Welcome back, Japan-obsessed foodies! With an introduction to kaiseki written, I hope that this venerable cuisine will become far easier to understand (though it’s oh so, so easy to eat). A necessary lesson, for many posts like the current one cover my experiences at various kaiseki and kaiseki-like restaurants. My first true-to-form experience of kaiseki was at restaurant Tsuruko, in the tranquil, highly underrated city of Kanazawa.
This is a long read, so if you’re feeling lazy, let me jump the gun for you before you do – this restaurant is worth every last Yen.
Best that you keep reading 🙂
Date Last Visited: 24/3/2016 – Spring seasonality
Details (address, hours, etc.): link
Food cost only: 30000JPY
Actual price paid (cost includes dinner + 1 carafe of sake + all taxes): 33,813JPY (~$402AUD at time of writing).
If you are unfamiliar with Kanazawa, sit tight – I will give a more extensive rundown of this city in a separate travel post (TBD). Suffice it to say for now that it is essentially a “mini-Kyoto”; however I do realise that for those who haven’t even visited Japan, it’s a fairly vapid comment. In short, it’s a town where not much goes on, but where there are things to see, do and eat with just a little bit of sleuthing required.
Amongst the many other things Kanazawa is famous for (I swear I’ll get that travel post up soon), it is no doubt also known for its fresh produce – especially in the area of vegetables and seafood. It is a seaside city after all, and that’s reflected in pretty much everything we ate while staying here.
At Tsuruko, all of this is taken to the limit. I’m not going to lie – this is a bloody expensive restaurant. Only the best ingredients are used, the best service provided, a place where superlatives tend to dominate the discourse. While $400pp for a meal would be considered nothing short of absurd in Australia, food culture in Japan (and indeed, in European countries also) is such that there is an understanding and importantly – appreciation – of the costs that quality produce incurs. As such, these kinds of prices, while not common per se, are not unheard of.
Tsuruko can be considered to be the equivalent of a 3-hat restaurant in Sydney, and one that would score Michelin stars – if the inspectors ever bothered to visit. It is at that (read: world class) level, this I have no doubt in my mind.
For those on a tighter purse, kaiseki at far more accessible price points are available (down to below $100 AUD/pp in fact), and at Tsuruko itself, lunch can be had for as little as 10,000JPY. That’s pro-tip #1 for the budget-conscious: go lunch!
The first photo of the restaurant’s internal decor paints an unassuming picture of what lies within. Japanese restaurants are generally quite subtle, and classically restrained and traditional. At top-end European restaurants, I felt like a king stepping in. In Japan, and at Tsuruko, I felt like an esteemed house guest – no less important, but in some ways far more comforting. However, both types of restaurants will definitely drain the wallet 😛
When you step in, you’re required to take off your shoes in true Japanese guesthouse style, and proceed barefoot. Pro-tip #2: please ensure you don’t have stinky feet!
All waitstaff were female, and wore traditional yukata kimono. The service is classically Japanese – we were treated like absolute royalty, even if a small language barrier proved to be a bit awkward (and hilarious) at times. However, at no point did we feel uncomfortable – and indeed, it’s nice to be exposed to a different, almost reverential style of service that’s seldom seen at Western restaurants.
Another reason why it’s expensive is the sheer space of our dining area – it’s an entire private suite to ourselves, with an entry room as well as the actual dining room.
Soak it in, dear reader – we certainly did so for a few minutes at least.
The friendly staff were very patient to allow us to get comfortable and take all of the photos I had wanted to take. When we finally got seated (thankfully on actual seats – not cross-legged), the meal began without delay – an excellent sign!
As the first proper kaiseki experience I’ve had, pretty much everything going forward was a new experience to me, and that started from the water itself.
That is, a small cup of brown-rice infused water. I’m unsure as to what this actually signifies, but perhaps it’s their way of palate preparation. It was actually a big surprise to find that the taste and aroma of brown rice was non-trivial – remarkably strong, and I couldn’t help but try and chew brown rice that was there, so realistic was the feeling. A little weird, a little cool, definitely interest-piquing.
