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Dec 10, 2012 11:30 PM

Need help with Kaiseki decision: Ishikawa Kagurazaka or Ryugin


I'm visiting Japan for the first time and I'm searching for the best Kaiseki or highly recommended Kaiseki dinner to splurge on during my trip.

I done some reasonable amount of research and somehow narrowed it down to Ishikawa Kagurazaka or Ryugin based on Tabelog reviews and other resources. I'm a little torn between the two because Ishikawa seems the more traditional Kaiseki place, while Ryugin is a bit more world-renowned and well known.

My main hesitations between the two is that Ryugin obviously carries a lot of expectations with being top 50 best restaurants and I have read polarizing reviews here and there. Ishikawa on the otherhand is hardly talked about on blogs or forums. I'm sure both are great choices, but I definitely want to get my money's worth especially when I'm spending this much. In general, which one would you choose?

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  1. First of all, I would suggest you never ever read that ridiculous list of 50 top restaurants in the world again. A weird gimmicky list with some really odd and random choices that should only be discussed in the context of mocking them.

    That said, Ryugin is a great place and I'd recommend it very highly. The only problem with Ryugin is that it is weirdly inconsistent. When it's on, it is absolutely stunning. But I have also experienced the place on an off-night and it was surprisingly disappointing. Ishikawa is more consistent, but less spectacular. Last time I went was a few weeks ago, and it was a good as ever. But I only remember one dish, so it wasn't spectacularly memorable. You won't go wrong with either choice though.

    Atmosphere-wise I prefer Ishikawa. The dragon decoration in Ryugin makes it seem like a Chinese restaurant, and it is a big room (with a small private room), like a Western restaurant, while Ryugin is much more what I am used to from kaiseki restaurants (i.e., counter where you can chat witht he chef, plus private rooms). Purely a matter of personal preference though, you might prefer a larger room.

    1. I have been to each restaurant only once. I went to Ishikawa a few years ago, and I went to Ryugin a few weeks ago. Both restaurants are very good, but they are quite different. I think that which one is "better" depends entirely on the person who is eating the food. Personally, I preferred eating at Ishikawa, although as a chef I have to admit that the food preparation at Ryugin is dazzling from a technical perspective.

      Isihikawa is much more of a traditional kaiseki experience, although I think that of all the "traditional" kaiseki restaurants that I've been to in Tokyo, Ishikawa is probably the most accessible for foreigners. The food is far more traditional than the food at Ryugin, but there was enough originality to keep me intrigued. Service was very warm. I pretty much only like to sit at a counter when eating washoku, and I really enjoyed the conversation I had with the staff of Ishikawa.

      The whole experience of Ryugin felt much more like western dining to me. The tables, linens, menus etc are not really done in a Japanese style. Many of the the dishes were much more complicated than than traditional Japanese food. The ingredients were excellent, and service was very good, although I prefer being able to talk to the chef because the server was unable to answer our questions without going back to the kitchen.

      I think some, although not all, of the opinions about many kaiseki restaurants that foreigners make have to do a lot with how they relate to the food. Although I wouldn't say that it's easy for a foreigner to relate to the food at Ryugin per se, the fact that it's different from traditional washoku puts both Japanese people and foreigners close together in terms of their perspective. It's new to everyone, because it's the only place that makes the food they make. I personally thought the food lost much of the beauty of washoku because there was too much going on, but that's not to say that the food wasn't good. After reading Asomaniac's comment that said he had experienced inconsistency there, now I wonder if I had experienced an off night. I was fairly disappointed in a particular beef dish. I'm pretty much a traditionalist, and I usually prefer not to have much meat when I eat kaiseki, but I imagine that for many foreigners eating Japanese beef could be the highlight of the meal no matter the merits of the dish. Those kinds of preferences should determine your choice between the two restaurants. Ryugin is more of a gastronomic adventure with Japanese style, and Ishikawa is a true kaiseki restuarant.

      1 Reply
      1. re: la2tokyo

        I second what la2tokyo said. It seems though that the cooking at Ryugin has evolved again: the restaurant started off as a very modern and unconventional take on kaiseki, then a few years ago Chef Yamamoto decide to serve much more traditional kaiseki (and it became fairly conventional kaiseki for a while), but then, maybe a year or so ago, he decided to again involve more of the unconventional elements.

        From what I hear (I have not been for quite a while myself) he has now arrived somewhere in the middle between the very unusual approach of his early days and the rather traditional approach he took for a while.

        His meals definitely involve more meat than most kaiseki places, and sometimes it works really well. For example, I had a fantastic pigeon with soramame puree at Ryugin. Clearly though that is not the sort of dish you'll be looking for if you want a very classical kaiseki experience.

        I enjoy Ryugin for what it is, and love its uniqueness (there are many great traditional kaiseki places but only one Ryugin). However, I also live in Japan long term so I get my traditional kaiseki fix on a regular basis. If I lived abroad and rarely came to Japan, I'd probably be more interested in a kaiseki exprience that is more representative of the Japanese tradtion.

        Interestingly, one thing Ryugin and Ishikawa have in common is that they both think wine works better with kaiseki than sake (in particular white Burgundy). Ishikawa's sake selection is a one-pager of around 6-8 sakes. In contrast, he has a 4 or 6 page wine list with some real stunners. Ryugin has a much better sake selection, but the wine list is also pretty good. Yamamoto is both a qualified sommelier and a sake sommelier.

