“We examine seasonal ingredients and further pursue them deep, deep, and sharpen and polish them. Then the dishes of ‘Ishikawa’ will be completed. What I ask for is the transparent pure taste of the food. “

– Ishikawa

A FORTUITIOUS RECOMMENDATION

When planning this past spring’s trip to Japan I know there were two things my calendar would be filled with: sakura (cherry blossoms) and food. For the last part of the trip I would be in Tokyo and knew that I had to check out at least a couple of the amazing restaurants in the Michelin Guide. I was debating between two restaurants for a particular night, when a local chef I know texted me some of his go-to spots in Tokyo. One of these was Yakiniku Jambo Hanare… and the other was Ishikawa.

Although Ishikawa came to me with a very strong and credible recommendation, I was still a bit hesitant. I had already lined up several kaiseki meals for this trip; would it really make sense to add one more? Just to be safe I reached out to my hotel’s concierge and asked them to inquire about a reservation. A day later I heard back confirmation that the hotel had snagged me the last reservation available for the days I would be in Tokyo. Fate, it seemed, willed me to sit at the counter and experience first hand why Chef Ishikawa has held a three Michelin star rating for nearly a decade.

LET THE JOURNEY BEGIN...

The night of my Ishikawa experience was a rainy one in Tokyo. I stepped out of the cab and was immediately greeted by a hostess with an umbrella, who made every effort to shield me from the rain across the mere five foot divide between the car and the restaurant’s entrance. Stepping inside and into the main dining area, I was greeted with an energetic welcome from the chef’s behind the counter.

I took my seat, reviewed the menu, and waited in anticipation. In front of me was a chef, carefully slicing sea bream; Chef Ishikawa himself.

Appetizer at Ishikawa
"Appetizer" - Hard clam, wild vegetables, grated turnip

Before long the first dish arrived and was gently placed on the tray in front of me. Hard clam, a seasonal ingredient I had encountered on several meals so far this trip, simply cooked and dressed with a jelly-like dashi. These two bites awakened my palate with the brine of the sea, complex umami of the dashi, and the slight herbaceous bitterness of the wild vegetables.

Deep fried at Ishikawa
"Deep Fried" - Icefish garnished with broad bean

The next course was a sliver of ice fish fried in an impossibly light batter. The fish’s flesh was tender and mildly oily, with a small flake to its texture. Although fried the flavor of the fish came through cleanly, unmarred by deep fried batter. A sprinkle of salt enhances the flavor of the fish’s natural fattiness.

Soup from Ishikawa
"Soup" - Blowfish milt and julienne vegetables in soft-shelled turtle stock

Two exotic ingredients (at least for us in the states) come together to create a delectable soup course. The milt lends its mild fishy and briny overtones to the turtle stock, which on its own has an amazing flavor depth for such a clear appearance. The julienned vegetables almost serve as miniature noodles, but also contribute their sweetness to round out the soup’s flavor. Strange as the key components of milt and turtle soup may be to most, the soup was undeniably delicious.

Sashimi at Ishikawa
"Sashimi" - Sea bream and uni
Uni at Ishikawa
"Sashimi" - Fresh Hokkaido uni

As minimalistic as it gets. The sea bream was mildly sweet with a firm, meaty texture. The garnishes of seaweed, green onion, and katsuobushi provided an added level of flavor to the otherwise subtle fish. Chef Ishikawa shows he’s not afraid to just let an amazing ingredient speak for itself with a generous helping of Hokkaido uni, served simply on its own. The creamy uni was incredibly fresh, shining with its own oceanic brine which was followed by its naturally sweet finish.

Sashimi at Ishikawa
"Sashimi" part two - Japanese glass shrimp on sticky rice with minced kelp

The sashimi course and the minimalist treatment of fresh seafood continues with this next course. Japanese glass shrimp is chopped into an almost tartare-like consistency, then placed atop slightly warm sticky rice. With this preparation the shrimp’s texture is creamy. The sticky rice adds a glutinous chew to each bite while warming the shrimp ever-so-slightly. The minced kelp was the perfect touch of added salt and umami.