If you’ve read the introduction to kaiseki, you may be able to take a stab that this is Tsuruko’s take on a Spring sakizuke dish. That is, the amuse/appetiser to start. In this deep-set, lacquered ceramic square dish resides a portion of crisp and aromatically spicy takana, crunchy & bitter nanohana, umami-rich caviar, and soft, chewy tai.
It is an ostensibly simple dish, however it is exactly because of this that it tasted so good – for it forces the curation of top-shelf ingredients, paired in the most discerning manner. This is kaiseki through and through. It’s not a flavour explosion, per se, however it is a textural marvel; I was able to taste every ingredient to its fullest, regardless of whether eating them together or apart. A refined platform to springboard into the next set of dishes to follow.
The second series of small courses comprise the hassun. This is a selection of side dishes that ramp up the intensity of our meal – the flavour train truly begins here, as well as it being a feast for the eyes. Tsuruko’s hassun is particularly enrapturing, comprising of the following elements:
- Takana in a white mustard-based sauce
- Savoury foie gras jelly & soramame (large broad bean)
- “hot & cold pudding”
- Rare beef w/mustard
- Tempura tara no me (angelica tree root) w/glutinous tempura “fish”
- Steamed abalone
Hassun is intended to demonstrate the chef’s skill and flair in creative and delicious ways, before presenting the more substantial dishes. This is an highly intricate dish even by hassun standards.
Well then, let’s get into it.
Going clockwise –> centre, first up is something we’ve seen before in the sakizuke – takana (mustard greens), except this time covered in a light, not-too-creamy mayo-like sauce that imparts a subtle mustard aroma. It’s almost a bit of a battle to see whose “mustard-y-ness” would win out – the takana, or the sauce it’s in? In any case, another refreshing few bites which was all about that vegetal crunch.
The next thing I ate was a 2-texture savoury jelly. On the outside is a jelly that’s flavoured with what’s best described as liver pate. Intensely strong, but relatively light when compared to the inner inset cube of actual liver parfait. Strength to strength the flavours go, but it never got overpowering because the morsel is portioned so small. The last (green) cube tasted almost exactly like a piece of crunchy celery. I’m not even going to try to identify it – let’s leave it at that.
The third course is the most interesting in the entire set, and also the hardest for me to describe as so much of the technique is beyond me – as well as a lack of knowledge. Hell, let’s try anyway. It was described to us as a hot & cold pudding. They’re not wrong – everything in the upper half of the cup is literally cold (almost chilly), whilst the bottom is too hot to touch.
The brown/grey stuff on top is kani miso. This name needs some explaining: kani is crab, and miso is…well, miso. Okay, so far so good. But not really in this particular case – there is actually no miso in kani “miso” at all. It actually refers to the crab’s brains. Yep, you’re eating crab brain paste.
Actually, it’s even worse than that. See, a crab’s brain is actually roughly the size of a pea. You’d have to go through a lot of crab to get enough brain to make the amount of paste for just one of these “puddings”. Instead, kani miso is actually made from all of a crab’s offal – all of its organs, including the brain. No white meat – that’s upcoming.
Does that sound appealing? Perhaps it shouldn’t, but it truly, truly is. There’s very little “brain funkyness” to the stuff, and really, there’s an earthy, almost meaty taste that’s redolent of crab. As for its texture, it’s very, very fine – almost a fine cream even. Also noting the temperature – it’s quite cold, with an almost icy complexion to it. It’s something you could spread on toast…or a pudding.
An egg pudding, to be precise. The bottom part consists of a classic Japanese chawanmushi, a savoury egg custard that’s flavoured with dashi. It includes goodies such as fresh crab meat, crab roe, two types of mushrooms, a creamy yamaimo (a sticky yam dish native to Japan), and various mini-cubed vegetables. Phooar, a lot going on. I won’t go into too much detail here, but suffice to say that all the meat is juicy, tender and virtually faultless, the chawanmushi is of a perfectly smooth consistency, and the mushrooms and little bits of veg keep textures lively.