        I somewhat sit on the fence on this one - I love both sake and wine with kaiseki, my natural instinct is to have sake (and I think the foods are naturally best suited to sake), but I went with champage followed by a great Meursault at Ishikawa last time because the sake selection was not that amazing. The Jyuyondai daiginjo is no longer on the menu. They still have an off-menu isshoubin of Jyuyondai, but the more manageable 4-go bin is gone. Their other offerings, like one of the better Kokuryu, are good but very unexciting, and the wines hit the spot better on that occasion. At Ryugin, I would not have wine (other than perhaps as an aperitif or a red with the meat dish) because their sake selection is excellent.

      2. Just returned from a trip to Tokyo yesterday. We went to Ryugin (for the 3rd time, it's been a favorite over the years), Takazawa (for the first time) and Ishikawa (also for the first time).

        All three are excellent, top quality places.

        However, both my friend and I agree that Ishikawa was the winner of the three. It is the meal that my mind keeps going back to.

        It is not as risky or unusual or modern a meal as the other two. But it has something that hundreds of years of tradition can give you over relatively new approaches: a certain perfection of technique, and a lovely arc to the meal.

        Takazawa had a couple of stunner courses (the take on potato with butter was unreal) but overall the meal was maybe too filling and there are dishes I would edit out. The first half of the meal at Ryugin was amazing, but second half petered out.

        The best individual dishes of the trip may well have been at Ryugin and Takazawa.

        But Ishikawa was steady and flawless all the way through. The meal as a whole formed a sort of perfect evening.

        At Ishikawa we were seated at the counter.
        Ishikawa has no microphones in the ear for staff to communicate with (which is true at the other two). Rather, Ishikawa appears to be conforming to a more age-old tradition of training. Ishikawa himself and one other younger man are out front at the counter. Ishikawa chats with you (and is a delightful man) as he prepares things. There are others who come from the kitchen from time to tmie to bring things out. One staff member appears to be only in charge of preparing soups and broths, maybe sauces. From time to time, he brings out a small tasting bowl held aloft above a ladel for Ishikawa to taste and check. Ishikawa tastes and gives a thumbs up (presumably a thumbs down is possible, but we did not see this.) The place feels like an ordered hierarchical training ground, but at the same time it was the most relaxed and homey and friendly of the places (though, like many things in japan, it takes a good half hour to settle in after the initial formality of an entrance).

        Also, it's not that I generally guide my choices by price, but it must be pointed out that Ishikawa is far less expensive than the other two.

        In all three cases, we asked them to bring give us pairings of whatever drinks they thought would go best (though at Ishikawa we did ask for sake in particular). Ishikawa gave us different small bottles of different sake each time we finished one. None of them were stunning, but they all drank well with the meal. Takazawa was almost exclusively wines (many of them japanese wines) of varying enjoyment, some quite lovely. Ryugin had only one or two straight-on sakes, a variety of wines, some aged sakes and for some reason shouchu with the rice/pickles/soup at the end. They paired amontillado very nicely with one dish, but oddly paired uni with champagne, which did not work at all. The pairings at Takazawa and Ryugin were VERY expensive, and I would just order a good bottle or two of daiginjo next time instead at both establishments. And it is here that the price difference was astounding. For drinks, Ishikawa was, 6,000 yen (about $100 for two). Takazawa 40,000 yen (about $480), and Ryugin similar to Takazawa (I forget exactly how much).

        Anyhow, ordering the highest level available menu at each location with omakase wine/sake pairings, the total at Ishikawa was 52,000 for two (about $625) while both Takazawa and Ryugin topped out at about 105,000 (about $1300 for two). Almost double.

        All this said, I would recommend any of the 3 restaurants. But Ishikawa has won my heart, and next trip I will seek out more places in this vein

        2 Replies
        1. re: pauliface

          Thank you all for your feedback... Funny you brought up Takazawa, that was actually our first dining spot when we arrive in Tokyo. I've read a lot of reviews of the place and I'm quite excited to go there...

          I think I'm definitely leaning towards Ishikawa. It seems like it isn't as 'Westernized' as Ryugin and I think I'm getting my fair share of haute couture dining from Takazawa. It is also appealing to me that Ishikawa is a bit more modest and humble in their approach to food, so that's a bit of a plus for me. I think that throwing down nearly $2,000+ for 2 dinners is going to be a little over the top than it already is... But I'm going to stick with Takazawa and Ishikawa for now...

          Question for all of you, is Takazawa considered French or Kaiseki?

          1. re: justlaz

            There is nothing kaiseki about Takazawa. Takazawa himself calls his food 'new French'. (He has rebranded it recently, saying that they want to give "more love" to Japanese ingredients, but I don't think it has changed much, or at all. It's not really recognisable as French, either. I think it's more or less its own (modern) style. Lots of very Japanese ingredients and Western concepts and techniques. Takazawa also is inspired by new influences, for example a few months ago he was cooking in Mexico for an extended period and has brought back ingredients and concepts, so some of his dishes are his take on modern Mexican (no idea what those dishes were like though as i have not been back for a while and never tried his Mexican-inspired stuff).

        2. I have not been to Ryugin.I went to Ishikawa tonight.It was a wonderful meal ,and the experience was enhanced by the friendliness of Ishikawa san himself and the manager,Chihiro san,who advised us on the choices of sake.Overall,the best dining experience of our trip so far this time,slightly ahead of the Osaka duo of Taian and Fujiya 1935(the latter being slightly disappointing).