Japan has form when it comes to exporting its cuisine. Sushi seemed impossibly exotic before it ended up in every supermarket fridge, spurring enthusiasts to seek out increasingly elevated – and expensive – experiences. Raw aged fish, for example, or elaborate omakase menus. Now Roketsu has a new treat for Japanophiles: London’s first authentic kaiseki restaurant
What is kaiseki?
“Considered the highest form of Japanese cuisine,” said the Financial Times, kaiseki is “a formal meal consisting of a dozen or so meticulously prepared dishes served in a prescribed order”. Its origins lie in the ceremonial meals served to Buddhist monks, and it retains a monastic sense of discipline. In the (slightly) less formal omakase tradition, “the upcoming courses can be adjusted to suit the diner depending on their reaction to the food”, said the Michelin Guide, but “kaiseki is a prescribed set of courses that is dependent on the seasonal produce “. The turning of the earth takes precedence over the whims of the chef.
“Designed to create lasting memories, the experience of the meal goes beyond the edible,” said CNN. “Traditionally served at a tatami-matted ryokan”Or inn, the meal was eaten in a room that was simple and free from distraction. That custom survives: today’s kaiseki restaurants are a study in uncomplicated elegance, “characterized by a calm atmosphere featuring subdued lighting and elegant tableware”, said Savor Japan. But while the setting may be understated, the food has become increasingly elaborate. In Japan, such meals are “reserved for special occasions including seasonal festivals, birthdays and anniversaries”, said Time Out.
Kaiseki at Roketsu
Until now, Londoners have been granted only a westernized taste of kaiseki, according to Daisuke Hayashi, Roketsu’s owner and chef. He speaks from experience: he worked at Sake No Hana and Chrysan, both of which offered menus inspired by the kaiseki tradition alongside other Japanese cuisines. Roketsu, by contrast, has dedicated itself to kaiseki and nothing but kaiseki.
The obsession with authenticity extends to the interiors, which were crafted in Kyoto from 100-year-old hinoki, a Japanese species of cypress, and shipped to London. In front of the timber counter, at which Hayashi prepares each day’s courses, are just ten place settings. Reservations may be hard to come by.
The menu changes frequently, but in early April it began with white asparagus, that most seasonal of ingredients. Pureed, seasoned with little shreds of crisped wagyu and served cool, in a small glass bowl, it honored kaiseki’s roots in purity and simplicity. What came next was the hassun course, a representation of the bounty of the season, expressed in the artistry of the plating as much as the cooking. Little morsels of lobster, prawn, avocado, duck, sea bream and tulip-shaped cross-sections or squid were arranged on a silvered plate, decorated with the cherry blossom flowers that define the Japanese spring (below). There was more lobster later on, its flesh extracted from the shell and deep fried in a light batter, which brought a satisfyingly sacrilegious hint of fish and chips to proceedings. Pairing it with a few plump peas suggested this was no accident.
With courses of grilled fish, sashimi, wagyu and sticky rice with scallops, this is by no means an exercise in monastic restraint. The sense of ritual does, however, provide a useful alibi. Diners are allowed to leave Roketsu feeling they have enjoyed not only an excellent meal, but a cultural enlightenment too.
Kaiseki at Roketsu, 12 New Quebec Street, W1: £ 190 per person