It’s so delicious, and so heartwarming – especially in the transition of the earthy, icy kani miso to the calescent goodness of the chawanmushi and all it encloses.
The next course is a slice of beef with a dollop of mustard on top. My dining partner remarked that it tastes like a room-temperature char siu. The assertion is not something I wholly agree with, but the texture isn’t far off – the beef has some bite to it, especially around the edges similar to char siu. It’s a lot rarer closer to the middle (well, they did mention “rare beef”). The taste however, is distinctly not char siu – ringing of mustard over anything else. A curious dish, made all the weirder by serving it in a shell (where’s the relation there?). I didn’t wholly love it, but it’s definitely a “not bad, not bad” kind of cut.
All I could think about was how a far larger serving of this would go so well in a sandwich!
The bottom-right dish is a tempura of glutinous fish paste, which sandwiches a savoury/sweet jelly that’s akin to citrus and seaweed. It’s a toothy, chewy morsel providing a solid workout to the jaw.
It was paired with a single tempura’d angelica tree root called tara no me. It’s one of Japan’s many types of sansai (mountain vegetables), and while they are numerous, they share a common theme of “wild bitterness”. Get used to it – sansai are beloved by high-end kaiseki chefs. As there is very little batter used in the tempura, the tara no me’s own crunchiness and bitterness have little to hold back.
The last dish is the abalone (no close-up picture, sorry). It’s also the most disappointing dish for me. Its texture was still surprisingly rubbery and chewy, and the flavour wasn’t all that impressive either – still tasting much of raw ocean, and a kind of “abalone musk” that wasn’t palate-pleasing. Oh well, what were the chances that every nibble in a kaiseki would be fully tailored to a single person’s palate?
Moving along now.
A lidded bowl coming up next is usually going to be a soup-based dish, a futamono in Kaiseki lore. Futamono always arrive lidded, and it is at the diner’s discretion as to when to reveal. The reasoning is obvious once you read it – so that the diner gets an instant hit of the soup’s fragrance at their discretion.
Mmmmmm. That’s the stuff – a delicate bowl of perfectly cooked ingredients is to be expected – a piece of leafy & fresh kabu leaf, fleshy, tender nodoguro, chewy kamaboko (basically a Japanese fish cake of which naruto is one), crunchy bamboo shoot and uni. While all of these aforementioned ingredients are perfectly cooked in their own way, it’s the soup that the chef really wants to showcase.
The deal with soup is that its simplicity is what makes it so difficult – it’s very easy to get the balance of flavour and texture wrong, throwing off the experience. Although diners will have their own interpretation, the chefs still ultimately wish to present their vision as they intended. At Tsuruko, this takes the form of a peppery-sweet, highly-flavourful broth that tastes like a combination of all of its ingredients. Some Japanese soups can end up tasting like clear hot water, such is their “subtle” flavouring. Not so here, it’s full on, it’s hearty, and it’s even a little bit thickened which made me feel like it was more filling than it really is. In addition to the ingredients listed above, there are also two flower buds (unknown type) in the soup which I would actually recommend against eating, unless you want a hit of bitterness so strong it would make bitter melon weep. They are however quite fragrant!
Other than that, this is an excellent soup and a great example of restrained execution.
There is almost always a sashimi/raw fish component to kaiseki, known as the Mukōzuke – or “sliced dish”. The chef obviously has to show off his/her slicing skills, and what better place to do it than here?
At our dinner, we were able to enjoy a selection of hirame, hamachi, ika, and ama-ebi (sweet shrimp). Concordantly appropriate condiments of grated daikon (the orange ball), wasabi and lime are provided. In-house soy sauce (bottom right – almost out of the picture) is also provisioned. There is also a ponzu sauce that’s not pictured.
