More than once during my trip to Tokyo my brother Matthew would point to a drab building with no signage and tell me it was one of the best restaurants he had tried in his two decades of living there. Just as it took us 10 minutes of circling a nondescript office building to find the three-Michelin-starred Sushi Saito, yet another unadvertised delight was tucked inside what looked like someone’s home in a residential neighborhood.
Upon entering Yamada Chikara, we were greeted by the chef’s wife, who was kneeling on a tatami mat in full kimono in what turned out to be the tea ceremony room. We removed our shoes and found our place in the adjacent 6-seat L-shaped dining room. It was quiet as a monastery, and there were no decorations on the white concrete walls or slate black table.
The evening’s menu was presented on rice paper with brief descriptions like “oyster espuma” and “foie gras soup,” nods to the molecular gastronomy techniques Chef Yamada picked up working at Spain’s now defunct El Bulli. But this dinner would not be liquid olives and Pop Rocks lollipops. While the cuisine is rooted in the traditions of Japanese tea ceremony (and its kaiseki, or small plates, format), many of the dishes are updated with a playful twist that utilizes modern techniques.
The first platter is technically called cha-kaiseki, or the small plates of food that are served before the traditional tea ceremony. From top left: local crab, caviar, creamy sesame tofu with a dollop of mild wasabi, and rice. Afterward, we were served a palate cleanser of sparkling grape juice with pomegranate seeds.
(Top left) Sashimi served with a soy sauce marshmallow, (bottom left) Hokkaido oyster chowder with rice and cauliflower (we are asked to eat the oyster leaf first, which mimics the flavor of the briny mollusk), (right) freeze-dried foie gras is combined with steaming consommé for a striking contrast
(Top right) Grouper with a refreshing mizuna salad and miso vinaigrette, (left) a richer dish of “smoky” sea bass with shrimp sauce and puréed potatoes; (bottom right) thinly sliced beef sukiyaki-style, with a raw egg and black truffles
They offered an optional cheese plate before dessert and I could not turn down the seasonal Mont d’Or that I became addicted to in Paris, served with truffle and millefiori honeys; finally, simplicity itself: excellent ice cream with whipped cream and fresh fruit
Tip from my sister-in-law Yuko: they also serve an excellent Japanese breakfast. Next time!