Chef Yamamoto Seiji (山本征治) opened RyuGin in December 2003 at the young age of thirty three. Before that he had worked under Koyama Hirohisa (小山裕久) at Aoyagi (青柳) for ten years, channeling his talent for cooking the highest quality ingredients flawlessly. In theory, the highest quality ingredients combined with impeccable cooking should guarantee an unforgettable meal. At least that’s what I thought.
The restaurant is located on a small side street in Roppongi. The area used to be a bit seedy but after the construction of Roppongi Hills (六本木ヒルズ) completed in 2003, the neighborhood perked up. Now it is known for its sophisticated nightlife including a handful burgeoning restaurants eager to collect their stars. Yet despite being in such a lively neighborhood, RyuGin remains humble and quiet having just under twenty seats.
The service at RyuGin, like the service at nearly every other fine dining establishment in the city, was flawless and graceful. The staff spoke with tremendous knowledge about the menu yet remained impressively humble. The stage was set for a fantastic meal. Everything was ready, that is, except the food.
I was the only one at the table who enjoyed the first course, Atelier RyuGin’s home made bottarga served with daikon radish in yuzu flavor. A thin slice of cured tuna roe served atop two smoked logs. The dried roe was salty and firm, with a texture not unlike leather. The flavor was intensely salty and of intense dried fish. I thought this was a nice accompaniment to a glass of champagne.
Special oyster from Akkeshi, Hokkaido served with smoked oyster purée and ponzu vinegar with céleri-rave. This was the first disappointing course. The oyster was very salty and its only flavor that of unpleasant fish. The ponzu vinegar was too assertive distracting from any sweet components the oyster may have contributed. The portioning was purportedly for one bite; but that was impossible unless your mouth looks like Shrek’s.
Ankimo, monkfish liver, served with ark shell clam, winter vegetable in apple vinegar, miso, and mustard. Another disappointment. The liver was completely covered with a cold, flavorless paste that prevented any flavor from the monkfish from surfacing. This did not taste like miso pastes that I was used to; this had no character. The miso paste was also unnecessarily jelly-like. Unfortunate, as I love monkfish liver.
Hot soup of matsuba brand Tanner crab from Port Shibayama in season’s greetings style. The title of this dish made me chuckle inside a little. This was delicious and perfect for a freezing cold winter day. The subtle clear and lightly salted broth extracted and enhanced the sweetness of the crab. The quality of the shellfish was immediately apparent as despite sitting in a hot broth for several minutes the stringy texture remained in tact to the end. The crab added a subtle shellfish flavor and scent to the pristine broth, just enough to make it interesting and different from most Japanese clear broth soups.
Assorted sashimi “RyuGin style,” feel free to serve this to me anytime of day or night. There is nothing but praise that I have for this course. The freshest fish in the world were prepared in a way that allowed 100% of their natural flavor to come through. A lightly seared scallop topped with osetra caviar, red snapper from nearby Osaka, lean tuna, and homard bleu. An assortment of flavors and textures from crunchy to smooth, lean snapper to rich scallop.
Deep fried shark fin in cone, a surprisingly enjoyable mix of crunchy fried breading and stringy shark fin. I’m used to eating shark fin in soup; this was the first time I tasted it dry. I loved this cone … textures were all over the place. The salty batter somehow made the shark fin taste sweeter.
Crispy chargrilled “Akamutsu” with vinegar flavor on egg pudding, smooth taro potatoes. As good as an egg pudding can taste, I suppose. I have Japanese friends who go crazy for egg puddings like chawanmushi, as this is a very traditional dish. Being a New yorker, I don’t have the same nostalgic connection. (I can, however, enjoy mustard on my hot dog.) The smooth taro potatoes made this entire dish have a texture of smooth pudding. The textural monotony required that the flavor and temperatures be perfect: this dish was served just under room temperature and the flavor uneventful.
Venison with wasabi mashed potatoes and matsuke mushrooms. A thick cut of lean venison exquisitely cooked. There was no cooking gradation from surface to center, all uniform. The beautiful pink color glistened in the light. But the real highlight of the plate was the wasabi mashed potatoes crowned with shaved black truffle. The truffle was some of the most fragrant black truffle I have ever seen, easily detectable from across the room. The squeaky matsuke mushroom was grilled just enough to remove the water and intensify the flavor without overcooking. This was the highlight course of the night.
Steamed rice with cherry blossom tea topped with aromatic sakura shrimp from Shizuoka. Another incredible course. These tiny shrimp were eaten whole and had a very subtle flavor of shrimp. Since they were so small, most of the flavor and texture came from the crispy shells. The heads were the most flavorful part, I really wanted more. These were served on top of rice cooked so perfectly that each grain developed a springy texture. The rice stuck together without sacrificing its shape, a clear sign of perfect cooking.
The rice was also served with a bowl of miso soup and pickled vegetables. There’s something really satisfying about pickled vegetables and rice at the end of a meal. I haven’t figured it out yet. It has the same closing effect that a sweet dessert has; except without the sweetness. It leaves me with a very clean mouthfeel.
Fresh pear compote in Gewürtztraminer aroma and three citrus in maple syrup. I got a little worried when I saw a ball of grapefruit pulp. After the first bite I waited for the bitter acidity to attack, much like waiting for the pain after stubbing your toe. Except it never came. The bitterness was completely neutralized; perhaps the pulp was soaked in some kind of sugar water before. The dish was very refreshingly bright and sweet.
Fifth year anniversary special, ice cream of chocolate truffles, accompanied with fresh orange jam. I don’t like chocolate ice cream and this was no different. The flavor was infinitely stronger than any of the previous courses, completely erasing them from my palate. This entire course, I believe, should have been skipped. But my friend seemed to enjoy it.
Ultimately light Warabimochi cake in coconuts, genmai tea, and kinako powder. Light cakes to close off the meal. These went nicely with hojicha.
My meal at RyuGin was lackluster; though, it did certainly have its highlights: the assorted sashimi, shark fin, and venison were my favorite courses. It was immediately clear that this was a very talented chef. But the rest of the meal was a blur; nothing really jumped out as memorable. And frankly, of the three courses I did enjoy, once was enough. When I returned home I saw the meals of my friends Chuck and Cathy, both of whom seem to have had very different experiences. Their strongly positive opinions aside, just from looking at the photos, it’s clear that they had a different experience. Could it be that RyuGin is not what it used to be ? Or simply that I had a single forgettable meal ? I’d like to return at some point; but, I’m in no rush.
Wine pairings for the night:
- Arbois, Grand Elevage Vieilles Vignes 2006
- Mersault Vieilles Vignes 2006
- Pinot Blanc Vin d’Alsace Domaine Weinbach 1999
- Maison Louis Jadot & Domaine Ladoix 1999
- Clos Windsbuhl Gewurtztraminer 2005