We start with the hirame (top left), which is to be paired with the lighter ponzu (due to hirame’s light flavour profile). To our surprise, we were instructed not to eat these directly, but rather to wrap up pieces of yomogi (mugwort – the green leaves on the plate), as well as shredded shallots (just behind the orange daikon ball). Only after DIYing this “fish roll” and seasoning w/wasabi to taste, were we meant to use the ponzu. For the record, I tried eating hirame both in this way, as well as simply plain. They both work – so feel free to have it your own way. When wrapped with the yomogi & shallots, the hirame takes on a more passive role of a piece of sashimi to be balanced by the aromas of the herbs. Hirame itself is quite light and clean, with almost no flavour to itself (I hear hirame in summer is a fair bit richer in flavour). I can sort of see why the herbs are recommended – to add complexity.
After eating some hirame, I turned my attention to the ika (for dipping in ponzu). Squid is usually fairly predictable in terms of texture – chewy, rubbery; a few seconds of jaw-exercise. This ika is no different, though due to a rather complicated, almost mottled kind of scoring, its mouthfeel was markedly different during chewing. Not better or worse than other methods, just different. If you like squid, then you already know whether you’ll like this piece or not. I sure did.
The ebi came next (for dipping in ponzu). These little babies were truly small, and were gone all too quickly in just one bite. However, all its juicy, almost creamy-like gelatinous texture was present. I only wish they came bigger so I can appreciate that chewiness all the more.
The last pieces are the hamachi – the fatty, diamond-scored pieces in the middle (for dipping in soy). These are cut very thick, and in fact, a bit too thick for me. I was forced to pay a lot more attention to the thickness of the fish than its inherent flavour, which is a real shame. This could have been really good otherwise – the fattiness was overwhelming in the sheer density of such a cut. Dangit!
Up next is a showcase of grilling – a yakimono dish. For us, this was a grilled hirame neck, with yamaimo root, paired with aka-zuiki & olives. To the bottom right is a soy/ponzu dipping sauce for flavouring – if desired.
This is one of my favourite dishes of the meal. The hirame’s skin sports an excellent crunch resembling pork crackling, while beneath, the flesh is still as supple as a baby’s cheek. I’m genuinely shocked that such a textural contrast could exist for the one piece of fish, and it is among the most juxtaposed I’ve ever eaten. As for flavour, it’s light – really light, like hirame itself. Use the ponzu liberally and the saltiness will complement well with the smoky char of the fish’s skin.
As for the yamaimo (the white veg closest to the frame), it’s a very starchy and sticky root vegetable – think the stickiness of okra paired with the starchiness of potato and you’re on the right track. I’m not quite sure why it was included in the dish, but I like this most odd texture, so it was a fun eat nonetheless. The red taro stem pickle was also quite nice – a solid palate cleanser of sorts after chowing down the rather large piece of fish. The only thing I wasn’t a fan of were the olives – they were surprisingly bitter. Small complaint.
This was awesome, and I wasn’t sure how it would be topped. But of course, I know the moment I say something like that, a superior dish is just round the corner.
Oh man, things just got real. So I guess this is where the rest of the crab was after digging through the kani miso pudding earlier on.
This looked so good, we were ready to eat it raw. In fact, that’s what I thought it was going to be – crab sashimi. But where was the sauce? That’s the question of the hour, until it was answered in mouthwatering fashion.
The okami-san (the “head restaurant lady” – often a co-owner of the restaurant/2IC of the head chef) herself makes an appearance, placing herself behind a table set up specifically for the purpose of grilling the crab. The grill used here is known as a hibachi grill, which unlike a teppan (solid grill surface), is open-air, with a grate allowing heat from charcoals below to transfer to whatever is being cooked.
There’s a few photos here, because the cooking process takes a few minutes, and we were super excited from all the theatre that’s surely one of the highlights of the meal. While we’re at it, let’s talk about the crab itself – while there are literally over 30 types of crab eaten in Japan, most sport similar characteristics – meaty, juicy flesh, subtly sweet, yet savoury enough that you could almost eat it without any seasoning whatsoever.
