Akasaka Kikunoi, Tokyo.

May 2016.

On this Tokyo trip, this was our big culinary climax. Searching online, I was condemned to guesswork using somebody else’s idea of flavour and value as one always is. I was looking for something with a bit of Michelin-style splash close to our Tokyo apartment. This was it: two stars, and what looked like a 10 minute walk away.

We got lucky. This place was gorgeous, unassuming, comfortable and exactly right for our appetite. Originally we ordered the big $150-each lunch, but having been stuffed to the gills at a tatmi-mat dinner courtesy of friendly academics two nights before we were afraid of facing so much extreme Japanese food we would hate ourselves before the lunch was over. So we switched to the bento-box lunch at approximately $65 each. It was quite wonderful, and more than enough.

The restaurant is located down among a bunch of offices and buildings, accessible via an unassuming entrance leading to a traditional walkway of 30 meters or so. Inside, one sits at a bar with chefs busy directly opposite, behind whom is a vast glass window looking on a shallow green garden backed by woven bamboo. It’s a pleasant restful Japanese delight.

The welcome was genuinely pleasant and comforting. The atmosphere was unhurried on the diners’ side, but all efficiency among the numerous white-clad chefs rushing back and forth across the bar from where we sat. We drank beer, and ordered a $70 chablis that was just fine. After we arrived, the complex room filled slowly and was pretty well completely subscribed by the time we left around 1 PM.

We were presented with six-place black lacquered boxes, containing a fabulous festival of at least five times that many flavours. Starting in the upper left-hand corner, there was a grilled trout with diakon purée and ginger. This was really the only questionable item we encountered, just overcooked, but we forgive Japanese chefs because here fish is rarely cooked at all. Next across the top was a slightly mysterious gelled rectangle with some crunchy chopped vegetable inside, floating in a wasabe sauce: delicious even if we had to remain a little agnostic about what it was.

Next across were four flash-fried pieces: two lima-type beans, and something like potato, cooked but still slightly crunchy with a non-wheat flavorful coating. Tasty and satisfying. Popping back to the near left, we found a sort of potato-salad-style proposition but comprising white mayo-style sauce, raw fish, and chopped cucumber-like vegetables. This to me was one of the filler items but still quite delicious and happily full of Japanese mayonnaise and raw fish.

The big complicated front and centre cell contained at least six things. There was a “Japanese omelette” (an monstrously delicious salty cold egg feuilletee), two flavoured tofu-based slices, green bean pods to slide out the beans, a true pumpkin rectangle, a savoury fish cube topped with sesame seeds, a raw fish slice presented like a false sushi with cooked daikon around it, and at least two more things I can’t remember or identify from my photograph.

I think it was at this point that I realized I had made the right call in going for the modest lunch. People beside us were being shown live flapping tiny fish in a basket, given a large china box containing something inscrutable, and much much more. But we were just over half-way through our bento boxes, pretty close to satisfied, and also so far dazzled by exquisite little contrasting bites.

Last in the box came cooked bamboo with seaweed, both tender, pretty flavorful in contrast, absolutely no problem with tenderness, and the seaweed pickled enough that I was happy to go after it and chopstick up the last bits.

Next came a bowl with two kinds of sashimi with wasabi and soya sauce. Nice, but for me not on the same level as the stuff in the box. Then there was a miso-type soup that way exceeded the offering in normal restaurants, containing a couple of rectangles of pressed shellfish that were distinct from the soup itself. There was soup and soya sauce left over and I poured both onto a bowl of rice cooked with peas, the last savoury item. I chowed this like an asian, lifting the bowl to my mouth and scooping with chopsticks.

The chefs brought a strawberry ice cream and custard dessert, and also an alcoholic sherbet with underlying unidentifiable gelatin that was on the more austere side of dessert. One sweetly delicious, the other obscure and interesting.

At this level, I’m sure one could do better, but most definitely a whole lot worse. For our lovely and eventually filling lunch, two beer, and the respectable bottle of wine we were away at about C$250. We’ve had much less interesting and detailed lunches for quite a bit more. The food was wonderful. I would go back again in a trice if I were ever back in this town.

Food 9.5, service 9.3, ambience 9.1, value 8.7.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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