Japan is in great shape when it comes to exporting its cuisine. Sushi seemed impossibly exotic before it found its way into every supermarket refrigerator, prompting enthusiasts to seek ever higher and more expensive experiences. Raw aged fish, for example, or elaborate omakase menus. Roketsu now has a new treat for Japanophiles: London’s first authentic kaiseki restaurant
What is kaiseki?
“Considered the highest form of Japanese cuisine,” said the FinancialTimes, kaiseki is “a formal meal consisting of about ten 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, “dishes to come can be adjusted to suit the diner based on his reaction to the food,” said the Michelin Guide, but “kaiseki is a prescribed set of dishes that depend on seasonal produce”. The turning of the earth takes precedence over the whims of the chef.
“Designed to create lasting memories, the dining experience goes beyond the edible,” said CNN. “Traditionally served in a tatami ryokan» or inn, the meal was taken in a simple room without distraction. This custom survives: Today’s kaiseki restaurants are a study in simple elegance, “characterized by a calm atmosphere with dim lighting and elegant tableware,” said Savor Japan. But while the setting may be understated, the food has become increasingly elaborate. In Japan, these meals are “reserved for special occasions, including seasonal festivals, birthdays and anniversaries,” said Free time.
Kaiseki in Roketsu
So far, Londoners have only gotten a westernized taste of kaiseki, according to Daisuke Hayashi, owner and chef of Roketsu. 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, on the other hand, devoted himself to kaiseki and nothing but kaiseki.
The obsession with authenticity extends to the interiors, which were crafted in Kyoto from century-old hinoki, a Japanese species of cypress, and shipped to London. In front of the wooden counter, where Hayashi prepares the daily specials, there are barely ten covers. Reservations can be difficult to obtain.
The menu changes frequently, but in early April it started with white asparagus, the most seasonal ingredient. Pureed, seasoned with small shreds of crispy wagyu and served chilled, in a small glass bowl, it honored the roots of kaiseki in purity and simplicity. What came next was the hassun Of course, a representation of the bounty of the season, expressed in the art of plating as much as cooking. Small bites of lobster, shrimp, avocado, duck, sea bream and tulip- or squid-shaped cuts were arranged on a silver plate, decorated with the cherry blossoms that define Japanese spring (below). There was more lobster later, its flesh stripped from the shell and fried in a light batter, bringing a sacrilegiously satisfying touch of fish and chips to the proceedings. Pairing it with a few plump polka dots suggested it was no accident.
With dishes of grilled fish, sashimi, wagyu and sticky rice with scallops, this is by no means an exercise in monastic restraint. The meaning of the ritual, however, provides a useful alibi. Diners are allowed to leave Roketsu feeling like they’ve enjoyed not just a great meal, but cultural enlightenment as well.
Kaiseki to Roketsu12 New Quebec Street, W1: £190 per person