You should be glad we haven’t invented smell-o-vision yet, for these few minutes of crab grilling were pure torture.
Sorry, I had to. But dear reader, you can probably tell that this is a big crab! Not record-setting, sure, but sporting plenty of meat nonetheless.
At Tsuruko, we were served the female species of snow crab called kobako kani. I’m not going to pretend I can tell the difference between female/male variants, however this was what I was told, and hey – I’ll believe anything in this theatrical production.
Holding it in my hands almost reminds me of this gif from one of my favourite Anime (c’mon, you can guess this one), and while I was tempted to try re-enact the scene, I did worry about making a mess. Besides, the legs were already pre-cut, so all we had to do was go in with a fork! Kaiseki will never force you to get your hands too dirty.
Needless to say, this crab is pretty much perfection. It is, I think, the best crab I have had during my entire Japan trip – such was the quality of the specimen chosen, and combined with the way it was cooked. It is pristinely served – there is literally no seasoning on the crab at all, though of course, some salt and lemon aren’t ever too far away should you wish to go there.
Apart from some lemon now and then, I didn’t touch the salt.
And I didn’t need to – this is kani perfection. So juicy, so succulent, it sets the bar to beat.
It will likely be some time before I eat crab this good again.
Ah, that’s depressing.
Kanazawa is most known for its seafood, however there is some repute for its beef as well – specifically from the Noto Peninsula. It’s my first time eating Noto Beef, and it comes as a sukiyaki hot pot – you could call it the (usually optional) nabemono component of a kaiseki meal. I can already picture it being a very hearty, savoury dish with a compelling beefy flavour to the meat.
There’s no disappointment! The thinly-sliced pieces of beef are very fatty, but still hold together while chewing, unlike particular cuts that tend to melt away in your mouth. Thus, Noto beef is less rich, and I took this as a positive, as the entire kaiseki should not revolve around one super-rich dish. Aside from the beef, there’s a fair bit of ippon-foto-negi (Kanazawa white shallots) which tastes like ordinary shallots, but with additional sweetness. Crunchy and delicious, this is something I can eat a lot more than what was provided.
The soup’s flavour is salty, beefy & umami-rich. It’s also slightly aromatised by the inclusion of sweet, peppery kinome (Japanese pepper leaf). That latter ingredient can’t be underestimated – you will eventually see that it features in almost every meal I had on this trip, and it has a big effect on any dish it infuses.
While these little bits did add character to the broth, it was in the end very salty. My dining partner couldn’t (and didn’t want to) finish it. I didn’t think you’re meant to either, however given that I’m a soup junkie (I’m that guy who fully demolishes laksas and ramen – soup and all), I polished that bowl clean! Sure, I downed two glasses of water after it…but I mean it when I say I will consume every yen I put into this meal!
When the rice (gohan/hanmono) dish arrives on our table, I knew that our time with Tsuruko was almost up. Gohan is a mandatory dish at any kaiseki, the last savoury signalling the sweets right after.
Tsuruko’s interpretation of gohan is a small bowl of steamed rice, with golden ikura on top, something that I think is steamed lotus root (I could be wrong). Accompanying this is a side of tsukemono, and a bowl of miso soup with foto-negi.
The Japanese pride themselves on rice, even the supposedly simple steamed stuff, so if it doesn’t taste good, game over. Fortunately, Tsuruko’s not going to be closing its doors over poor rice anytime soon. I’m not fussy with the stuff, so it would be no surprise that I loved what I ate here – a soft, ever-so-slightly glutinous exterior belies a tougher, more al dente interior that absorbs the rich, sea-salty flavour of salmon roe like a sponge does to water. The (suspect) lotus root is soft, and almost melds in with the rice in eating, adding a layer of starchiness to the dish. When everything is mixed together, it’s pretty much heaven. Extremely simple, right?