Hairy crab at Ishikawa
"Sashimi" part three - Hairy crab with crab miso

Hokkaido hairy crab, some of the most prized crab in all of Japan, was center stage of the next bite. The crab’s natural sweetness was paired with the intense punch of a “miso” created with the crab’s own tomalley (innards). This little pinch of miso was an umami bomb that ratcheted up the deliciousness of the crab.

Charcoal grilled at Ishikawa
"Charcoal-grilled" - Black throat sea perch and spring cabbage

The light smoke and bitterness of charcoal was a perfect match to the fatty, oily quality of this sea perch. Similar to the preparation we had at Ifuki, but with a crispier skin. The charred cabbage continued the theme of mild smokiness, but provided a light bitter undertone which helped balance the oiliness of the fish.

Delicacy at Ishikawa
"Delicacy" - Ise lobster and bamboo shoot covered with silky sauce

The silky sauce on this dish was fairly clear in appearance, which belied the heaviness of its seafood and umami flavor. I imagine it was created with a heavy reduction of a seafood stock. Those flavors, merged with the sweet lobster and fresh flavor of young bamboo shoots, created a dish that was delicate yet densely flavorful.

Simmered at Ishikawa
"Simmered" - Japanese beef, tofu, shiitake mushroom, spinach

Some might consider lightly “poaching” high quality Japanese beef a crime. Chef Ishikawa exonerates himself by coaxing the wonderfully fatty flavors of the beef into the broth. Shiitake mushrooms layer on another level of savory umami. The neutral tofu provided respite from the richness between sips of broth along with the freshness of the spinach and spring onion. Between this dish and the turtle stock, it was clear that Chef Ishikawa was a master of creating richly flavored broths.

Steamed rice at Ishikawa
"Steamed Rice" - Rice with Japanese clam and butterbur, miso soup, pickled vegetables

As is traditional with kaiseki, Ishikawa’s savory courses end with a set of rice, soup, and tsukemono (Japanese pickled vegetables). This was the only course I did not love; not because it was bad but because the flavor profile is not one that I would typically enjoy. This was influenced by the use of butterbur, which has a strong bitter and almost effervescent characteristic to it that I am personally just impartial to. The soup was delicious (broth mastery at work again) and the pickles subtle in their bite and vinegar notes.

Dessert at Ishikawa
"Dessert" - Fresh strawberry, sweet red beans, green tea sherbet, brandy jelly, caramel soup

kaiseki dessert through and through with the use of local strawberries, red beans, green tea, and brandy. The combination of flavors give a naturally sweet finish you crave with dessert, but without blowing out your taste buds. The strawberry and brandy also lend several refreshing notes which help cleanse the palate to end the multi-course meal.

OVERALL IMPRESSIONS

When it comes to kaiseki, Ishikawa has been my favorite experience so far. Everything about my meal was on point. In each of his dishes, Chef Ishikawa achieves his goal to reveal the “transparent pure taste of the food”. There is an almost oxymoronic masterful complexity in the contrast between how delicious Ishikawa’s food tastes versus how simple they appear. His respect for ingredients clearly trumps any need for flare or decadence.

As one would expect of such a highly rated restaurant, service was excellent. The coordination of service between the chefs behind the counter and the staff at the front of house was harmonious; attentive but not overbearing. The wooden tones of the interior are warm and inviting, giving both a sense of simple sophistication. Adding to the warmth of our experience was Chef Ishikawa himself. His personality is not what you might expect of such a focused and accomplished chef. Although his English is limited, he still made an effort to speak with us and engage in conversation. Chef Ishikawa treated his staff like family, even giving one of them a brief shoulder massage at one point. His light-hearted demeanor enhanced the dining experience.

From a pricing standpoint, Ishikawa is in line with other 3-star Michelin restaurants I have experienced. My meal rang in at ¥35,250 ($325 USD) which included a couple of non-alcoholic drinks and the service fee. The price tag, while undoubtedly hefty, was appropriate for such an incredible experience. I would highly recommend Ishikawa to any fan of kaiseki cuisine.

SCORECARD

Food 95/ 100
Service 95/ 100
Atmosphere 90/ 100
Price Value 90/ 100
Overall Score 94/ 100

Ishikawa
1F, 5-37 Kagurazaka
Shinjukuku, Tokyo, Japan
Ph: +81-3-5225-0173
http://kagurazaka-ishikawa.co.jp/