It didn’t take very long between getting seated at Matsukawa’s de-glossed wooden counter and receiving my first course. Or perhaps I was just taking my time getting over the excitement of actually being here, in the flesh. I still remember that first titbit: a cup of water. No hue, nothing hidden, no joke. That was until I took a sip, releasing a subtle, but unmistakable aroma of cherry blossom.
Subdued. That’s how the meal at Matsukawa began. It ended very differently.
Date Last Visited: Apr 2016
Address: 107-0052 Tokyo, Minato, Akasaka, 1 Chome-11-6
Highlight Dishes: nearly everything
Price Guide (approx): 38,000JPY/$445AUD plus drinks (price I paid); 45,000JPY+ during matsutake season
This post is based on an independently-paid visit to Matsukawa Restaurant in Tokyo.
How do you describe Matsukawa: a restaurant that notwithstanding private rooms seats only eight, accepts reservations via an introduction-only system, is considered by most Japanophiles and washoku gourmands as the country’s best, has rejected Michelin’s highest honour of three stars, and yet is unbeknown to the general public?
Amongst epicureans, an experience at a restaurant such as Jiro Ono’s eponymous sushi house, Rene Redzepi’s seasonally-led Noma or Heston Blumenthal’s gastronomic temple that is the Fat Duck has the potential to be life-changing. However, a Herculean struggle is required just to get a reservation at the likes of these culinary bastions, not to mention fine dining’s tendency to make comic reliefs of one’s wallet. Of course, I preach to the choir when I ask the rhetorical question: surely it’s worth it, right?
However, beyond this, we get into territory that can rightly be considered by most to be ‘ridiculous’. Matsukawa is a restaurant that, without knowing the right people, you may never have the chance at which to dine. With its limited seating – a quality common to high-end Japanese restaurants – simple supply-demand economics reign. But even if there was availability for a given sitting, a highfalutin Japanese phenomenon known as ichigen-san okotowari – the next mini-boss to defeat in the reservations process – manifests: if you’re not a regular or not introduced by one, your chances of getting in are exactly zero.
I can imagine your reaction. It probably has some swear words in it.
Thing is, Japan is a country where conductors literally go prostrate when a train is mere seconds late. It should be no surprise then that brusque behaviour such as no shows or incorrigible conduct commonly exhibited by foreigners in restaurants is considered high treason against Japanese culture. When all’s said and done, it is a fact of life that the owners get to call the shots. A meal in Japan’s rarefied dining echelons involves customs and cultural norms that form what the Japanese call ki, or ‘atmosphere’; an introduction-only system is a powerful, if restrictive mitigation against its disruption.
Call me biased, an apologist for Japan’s ossified ways. It is what it is: brick walls will sooner grow ears…
So when I found out that I got a reservation, I had to double check my Pocari Sweat to be sure it wasn’t spiked with a hallucinogen. Heck, not even being shoo’d off by an irate Buddhist Priest in rapid-fire Japanese for property trespass blunted my googly-eyed mirth. At least I will never forget Matsukawa’s exact location, even if I now have an unofficial criminal record to show for it. Another day, another foreigner getting lost in Tokyo’s labyrinthine nonsense of an addressing system.
As I mentioned at the start, it took me awhile to recover from the shock of actually being here, to begin taking notice of my surroundings. For all the pomp and pageantry in the process, Matsukawa is very much in line with the traditional Japanese aesthetic of austerity. The entrance is diminutive and covert (as evidenced by my religious scolding incident), with only an envelope-sized, subtly-lit sign that reads ‘Matsukawa’ in Japanese kanji. The devils, where they existed, were in the details. If a moody Scandinavian restaurant can be described as as fifty shades of grey, Matsukawa is fifty shades of (wood) grain.
While there are two private rooms for group use, pairs like my friend and I found our bums planted on the counter – with a full view of Tadayoshi Matsukawa-san’s machinations at work. There are no waitstaff for counter diners – all interactions were handled by Matsukawa-san – well, in the case of this group, by one of his assistants who for the grace of God, spoke English.
Most savvy foodies will have come across Matsukawa via a crowd-sourced restaurant review site called Tabelog, so-named as a portmanteau of the Japanese verb ‘to eat’ (tabe-ru), and log (diary). These same savvy foodies know that Tabelog is the absolute authority for Japanese-style restaurants in Japan, given the overwhelmingly user base of local Japanese gourmands. The deeper one delves into high-end Japanese restaurants, the more relevant Tabelog becomes, to the expense of any other food guide (with Michelin getting a particularly bad rap).
In the end, none of that matters nearly as much as the pundits behind food guides would have you believe. While Matsukawa’s reputation for hard-line exclusivity and fame as the #1 restaurant on Tabelog ostensibly makes it the best in Japan, regular customers are regular for a reason: you don’t drop over $450AUD on a meal unless the stuff on the plate is f*cking delicious.
