When I visited: May 2016
Location: Hakone (within Gora Kadan ryokan hotel)
Rating in the Michelin Guide: Not rated in the Guide
What to wear: Yukata(!)
Ambience: Private (just for two, with a server)
Course of the meal: Hors d’oeuvres
If I could change one thing: Traditional Japanese music rather than medieval
When you stay in a ryokan hotel in Japan, there are a few things you have to get used to. One of them is sleeping on the floor (OK, not really on the floor, on a mattress on the floor) and one of them is wearing a yukata (cotton kimono) to dinner and eating millions of light, tasty Japanese courses in a private room.
On my first dinner in this restaurant with my partner Owl, the very Japanese food was offset by incongruous old Baroque / medieval music being piped into the room, which for some reason was silenced on our second visit.
We opted for the kaiseki dinner menu. Kaiseki is a style of Japanese fine dining where you have several small courses. We chose a bottle of white Meursault wine to accompany the meal, which started with a mini glass of sake (I do love a drink to start the meal) with an appetizer of twin asparagus wrapped in salmon and fresh yuba (tofu skin), prawn and hamabofu parsley, served with sesame cream. The hors d’oeuvres which came next were probably my favourite course as they showed off some lovely traditional Japanese dishes without being too big. They included Japanese steamed egg custard with edamame bean and lily bulb topped with dashi starchy sauce; shushi mixed with grilled sea urchin wrapped with oak leaf; vinegared Japanese myogu ginger; new harvested lotus root mixed with sea bream roe; thick omelette; kidney bean tempura; boiled molokhiya with soy sauce; and steamed abalone served with abalone liver vinegar.
The soup course was green pea soup with egg and wakame seaweed tofu, sliced carrot and kokomi mountain vegetables, topped with pepper leaves bud; next came sashimi, a particular Owl favourite, which was the ‘catch of the day’ (including tuna and sea bream) with tosa soy sauce and wasabi.
The ‘grilled dish’ was trout with chopped pepper leaves bud, candied new sweet potatoes and a ginger stick, and was followed by the ‘steamed dish’ of round eggplant, pumpkin, octopus, aomi daikon radish and touched yuzu citrus flakes. Next came the ‘small dish’ (which wasn’t really small, to be honest) of new harvested cabbage and roast wagyu beef, served with dried bonito flakes and mustard soy sauce.
As this was a Japanese meal, we of course also had a ‘rice dish’: fresh ginger rice, dark miso soup with white taro stem and assorted Japanese pickles. We finished off with a lovely and light dessert – fresh cherry and soft sweet bean jelly
This time we went for the ‘shabu-shabu’ menu. Shabu-shabu is a style of cooking meat and vegetables in a pot in front of the diners, named after the sound the cooking pot makes while boiling. We shared a half-bottle of red Chianti to go with this meal
The appetizer this time was satsuki tofu topped with dashi sauce and wasabi, followed by another great range of hors d’oeuvres: boiled katakura mountain vegetable flower; cooked burdock wrapped with unagi eel; grilled razor clam with seaweed; water shield with wasabi vinegar; shimmered prawn and grilled sand borer sushi; vinegared lotus root; and squid baked with egg yolk. I must say a word about the water shield, which I had never seen before visiting Japan; it is a strange but tasty green vegetable which literally holds a ‘shield’ of water around it.
The soup course was clear starched soup with grilled king scallop and a scallop dumpling, together with chrysanthemum greens topped with pepper leaf; this was followed by another sashimi course (catch of the day served with tosa soy sauce and wasabi).
The shabu shabu itself involved thinly-sliced marbled beef and assorted seasonal vegetables, cooked in the pot, served with sesame sauce and vinegared citrus soy sauce. Next came the inevitable rice dish – steamed rice, wth dark miso soup and assorted Japanese pickles. Again, the dessert was wonderfully light – seasonal jellied fresh fruits with custard sauce.
We left room and time to have some cold sake and watch karaoke in the hotel bar afterwards, which of course involved the lovely YMCA …
I would highly recommend visiting (and if possible, staying at) the Gora Kadan if you want to have a traditional Japanese ryokan experience.