“There is absolutely no way this can be right,” I declared as the taxi deposited us in the dark, residential Meguro-ku neighbourhood on the outskirts of Tokyo. I had come for dinner with my family – two picky teenagers and a husband with a shellfish allergy – and we were on a quest to find Higashi-Yama, a contemporary yet authentic Japanese omakase restaurant that had been recommended by a French friend who shares my tastes.
As the driver couldn’t understand us, or we him, and we couldn’t decipher the building numbers, we wandered in the rain before spying a discreet townhouse with lanterns lighting a path up to a zen courtyard. A fountain greeted us and just at this time of year – sakura season – the courtyard was filled with flowering cherry blossoms.
Nature found its way inside, too, from the wooden tables to enormous glass windows almost making the greenery part of the decor, to the subtle Shinichiro Ogata-designed ceramics used to serve sake and food. The whole place has an Axel Vervoordt-meets-wabi-sabi vibe, and I was in heaven from the minute we entered the minimalist, 34-seat room.
We were seated at a long counter, with a clear view into the kitchen where busy chefs each manned a specific station. As “omakase” roughly translates as “chef’s choice”, most opt for the set menu (¥4,500, about £30, for three courses; about £40 for five courses, including udon and dessert; about £55 for the Chef’s Recommendation), but we went for the à la carte option because, well, see the aforementioned picky teenagers and allergic husband. After an amuse bouche of delicate sea bream sashimi, we tried the Vegetable Palette – a beautifully presented bento-style tray filled with simple asparagus, celery and mushroom preparations; and a Firefly squid dish with spring vegetables in ponzu vinegar. My calamari-loving kid didn’t quite know what to do with these chewy tentacles, but it was a good way to kick off a week of experimental dining in Japan.
I would recommend a tapas-style approach here for either lunch or dinner: fried scallop dumplings were piping hot, crunchy and perfect for sharing, while a Kurobuta pork dish with sticky rice steamed with sakura leaves was a crowd favourite. Sakura appeared everywhere on the menu – it’s an acquired taste, indeed one I hope to acquire…
The staff took real delight in explaining every detail – we learned new things about sake and shochu, the freshest fish of the season, and about grassy, antioxidant-laden matcha teas. The service was low-key yet knowledgeable, so that it felt like a Michelin-starred experience but set in someone’s home.
Once sated, we moved into the adjacent living room/bar area to have tea and wait for our return taxi to Ginza. To say that we stuck out in this stylish lounge would be an understatement – we were jet-lagged, pale and wearing bulky parkas on a chilly night, but it didn’t put the owner off one bit. He came over and welcomed us warmly. “I saw you enjoying your meal,” he said with glee, before talking us through the finer points of Tokyo tourism. We did enjoy that meal – and the whole Higashi-Yama adventure. I just hope he didn’t see us moving that squid around…