And that’s the reason behind all this kerfuffle – the contents of Matsukawa’s colourful plates, bowls, slates, and boxes. The operative cuisine is kaiseki, a nowadays lavish culinary art form with humble roots in wabi sabi, a Japanese concept of accepting life’s imperfections, and shojin ryori, the Buddhist cuisine of ancient Japan. Kaiseki adherents espouse the seasonality of produce in a way that borders on the dogmatic.
The food photos in this post are from April 2016 – Spring. It should come as no surprise that your menu – should you be lucky enough to dine here – will in all likelihood be very different, even if it’s during Spring. It’s not just the best produce of the season, it’s the best produce of the week, even day.
There was no single course in our meal that would be a chopsticks-slamming moment (figuratively mind you). Like any well-oiled machine, the whole was far greater than the sum of its parts. It’s the progression: from something as mellow as a cherry blossom tea to cleanse the palate and mind, to a medley of delicate seafood dishes – all in season, of course – paving the way for produce with ever increasing applications of heat and cooking technique, which culminates in a cadenza-esque finish of gohan (rice) and a light, natural dessert with a bowl of impeccable matcha tea.
That is not to say there were no standouts. Kegani (horsehair crab), at its best from April-June, was a luscious bounty of succulent, umami-laden flesh served in its own shell and dressed with a spoonful of beluga caviar that mediated the connection between sea and seafood in remarkable fashion. So too were the mirugai (geoduck) and tai (red snapper). The former, a crunchy saltwater clam ironically sweeter than any fish; the latter, the very poster child of Japanese Spring fish, presented with minimal alteration so to not detract from the snapper’s dainty, but exquisite flavours.
Then there are heavy-hitters that bring on the flavour. Kame (frog!!) is roasted and grilled to perfection, with a slathering of sweet tare (a type of sauce normally used in grilling) coating the entire morsel. Despite its size, it yielded a surprising volumes of soft sweet meat, with a few thin bone fragments the only evidence that there was anything ever there.
Another Spring favourite of kaiseki chefs is the takenoko (bamboo shoot). Who would have thought that a root vegetable could taste so good when given the shichirin (Japanese charcoal grill) treatment? Like tai, takenoko featured in every single kaiseki meal I had on my trip. Spring in Japan is forever associated with bamboo shoots and snapper.
Red meat eaters aren’t left out: the wagyu shabu shabu is yet another dish over which to rejoice. Using Ohmi gyu – one of Japan’s top three brands next to Kobe and Matsusaka – the results are predictably stellar. Don’t take that as criticism: this is one place where you can come in with incredible expectations and actually have them met.
Guess I ended up ranting about more than just a ‘few’ stand-outs. But a word of warning – there is a reason why food blogging will never supplant properly-trained, established food writers on a payroll: there’s always a big risk when being influenced by the opinion of someone who has only dined at a restaurant once. The risk is even bigger when when the amount of coin at stake is so high. Even though Japanese is my favourite cuisine, there is never an experience that is without its flaws, though some have come close (shout outs to Heston!).
At Matsukawa, the evidence was there: I wasn’t sold on the awkward nameko (sea cucumber) dish, with its ‘wet jerky’ texture. Nor was the abalone (braised, not shabu shabu) a particularly bodacious number, with numerous superior examples I can cite off the top of my head. But honestly, that was it. I loved everything else. I loved the simple tomato, with what must have been a direct injection of flavour into the tomato itself, delivering levels of sweetness balanced with cool, refreshing vinegar jelly. I loved the abalone shabu shabu, even if I didn’t like the braised version. Most of all, I loved the gohan (rice). It’s just rice, but that’s like saying ‘it’s just bread!’ to an artisan baker. You know a dish is mindbogglingly good when it seems so simple, yet it isn’t something you could ever recreate at home.
Matsukawa is not alone in delivering an experience that borders on the transcendent. It may be #1 on Tabelog, but that would be doing a disservice to the hundreds, and possibly even thousands of high-end ryotei (high-end Japanese restaurants) that embrace the philosophies of kaiseki. I have visited Japanese restaurants I consider are equally good, each in their own way. There is no ‘best’, as far as I’m concerned.
But Matsukawa certainly gives the term ‘best’ a run for its money.
The eponymous chef gave a salutory nod – our only interaction for the whole meal – as I thanked him in Japanese when we stood up to leave. Thanks for coming, it meant.
Thanks for having us.
I’m still googly-eyed.
- Near faultless kaiseki cuisine from one of Japan’s master shokunin of the cuisine
- Nothing stood out nor grabbed attention
- Unconnected people probably can’t ever get in
Would I return: a rhetorical question
I have a new scoring system! Read all about it here.
Most important takeaway – three separate scores for food, service and ambience to give the final score. The new system is not compatible with any score given prior to 11/11/2014.
F8.5 | S4 | A2