Current state of affairs at Ryugin?
I've been to Ryugin 3 times.
In 2009, 2010, and 2012 -- 3 trips in a row.
The first two times were mindblowingly good.
The food, the service, the wine pairings, all amazing.
You can read a million reviews that will point out all the things we loved.
In 2010, the wine/sake pairings were particularly great. Takeo-san was the sommelier and we really struck up a rapport with him as well.
Last December, 2012, we returned again, and, well, it just was not the same.
First off, Takeo-san was gone. If I recall correctly, he moved to another city, possibly Osaka, possibly to work at a restaurant belonging to his family. Not sure. Does anybody know his current whereabouts? If he is back in Tokyo I would go to the place where he is working just for his pairings.
Second, and quite oddly, we were greeted by a European woman who was I think intended to take care of us. Really, in Japan, this is not what I want. With a few well placed questions about sake, we managed to get her swapped out for someone we preferred. But still, the wine/sake pairings were just nowhere near what they'd been.
Most importantly, of course, though, the food was not up to what we'd experienced before. Nothing mindblowing. At present I don't believe I can remember any of the courses, though I can recall things from prior visits quite well.
But also, it was a little odd. This time we seemed to be surrounded by foreigners there for anniverseries taking photos of their food. And somehow, it felt like maybe it was time to give the interior a makeover.
So, this upcoming trip time we are skipping it.
Does anybody else have related observations?
Did we just get an off night, or has something changed?
Mind you, when I travel half-way around the world and plunk down cash like that, even an off-night is kind of unacceptable. But I'm curious what others think.
Sounds like the place has been Narisawa'd with star feckers. Haven't been in a while, but would not surprise me.
"Second, and quite oddly, we were greeted by a European woman who was I think intended to take care of us. Really, in Japan, this is not what I want."
I wonder if you have objections when restaurants in New York or London hire foreign-born waiters? Tokyo is an international city too, you know. (Or do you think that Ryugin should refrain from hiring foreign or non-Asian waiters so that the tourists who visit there will have a more "Japanese" experience?)
Awhile back the chef at Ryugin said that he was changing the menu in a direction that was more geared toward traditional kaiseki and less experimental-fusion-whatever. I think the change was roughly between your second and third visits, so maybe the present dearth of "mindblowing" dishes is related to that. Traditional kaiseki does tend to be more subtle than experimental-fusion cuisine.
re: Robb S
Interestingly, Mr Yamamoto has since reversed that somewhat, declaring that he would again incorporate more 'adventurous' dishes. I have no idea if he followed through with it, I have not been for a very long time (actually last time was our epic visit, Uncle Yabai).
His 'classical' kaiseki can be phenomenal, though I did find his previous efforts more interesting, purely because what he used to serve was unique to Tokyo, whereas top level kaiseki is not.
Having said that, when he was on form, there were few kaiseki places I am aware of that would top Ryugin in quality. The problem is that Ryugin has always been prone to off-nights. I have experienced it several times. In particular, I remember about 6 years ago I was gearing up for another incredible dinner only to find that much had gone wrong, such as the eel being hopelessly overcooked, really basic stuff. I know this has happened to other people as well, and I find it hard to understand as the top kaiseki places tend to be consistent. Plus Yamamoto was in the kitchen that day, so it was not a case of the chef being absent (it was not, as we called it at home, a Monday night dinner, which was the day of the week when the head chefs in my home town tended to have their day off and the standards in many so-so restaurants collapsed completely).
If by "Takeo" the OP means Mr Arimasa (I am pretty certain his first name was Takeo) then that is a really big loss. He was very knowledgable about sake and wine, being a qualified sake and wine sommelier, and was generally very friendly and professional.
Ryugin, by the way, always attracted a lot of foreigners. It was always about 50/50 or sometimes a majority of foreigners, much more than at other top kaiseki places. Possibly because the food tended to be more accessible to visitors to Tokyo as traditional kaiseki is quite subtle and the extent of the quality of individual dishes may not be fully understood if you have not tasted the same sort of fish many times at other places (this has led to rave reviews of the restaurant in foreign publications which will have attracted many tourists). Never particularly bothered me - the food and sake were great, which was pretty much all I cared about (as long as the other guests weren't loud and disturbed my enjoyment of the evening).
I did a little googling and yes, I believe that Takeo-san and Mr. Arimasa are one and the same. I'm someone who often does sake or wine pairings at a restaurant and I feel that this can make or break a fine meal. So when someone really gets it right, I take note and return sometimes just for that. So, yes, his departure for me made a difference.
Food-wise, I don't know. Maybe it was an off night. But nothing was blatantly mis-prepared. It just didn't measure up to prior visits or to other places we visited that trip.
At best, I get 5 nights in Tokyo a year and I need to be ruthless in cutting places that don't live up to my expectations. I guess what I was hoping for with this posting in the best case was to hear something along the lines of "yes, they kind of went in a bad direction for a while, but they are back on course now." But I can't seem to find any reviews on chowhound from 2013.
>> Possibly because the food tended to be more accessible to visitors to Tokyo as traditional kaiseki is quite subtle and the extent of the quality of individual dishes may not be fully understood if you have not tasted the same sort of fish many times at other places (this has led to rave reviews of the restaurant in foreign publications which will have attracted many tourists).
this is a perfect description of ryugin from my experience. But if a visitor is an ambitious foodie, why go to somewhere "visitor-friendly"? There are "visitor-friendly" versions of japanese food incorporated into modern tasting menus in all big cities around the world these days.
To me, Ryugin's dishes felt a lot like what i can get at Saison or Atelier Crenn in San Francisco.
re: Robb S
No I don't have that objection in New York or London.
As I wrote that bit I thought it looked kind of odd and/or awful, but I left it because it was genuine. . I poked around looking for reviews from the last year and on TripAdvisor I found a number of reviewers who seemed to have been turned off by the same person. So maybe it was not her foreign-ness. Maybe it was just something about her vibe in particular. But also, yes, for me anyway, I'd rather have Japanese waiters in Tokyo. If language is a barrier, that's part of the fun and strangeness of travel. I don't want to be that comfortable in Japan; part of why I like it is because it's so different than here.
As for the food, I don't think it's a traditional versus novelty thing. My favorite meal last trip was Ishikawa (over Takazawa and Ryugin) and my favorite meals in Kyoto have been at Kitcho. Both are highly traditional but get it exactly right in that amazing amazing way. The problem was something hard to describe. It just wasn't as good as prior visits.
That said, in the interim since I wrote this yesterday, I have recalled one dish that I loved from last visit. It was the sashimi course with lots of little dishes each containing a raw fish treasure....
Dustin, you are right. While Tokyo is in many ways an international city, it is by far the least international large city in any developed country, at least in terms of places I have visited around the world. Even many of the places in Tokyo that contain many foreigners are not particularly international by NYC or London (or indeed many other cities') standards, in terms of the attitude of the locals. Shimaguni no kangaekata. I also very much doubt that you will find any foreign customer-facing staff employed at any of the top kaiseki places (other than Ryugin).
I am not commenting on whether that is a good thing or a bad thing (a visitor may well very much enjoy the fact that it is less international and therefore less homogenised than other places around the world) - but it is a fact.