Nagamine vegetable kaiseki
I finally had a chance to try out the vegetable kaiseki at Nagamine in Ginza, and it was very impressive. The restaurant is a few years old, and it's run by a 60-year-old vegetable wholesale company based in Tsukiji. The Y5250 vegetable kaiseki seems designed to showcase their top-quality vegetables, and it changes every month. (They also have kaiseki menus for Y8,000 - vegetables plus fish - and Y12,000 - vegetables plus meat.)
The December menu was seven courses in the usual kaiseki structure (http://r.gnavi.co.jp/b803900/menu1.htm ), starting with a glass of very sweet tomato juice, a vinegared vegetable dish served in a hollowed-out yuzu, and a tofu-like sweet-potato-based dish. Everything was beautifully arranged, with a red-orange-purple color theme running through the entire meal, including a vividly colored thick soup made from red turnips, which was one of the highlights. Another high point was the beautiful vegetable sushi platter, which seems to be their signature dish. And the dessert of cauliflower cream-cheese mousse with brandied raisins was sublime.
They have a small but unusual sake selection, including a Y1200 three-part tasting set, with the selection changing every month. The interior is tasteful, and they seem to have a lot of private rooms, including for parties of two. We made reservations late and sat at the counter, which is used more as a prep station with staff wandering in and out to heat sake, etc.
Service was poor for the price level - the staff explained each dish for the first three courses, then stopped bothering, and it took a major effort to attract their attention to get water refills, order more sake, etc. Each glass of water was served with a beautifully carved globe of ice just like in a fancy bar, but I would have preferred a simple refill from a pitcher.
In spite of the service, I think it might be a fun experience for visitors who want to see an unusual take on kaiseki at a very reasonable price. Every dish was outstanding, a few were quite memorable, and the presentation was simple but attractive. They have an English web page, so I assume they're ready for non-Japanese-speaking customers. (There are no menu options for strict vegetarians though.)
Thank you for pointing this place out to the Japan-based chowhounders. I went on Saturday and very much enjoyed it. The January menu is quite different, but they still have a sushi platter, presumably with different toppings this months. The sushi platter was the highlight of the evening, truly excellent.
Most of the other dishes were very good as well - though not hugely memorable - with just one dish being a let-down (vegetable tempura and a few vegetable chips over a totally tasteless satoimo cream with satoimo bits and, oddly, a sweet chili sauce to be mixed with the cream concoction (to no positive effect whatsoever). There was a fantastic sesame tofu dish with wasabi, some azuki beans and soy sauce - it may sound very run-of-the-mill, but the quality of the tofu in particular made it really exceptional. A pureed turnip soup was a wonderful, satisfying winter warmer (though the solitary ball of mochi seemed surplus to requirements; if the intention was to provide textural contrast, I would have prefered some tasty chunks of vegetables (or anything else with at least some flavour)).
The other dishes were all of good quality as well, and at no time did I miss fish or meat, despite being mainly a carnivore. The dessert was a bit disappointing after Robb S raised expectations with the cauliflower cream-cheese mousse, which sounds very original and tasty. This month, there is a chocolate mousse with cake. Not bad at all, but neither original or memorable (though it did feature vegetables in the form of some sort of -imo, so it definitely had an original and unusual vegetable angle).
Service was actually excellent. Either we got lucky or Robb S was unlucky, but on arrival, we (two people) were immediately shown to a small private area (not quite a private room, but a tastefully segregated little private seating area), every course was explained in great detail and when we rang the little bell, somebody always came immediately. They also did a good job of explaining the three sakes in the tasting set.
We left the restaurant feeling very satisfied, both in terms of the quality and quantity of the food, and the fact that we were not overly stuffed with heavy winter dishes involving tons of meat and rich sauces. I don't think the vegetables quite match the perfect freshness and quality of vegetables in the top kaiseki restaurants, despite Nagamine being owned by a vegetable company and being vegetable-themed. However, for just over 5,000 yen it would probably be unfair to have such expectations. If you want a fun, unusual, good quality kaiseki experience, then this is definitely a good place to go. We will probably visit again in February or March to see how the menu changes.
If you go, don't forget to print out the tomato juice coupon from the internet - they will give you a free bottle of their tasty tomato juice (served at the beginning of the meal). You'll find it here: http://r.gnavi.co.jp/fl/en/b803900/.