Chef Kumagai doesn’t like messing around too much with his pristine vegetables. At most, he’ll slice them on the best bias for quick grilling or roasting. When tender and colored from the flame, they will be served with no salt or shoyu or anything else to detract from their natural tastes. Thus, you’ll get slices of petite pumpkin with the seeds and membranes still attached. Primitive, perhaps, but the philosophy at Konsai is that simple is best.
The restaurant itself is a study in unembellished design—bare keisodo walls of beige porous clay, dark wood panels and beams, and a wood counter. Plain, yes, but the wood is solid mahogany eight meters long and 20 centimeters thick, and polished to a warm glow. The only spot of color in the decor is a shallow ceramic bowl, the hue of a robin’s egg, which serves as a sink to rinse vegetables.
Your attention, however, is immediately drawn to the tableaux of 30-some varieties of vegetables arranged and displayed on the mahogany counter like a painting from an Old Dutch master: red and yellow carrots; green zucchini, peppers, pumpkins and spinach; purple okra and eggplant; white, black and red daikon; brown potatoes; orange, green, red and yellow cherry tomatoes; pale yellow corn.
Konsai isn’t strictly a vegetarian restaurant. Beef, pork, chicken and fish also grace the menu, but they definitely play supporting roles to the veggies. The list of à la carte dishes is extensive, and you could drop by for a salad and a glass of chilled white wine, but the set courses, which start at ¥5,200, are the way to go.
Chef Kumagai says he offers “French Japanese” cuisine, and you can detect the sea and fields of southern France in his bouillabaisse, in his magnificently composed salads, and in the herb tea infusion that finishes the meal. But sunny Italy can be found too in his basil-infused cherry tomato and mozzarella salad, or in his light risottos.
The ¥6,300 six-course set starts with eight zensai presented in a delicate woven basket. These small dishes contain a few spoonfuls of concoctions such as octopus with red cabbage marinated in raspberry vinegar, kinpira of burdock and lotus root, or diced burdock and beef braised in a red wine reduction. The meal will continue with a salad served in an oversized chawan tea bowl, then a fish dish, a meat dish, a very “petite” risotto and, finally, a collection of mini-desserts served with herb tea. The fish or meat dish will come with an assortment of those unadorned sliced and grilled vegetables, but you’ll get fleur de sel and freshly cracked pepper to sprinkle as you like.
Konsai is a gracious, relaxing place, and when you leave, Chef Kumagai will escort you to the door and bow as you depart.