could masquerade as a Philippe Starck creation.  Lift it and you’ll be surprised: it’s solid and remarkably heavy for its size.

The streaked bowl echoes the colours of the ice cream, causing me to scrape unproductively for non-existent remnants.

You know you’ve been in Japan for too long when…

…you take for granted that:

  • restaurants will offer hot towels, and
  • toilets will have digital buttons and warmed seats.

But Nihonbashi Yukari lifts the game with these little touches.

  1. Before the meal, my father emerged from the restroom and immediately proclaimed, “This is a classy restaurant.”  The reason?  The (warmed) toilet seat automatically lowers as you open the door.  As a contrast to that modern technology, sitting in the sink are charcoal pieces – a traditional odour-eater.
  2. And the restaurant’s hot towels?  They are menthol-scented.  A simple, delightful idea.

Japanese-food-Michelin-star-dining-kaiseki-1

Hot tips if you intend to dine at Nihonbashi Yukari

  1. If your group is small, book a counter seat.
    ~ Chef’s tables don’t come more intimate than this.
    ~ Chef Nonaga will enthusiastically tell you about seasonal produce and cooking methods, with the help of his trusty iPad or an English-speaking member of his trusty staff.
    ~ Besides, you can devise outrageous poses for him to adopt in your pictures.
  2. The best way to make a reservation is to ask a Japanese speaker (eg your hotel concierge) to ring up the restaurant for you.
  3. You can have lunch for a fraction of the price.  It’s not as elaborate as the multi-course dinner.  But if you have the time and funds, go in the evening for the complete experience.
  4. Big groups can book a private room for an extra charge.
  5. While you’re in the area, go to the extensive gourmet food basement at Daimaru department store (you can only just see it from the restaurant).

Here’s a link to website of Nihonbashi Yukari.  If you’re a Facebook user, search “Kimio Nonaga” and gawk at the photos of his creations.

This is an independent, uncommissioned review.  FITK visited Nihonbashi Yukari (twice!) in December 2012, at own expense.  Thanks go to Yukari Sakamoto for translating some menu items.

Other things to do in Tokyo: Visit an instant noodle museum.

Postscript: Here’s Yukari Sakamoto’s account of lunching at Nihonbashi Yukari.

5 thoughts on “Secret Tokyo eats – Michelin star quality without the price tag

  1. Pingback: Nihonbashi Yukari Spring Bento | Food Sake Tokyo

  2. Glad you liked it, Philip, and thank you for taking time to comment. If you want an insider’s look at Japanese food, consider a tour with chef/sommelier Yukari Sakamoto. She’s friendly and knowledgeable, and you can find her by googling FoodSakeTokyo. That’s a tried-&-tested personal recommendation, not a paid ad 🙂 Have a great time in March.

  3. hi! just stumbled on your site…love it! i only eat seafood (and veggies). what do you suggest is the best way to specify this with Nihonbashi Yukari — when making a reservation (sure to get lost in translation), at the restaurant, etc… was thinking to go for lunch. thank you!

  4. If you’re making a reservation from overseas, do only that first. Once you arrive in Japan, ask your concierge to ring the restaurant to specify your dietary restriction. Have a great time.

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