Den or no Den? Tiramisu or Tea-ramisu? Coffee or no Coffee? Japanese chef Zaiyu Hasegawa loves what he does and he and his team do their utmost to put a smile on people’s faces.
As you walk into restaurant Den, there is a sign on the door. It is Le Gaulois. It is a bit confusing they tell me when they send an email with instructions of how to get to the restaurant. The name is that of a French restaurant which was there before Den. So why didn’t they change it? It is because it was one of Hasegawa’s favourite restaurants and he decided to keep the decor in place when he moved the restaurant there.
What was most important for him was to have a bigger kitchen because he wants to be able to see everyone while he is cooking.
Zaiyu Hasegawa and his team at Restaurant Den are the Japanese family you never knew you had until you set foot in their restaurant in Tokyo. Japan and the Japanese are known for their welcome and their hospitality but the team at Den take it to the next level.
If you follow the Japanese chef on Instagram or Facebook you know that he has a dog, Puchi, that he loves to call the head chef of the restaurant. The dog even has his own instagram account. And while he is often visible on social media, it was a surpise to see the dog in the restaurant. There he was sleeping and relaxing quietly on a chair behind the cash as if to show who is in charge of the restaurant operations.
Jokes apart, Den has been in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list top 50 for a number of years now and is also no. 2 in Asia’s 50 Best. It has two Michelin stars though it lost one a few years ago only to regain it back.
Is all the fuss about Den justified and why does everyone rave about it? It is because Zaiyu makes fine dining fun. He has taken Kaiseki cuisine that is centred around seasons and fresh produce and given it a modern interpretation. He has also turned things upside down while at the same time bringing a smile on your face. This was evident from the first course. A Monaka which is normally a traditional Japanese sweet. Zaiyu and his team serve it stuffed with fois gras that has been marinated in white miso and combined with dried permisson and smoked pickled radish. As Joyeta explains, permisson is also a traditional ingredient that was used first in sweets in Japan.
I’ve met and seen Zaiyu in action before. The first time was at Enrico Crippa’s Piazza Duomo in Alba where the Japanese chef had worked on a collaboration dinner with the Italian chef. He has also visited Belgium a few times, the last being for a four hands dinner together with his whole team at L.E.S.S., the bistro of Belgian chef Gert de Mangeleer and Joachim Boudens.
Sitting next to me is chef Nathan Rich from Twin Gardens, United States. He is on a research visit to Japan. Joyeta puts a takeaway box in front of all the guests that are sitting at the table that lies just in front of the kitchen. “We have been a bit busy today and not to keep you hungry we rushed to get some ‘DENTUCKY fried chicken’. Normally the box has the chef’s face on it but there is a big smile on Zaiyu and Joyeta’s face as they place the boxes for Nathan and myself. They have personalised the boxes for us putting our faces instead of the signature Zaiyu photo on the box.
Now, that is a personal touch. A few days later, chef Virgilio Martinez and his wife Pia Leon get the same treatment. The fried chicken is served with sticky rice, seri or Japanese parsley and scallops. It’s not only delicious but it also puts a smile on guests faces.
The next courses are serious enough. First there is sashimi served with fresh wasabi, shiso flowers and shiso sprouts together with a seaweed and vinegar sauce. Then there is yellow tail tuna served with a grated Daikon sauce and chives.
What follows also puts a smile on your face. It’s the famous GarDEN with the ‘trademark’ smiley carrots. The vegetables come from Zaiyu sister’s garden. The salad has 20 different types of vegetables and leaves and is served in different ways, deep fried, picked, grilled, fresh etc. It is exceptional.
Two rice dishes are then served. The first is with the first bamboo shoots of the season that were served with sancho pepper leaves), the second with shabu shabu beef with rice. These are served with Japanese pickles and miso soup. By this time, all of us at the communal table have eaten more than enough but just like at home they ask us if we wanted second helpings. Alas, many succumbed to the temptation.
The first dessert takes the form of a Tea-ramisu, They serve it as moss from the garden on a small shovel and throw some ‘dirt’ on the newspaper. But this is not a chocolate dessert. Instead it is a cream cheese mousse mixed with bamboo charcoal powder to darken it, roasted green tea, matcha powder, barley tea, buckwheat tea and dill.
The second dessert or ‘coffee’ is even more clever. Introduced when Zaiyu lost a Michelin star it is called Star Come Backs. We are told not to drink it and they tell me don’t worry there is no coffee conscious of the fact that I had barely landed in Japan. It was a custard pudding with burnt caramel ice-cream, black truffles and milk foam. A coffee but not a coffee. What a way to finish a meal.
At the end, the whole team stop to chat and guide us out of the restaurant. Zaiyu picks up Puchi to say goodbye to the guests. Most, including myself pledge to return. It is obvious why.