It's well known that the cuisine of Japan was founded and is operated on more pillars than taste alone. Seasonal ingredients, aesthetic presentation, functional garnishes and so on are themselves ingredients within a recipe filled with detailed processes and clearly outlined boundaries. But every so often, there emerges a chef who manages to honor those boundaries while improvising with exciting new ingredients and tastes. And that's what we found at Nihonbashi Yukari, where third-generation chef Kimio Nonaga's talent won him the title of Iron Chef in 2002.
When we arrived for our 6pm reservation, the cozy first floor was already half-filled with groups of Japanese businessmen engaged in relaxed conversation. Nihonbashi Yukari uses gentle spotlights on their wooden tables, moss-green walls and dark floor tiles, which gives the effect of a modern Japanese interior that is at once serene and homey. After seating us at the counter opposite Nonaga, our kimono-clad waitress brought us peppermint-scented oshibori and a drink menu that included a variety of domestic liquors and wines-"Japan-made drinks taste best with Japanese food," the friendly chef explained. As we sipped a light Muscat Merlot and the Koshu Nouveau Dry (both ¥600/glass), slightly resembling the sweetness of sake, our nine-course omakase dinner (¥10,000) commenced soft in texture and sweet in taste.
In sync with March's Dolls Day, "Food for the Dolls" consisted of two clam shell halves holding morsels of octopus and round shrimp sushi. Two fried oysters then arrived in a wooden bowl and sitting on a slice of ebi-imo, a potato resembling taro in its smoothness. The oil from the fried oysters was well balanced in the soupy, grated radish puree that they were served in.
Arranged on a dish shaped like the seasonal plum flower, the next course of ark shell, tuna, snapper and anago eel sashimi was accompanied by chopped moist seaweed and chrysanthemum leaves. The anago had been covered in hot water before it was served, which gave it an unusual fluffy texture.
The sixth dish marked a turn to more extreme flavors. Sanpoukan, a large citrus with a unique and refreshing flavor, was served whole and filled with a cooled jelly of crab, ginger, radish, shrimp and milt. Shiso leaves and a dash of sea salt complemented the citrus tang.
The dinner continued with a Japanese quiche served in a hot clay pot, the main ingredient of unagi eel made more delicious by a hint of cream, and for the finale, a bowl of rice cooked in dashi, white miso and soy milk. To our surprise, dessert was not fruit or ice cream, but an outstanding white sake pudding surrounded by transparent sake jelly. It was, as the chef explained, like the quiche in that it pushed the limits of Japanese cuisine but remained within them. It was a fitting end to our dinner at Nihonbashi Yukari, where culinary rules are seen not as restrictions but as challenges.