Japan- Ryugin- ✪✪✪

 Ryugin Main Entrance

Ryugin Main Entrance

TOKYO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 9.5/10

FOOD: 9.0/10

PRICE PAID: $310 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 9.0/10

Ryugin was an incredibly special blend of European, Chinese, and Japanese styles into a harmony that I haven't seen done as well anywhere in the world. It was also eclectic and experimental- some of the dishes could compete with the most innovative techniques I've seen in the US, and the overall experience was a seamless blend of new and old approaches. Seiji Yamamoto is the head chef, and he is also clearly proud of his many accomplishments, including the third Michelin star. A visitors' room I stumbled into upstairs has a flat-screen TV playing a video from his Michelin acceptance celebration on a loop.

 The Ryugin Owl

The Ryugin Owl

Also, there is an owl. The owl viewed the visitors' room as his space.

 The Ryugin Menu

The Ryugin Menu

Start to finish, every aspect of this evening was polished, almost to a fault. The menu, for instance, came in a stamped and post-marked envelope, and a perfectly readable (though certainly full of interesting word choices) English.

 1st Course: Sea Urchin, 8/10

1st Course: Sea Urchin, 8/10

First up was a delicious, fried bite of sea urchin. It was rolled up in the individual maki with ginger and green peas, giving it a cool mix of flavors and textures, along with the crunch of the shell. 8/10.

 2nd Course: Firefly Squid, 9/10

2nd Course: Firefly Squid, 9/10

This was my "you're not in Kansas any more" moment on the first trip to Japan. A plate of warm, whole squid (eyes and all) was gamely placed in an egg custard, and all of it cooked over charcoal. The charcoal comes through incredibly strongly, and the squid (I must admit I've never eaten whole squids before) were a delightful blend of exotic flavors- a rich umami blend- and paired perfectly with the egg custard. A surprisingly welcome combination and dish. 9/10.

 3rd Course: "Just-in-Time" Soup and Cherry Leaves, 9/10

3rd Course: "Just-in-Time" Soup and Cherry Leaves, 9/10

The egg in the middle of this soup had a hard, crunchy white vegetable inside that was imbued with a softly fruit taste from the cherry leaves. A simple but interesting soup dish. 9/10.

 4th Course: Fish, 8/10

4th Course: Fish, 8/10

As you can see, this palate of gorgeous color and shapes included (clockwise, from the top): fugu (pufferfish), Salmon, Monkfish liver, squid, and octopus. The salmon was soft and fresh, the liver tasted like an excellent cheese, and the octopus was spicy and super fresh. An amazing diversity of textures and flavors. My only (tiny) complaint is that the octopus is tough but yielding enough to be pleasurable. 

 5th Course: Grilled Kin-Ki Fish, 7/10

5th Course: Grilled Kin-Ki Fish, 7/10

The deep-sea Kin-ki fish from Hokkaido is stuffed with eggplant. Smoky and rich as hell, the eggplant is a nice but bland flavor that served as a nice base for the super-rich fish. The fish wasn't quite to my tastes, and the bamboo shoot vegetables were a little too plain for me. 7/10. 

 6th Course: Cook-Your-Own Broth, 8/10

6th Course: Cook-Your-Own Broth, 8/10

This next dish wins huge points for originality- a gas-driven hot-pot is brought out pre-filled with chicken broth, herbs, and fresh peas. A plate of Spring vegetables, colorful and fresh, is brought for dipping/cooking in the broth (I was told no more than 10-20 seconds is best) and a warm peanut dipping sauce is provided. Super fun to cook your own food ("we're going to make you work!" said the waiter jokingly). 8/10.

 7th Course: Wagyu Beef, 10/10

7th Course: Wagyu Beef, 10/10

I won't have to tell you much more than this was the best Wagyu beef I have ever had, hands down. The beef was covered in rich sauce, and the egg of a particularly prized hen sat underneath. 10/10. 

 Course 8: Chicken + Rice, 9/10

Course 8: Chicken + Rice, 9/10

This chicken was unlike any poultry I have ever tasted- soft, almost to the consistency of clay, paired up nicely with the crunch of the seeds and the richness of the rice. The chef made this dish by memory from his favorite meal as a kid- one of several sentimental references to youth and memory that chef's Spring menu portrayed.

 Course 9A: Hot + Frozen Strawberries

Course 9A: Hot + Frozen Strawberries

 Course 9B: Hot + Frozen Strawberries

Course 9B: Hot + Frozen Strawberries

Another incredibly adventurous dish that resembled something I thought Alinea might try. A frozen strawberry, dipped in -150F frozen nitrogen, is paired up with a spoonful of hot strawberries cooked to +150F, yielding a 300 degree temperature difference. The effect was almost like pop rocks- it snapped and crackled on the tongue and was almost overwhelmingly sweet. An incredibly creative and fascinating dish. 10/10.

 

 10th Course: Sake Ice Cream + Sake Soufflé

10th Course: Sake Ice Cream + Sake Soufflé

 The sake glasses

The sake glasses

The second dessert was equally beautifully presented- a warm soufflé of sake, paired with sake ice cream, and all with an unfiltered house sake poured on top. The alcoholic tinge made the sake taste "real," and the effect was that of drinking the finest glass of sake I've ever had. Also worth noting- I got to pick my own sake glass for consumption, which came on a gloriously colorful tray. 

 11th Course: Traditional Matcha Tea

11th Course: Traditional Matcha Tea

Made with a traditional Matcha brush, the tea was so rich that it almost tasted like a shot of wheatgrass. Flavors of pure cut grass, seaweed, and rich tea. A fantastic finish to a fantastic meal.