Kaiseki is the pinnacle of Japanese cuisine and that prestige comes with its own set of formalities, which can make the multi-course banquet a little intimidating for the uninitiated. Thankfully two Michelin-starred Den – also the best restaurant in Asia for 2022 – is not that kind of kaiseki restaurant, making it such a rare treat in Tokyo.
Head chef Zaiyu Hasegawa has trained in some of the most esteemed ryotei (traditional high-end Japanese restaurants) in the city, and it’s evident that his omakase menu is grounded in kaiseki traditions. But what’s really interesting is the modern interpretation and the relaxed attitude he brings to the table. The unusually bright lights, casual set-up with nary a starched tablecloth in sight and friendly service are a refreshing departure from the genteel air of other restaurants of its calibre. It puts you right at ease, so you can truly enjoy the food without getting too hung up about the etiquette.
And that’s not difficult to do as there’s a lot of wit and humour in Hasegawa’s dishes. The classic monaka is traditionally a dessert but at Den, these crisp wafers are sandwiched with a rich sweet-savoury filling of miso-marinated foie gras blended with kumquat jam and pickled cucumber. It’s an absolutely divine first dish that hypes up your expectation for the rest of the meal – and boy does Hasegawa deliver.
His Dentucky Fried Chicken is an obvious parody of the famed fast food chain, down to the serving box. Inside lies a plump, golden-skinned, deep-fried chicken wing gyoza stuffed with a satisfyingly chewy glutinous rice filling.
His other signature dish, a salad, may look deceptively simple, but it will change the way you eat salad. With the seasonal vegetables prepared in a myriad of ways – fried, pickled, boiled – you’re compelled to pick at the selection one by one to appreciate their respective textures and flavours, saving the best for last: the emoji carrot (there’s one in every salad at Den).
There’s something familiar yet unexpected about these three signature dishes, which have become so popular that they are now a staple in the omakase menu (with slight variations in ingredients depending on the season). Den doesn’t try too hard to be creative for creativity's sake: it’s modern kaiseki that’s fun and approachable, but still manages to squeeze in a few surprises here and there.