The tsukemono bore no surprises (pickles are everywhere in Japan), however one particular exception to what was served here is that there was an overarching “soapy” flavour to most of pickles. I have no idea where that came from, but it was slightly off-putting. In terms of texture, I liked the cauliflower, takuan (pickled daikon) and hakusai no sokusekizuke (cabbage) most – very crunchy and juicy in their respective pickled ways. At this point, all I can say is *shrugs* – no idea what happened there. At least there’s excellent crunch?
As for the miso soup, it’s surprisingly light. I liked that – I want the rice to linger the most, not the soup. There’s also a cylinder of tofu inside the soup, soft and silky. Lots of crunch is given by a ton of negi, and brings forth a more vegetal fragrance to the soup than any other miso soup I’ve had. Different.
And here we are folks, the final course of the night – mizumono or dessert. Most of the time, chefs keep it simple with fresh fruit and maybe a jelly of some sort. At Tsuruko, it’s…something like that.
Except it really isn’t.
While ostensibly a grapefruit with fruit on top, what really happened is that the chefs laboriously pre-cut each segment of the grapefruit, exposing the fruit in such a way that it could easily be lifted out with a fork. After this, the top is bruleed with a crispy, caramelised layer that tastes of sweet milk, and then the fruit placed on top.
It’s luscious. That brulee really makes the dish, perhaps even more so than the inherently above-average fruit. Yet, it never threatens to take away the limelight from the berry showcase as it’s not overly sweet. Instead, it imparts more of its very attractive milky nature on both the berries on top, as well as the slightly more astringent grapefruit segments below.
Totally cleaned out, and I wish I had another one as well.
There was another part to the dessert as well, here shown in half-eaten glory: sakura mochi w/pickled sakura leaf. I didn’t like this too much, as the mochi was too starchy, and stuck to the pickled sakura leaf too much. While some people eat it with the leaf, I found the flavour combination a little too weird for my liking.
Back to the grapefruit, guys? Jokes, I was quite full at the stage. But no kaiseki is complete without a bowl of…
Yes! The good ol green stuff. There’s plenty that’s already been said about this near-miracle liquid, so I won’t go into the details here. Suffice it to say, Tsuruko does a mean job of this heavenly brew, as one would expect. Its fragrantly bitter, milky, slightly frothy, and does a heartening job of warming us up after the chilly desserts.
This matcha is ace.
We were then given a much less intense cup of green tea. I feel that this is to wash away the intensity of the matcha – and through this lens, serving tea after tea makes sense. It didn’t taste like much – practically water as it were – but perhaps that’s the point, especially after being overwhelmed with matcha.
As a final parting gift, we were given a package to take home. Guess what, I’m not telling you what it is. You’ll just have to visit Tsuruko yourself!
For Tsuruko is beyond a shadow of doubt, worth a visit. This is one of the best meals I’ve had in Japan and certainly counted in the top 20 of my life (if I were to have such a list). The restaurant sets an extremely high bar not only for kaiseki dining, but for dining in general. Not many restaurants can put up a comparable experience, even on this trip of high-end eats. It’s awesome to start on a high note, isn’t it?
While individual dishes in a kaiseki can sometimes be lost in the milieu of the experience, what truly makes a kaiseki meal worth remembering is how the adventure ties together – from appetisers, to a flurry of showcased dishes, to soups, to fish, to rice, and then to the ultimate sweet conclusion. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts – and that’s where the magic lies.
Do try to make a reservation.
This post is based on an independently paid visit to Kaiseki Tsuruko
How did I go guys? Any comments/feedback about my first kaiseki post? I’d love to read them in the comments section below, so my next tranche of Japan posts will be better than ever!
- Superlative cooking, a journey of the senses
- This is where you convert/convince people to eat their vegetables
- Highly intimate, private dining experience
- Not every course hits the same high note
- Service can be a little “stiff” and awkward at times
- Good luck getting a reservation without planning in advance
I have a new scoring system! Read all about it here.
Most important takeaway – three separate scores for food, service and ambiance to give the final score. The new system is not compatible with any score given prior to 11/11/2014.
F8.5 | S5 | A2