OBack at the start of this funny business called Covid, I planned my dream trip to Japan. Three weeks of ryokan-hopping, onsen-dipping and kaiseki-dining. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, and I’ve spent a lot of time since trying to emulate the experience from afar.
So you can imagine my excitement at the opening of a new kaiseki restaurant in London: Roketsu. Kaiseki, considered the highest form of Japanese cuisine, refers to both a traditional multi-course meal consisting of a sequence of small dishes and the skill required to prepare them. Originally served to Buddhist monks before tea ceremonies, the 10-course menu is usually centered around dashi (Japanese broth made from dried fish), guided by the flavors of the seasons and dictated by the philosophy of “wabi- sabi”, which is all about capturing the elusive beauty of imperfection. At least that is my barbaric understanding of its long, nuanced history and deep cultural significance…
I’m clearly no expert, but Daisuke Hayashi, the head chef of Roketsu and one of the only kaiseki masters in the world, thankfully is. At 18, he began as a protege of Yoshihiro Murata, seven Michelin stars, chef-owner of the famous restaurant Kikunoi ryotei in Kyoto (he was also the mentor of Heston Blumenthal and René Redzepi). Today, Hayashi is at the forefront of the next generation of Japanese chefs applying a modern and progressive approach to cuisine around the world. For example, he was responsible for the Japanese VIP menus at the G8 summit in 2008, and if you’ve ever flown on Japan Airlines from Europe, you may have had one of his in-flight meals. But, after a successful preview at Brown’s, Roketsu in Marylebone marks its first major foray into the UK.
There are only a handful, if any, of kaiseki restaurants in the city, and with just 16 counter seats, a two-month waiting list, and a hefty price tag, Roketsu joins the ranks of some of the experiments London’s most exclusive culinary establishments. . When I arrive on rue Nouveau-Québec – an unusually quiet and off-the-beaten-path location for such an opening – that’s not the only reason I’m apprehensive. With the highest form of Japanese cuisine comes its highest form of dining etiquette, which ranges from basic formalities like thanking the chef before and after the meal and correct chopstick technique (absolutely no poking), to the use of your oshibori napkin for wiping hands only and never for wiping the table or the mouth. Lots to remember but luckily the tactful staff are there to guide us and never bat an eyelid at the many missteps I see throughout the night.
If, like me, you’re looking for an authentic taste of Japanese food, Roketsu certainly fits the bill. Stepping through the unassuming front door transports you straight into a Sukiya-style teahouse in Kyoto, filled with 100-year-old hinoki wooden walls and furniture, sliding lattice screens, shoji lighting, and various artworks and sculptures from Japan – no small feat during a pandemic. After a brief introduction, we are escorted group by group into the main dining room, where we are seated at a counter facing Hayashi and his chefs as they prepare our meal. Servers glide around us in near silence, pausing only to deliver eloquent descriptions of each dish as it is placed in front of us. Everything feels very formal, but not oppressive. I am abnormally aware of my elbows.
Like any kaiseki menu, Roketsu changes with the seasons and already several iterations of the menu will have graced diners’ plates since my visit in April, but even then – a bit of a shoulder season before the best times of spring really arrive – simple , seasonal ingredients shine through intricate techniques and intricate presentation. Much of it seems too precious to eat. Kaiseki traditionally consists of nine dishes, each defined by a particular cooking method. To start: Sakizuke, a bite-sized appetizer similar to the French amuse-bouche. A small glass bowl filled with pureed fresh white asparagus – that quintessential spring vegetable – and crispy little shreds of wagyu – that quintessential Japanese cut of beef – is placed in front of me on the counter. Honoring the roots of kaiseki, the flavors are simple, but together create a wonderfully complex experience: it’s both thick and light, more like a mousse than a soup, with tofu adding creaminess and wagyu adding from the salty to earthy white asparagus, which is sweeter and more delicate than its green cousin.
A silver platter of what can only be described as three small food sculptures arrives next. They look like they belong more in a miniature art museum than a dinner plate. This is the Hassun dish and it is intended to mark the seasonality of the meal: there is a small piece of yam in the shape of a butterfly; a section of squid cooked with warabi, a type of bracken; and a ball of miso-marinated avocado, which is a revelation. There are pieces of sea bream, shrimp and lobster, spoonfuls of salmon and cod roe and strips of mountain vegetables that I’ve never heard of. It looks like there’s a lot going on, and there is, but whether you choose to eat it in their designated bites or savor each morsel individually, it works oddly well as both an intro to the season and the kitchen.
The Mukozuke course (TV series fans Hannibal might recognize some of these names), a plate of various seasonal sashimi is one of my favorites. The slices of ikejime sea bream, cuttlefish and herring are extremely generous, but the star of the show is definitely the tuna, which I’ve been thinking about ever since. Thick chunks of fatty, pink otoro seem solid on my plate but melt in your mouth – something you don’t usually hear about fish – making me want to savor every bite and miss it when it’s gone. The waiter advises different combinations of sashimi and toppings: for the tuna, a dip in soy sauce and egg yolk, which is so delicious that I’m going to make this for all future takeout sushi.
Other highlights of our meal included the grilled course, Yakimono, with large fillets of Cornish catfish seared over an open fire in front of us, garnished with scallions and served with sweet pickled rhubarb; another soup dish, Futamono, sees a piece of red mullet steamed in a broth of sakura, ginger and burdock; and Mizumono, a dessert of spongy mango pudding and pink grapefruit sorbet, a perfect cleanser for the after-meal palette. The Sunomono dish, pan-fried slices of wagyu over marinated green asparagus and eggs, was disappointing: the meat was on the toughest and blandest side of wagyu I’ve had, perhaps all the more disappointing after this superb tuna. Shiizakana’s substantial course redeemed it though: chunks of lobster in egg soup with peas and tomatoes. It was hot, it was nutritious, it was delicious. I thought I would be beaten by the time a large steaming glass bowl of scallop rice was served. Perhaps they expected that, as each diner was given a palm-sized pyramid of rice wrapped in a banana leaf and a Roketsu handkerchief to take with them – which I’m sure , everyone sitting next to me in the subway house enjoyed it.
This review doesn’t do justice to the great things happening in Roketsu. Hayashi’s menus walk a fine line between meticulous attention to detail and delight in simplicity, and in many dishes, it works so, so well. It’s not just a great meal, it’s a dose of cultural enlightenment – without the gimmicks. If I could afford it, I’d go back every season to see what it has to offer, but at £190 a head for food, plus £75-200 for drinks, it’s firmly reserved for special occasions – c is to say, after all, the point of kaiseki. You don’t just fall into Roketsu; you book it months in advance and spend the rest of the time looking forward to it, wondering what you’re going to eat. Normally I don’t tolerate this kind of congestion, but in this case I will make an exception. Now that the doors of Japan are finally reopened to tourists, I will book my trip as soon as possible. And I’ll book a kaiseki dinner knowing exactly what I’m looking for thanks to Roketsu – if he’s up to it, though, only time will tell.
Roketsu, 12 New Quebec Street, London, W1H 7RW | Open Tue-Sat | 020 3149 1227 | roketsu.co.uk