Thursday, December 12, 2013

Matsukawa Tokyo

As you may have noticed, this blog has focused on reviewing restaurants with 3-star Michelin given the guide is available in the city in which the restaurant is located. My Japan's vacation this Fall, however, was a bit different. After having done comprehensive research prior to my trip, I actually decided to visit a few places which actually got no star at all with the sole reason: the proprietary Chef refused to have anything to do with the famous little red book. Some of these dining places are Kyo Aji, Morikawa, Sushi Shou and Matsukawa, a relatively new kaiseki restaurant established in early 2011. I also found out earlier that Matsukawa was a kind of restaurant that followed "introduction-only" policy, meaning first timer is required to dine in with regulars or being introduced by the restaurant's so-called VIPs. Thankfully, Matsukawa does not adhere strictly to this rule. I asked my hotel concierge to book for me and my wife 3 months earlier, and we secured the seats without any issue. Either, we are lucky or the hotel in which we're staying is very close to the restaurant that we could be considered as serious and credible customers. 

Restaurant Matsukawa, located very close to US Embassy and legendary Hotel Okura in Akasaka area, serves high-end kaiseki kappo-style. Tadayoshi Matsukawa, the owner, used to be the Chef de Cuisine at Seisoka, a 2-star place offering traditional Kyoto cuisine. The dining room was simple and elegant. It has a counter seated 6 guests plus 3 private rooms in which one of them was in tatami style accommodating up to 4 customers. At Matsukawa, only 1 menu was available that's Chef's omakase normally serving 10 courses excluding the desserts. Unlike French fine dining, Japanese gastronomy does not usually serve "extra" items such as amuse-bouche or petit four - it goes straight to the serious appetizers. We actually dine here twice within a week - it's the 3rd restaurant where I visited more than once in the same trip, the other two places with this kind of 'honor' were L'Arpege and Le Louis XV. I reserved my 2nd meal for lunch even before having tried the 1st dinner; I was very pleased that my instinct was proven correct. Both our meals at Matsukawa were extraordinary, not only arguably the best food we ate during this trip, but also they ranked highly among the greatest food I've ever had. This should speak loudly about the quality of Matsukawa. Here are the details of the dishes I ate: 

1st meal - Dinner (seated at the counter)

Taiza-gani served with special sauce - A rare and deluxe snow crab, found only in Tango Peninsula of Northern Kyoto, was fresh and exquisite (both the meat and the egg). Eating the delicious crab by itself was fine or to make it more interesting, enhance it with a sauce made of dashi, rice vinegar, shoyu and ginger. I could not imagine a better way to start my meal
Hamaguri no iimushi - (Orient) Clam served with steamed rice ball and Kyoto '(spring) onion'. It's like a sushi dish on plate - the simmered clam was a bit sweet with a good texture while the onion would reduce any oiliness

Kawahagi served with its liver & soy sauce - An excellent sashimi dish. The splendid Filefish was crunchy and light; the fish's liver with green onion was foie gras-like taste, rich and creamy. To get the most out of this dish, dip the kawahagi into its kimo
Red Zuwai kani served with Matsutake mushroom and green yuzu - Not only the best owan I've ever had, it's probably the best dish during my entire Japan trip. Inside a clean dashi, the crab "dumpling" was both generous and umami, mixed well with the earthy Matsutake and the mild citrus aroma. We requested to repeat this dish on our 2nd visit

Akagai with wasabi - The sashimi of fresh ark shell was really good in the Spring and Fall. The flavor was deep, it's crunchy but soft enough to bite through; the horseradish gave a nice kick to this red clam 
Karasumi ("Silver" mullet roe) served with daikon and mochi - Bottarga, cured in its original sac, was a famous Japanese delicacy; 1st time eating it. It's robust and salty with distinct smell that were balanced out by white radish mild flavor as well as plain mochi at the bottom 

Grilled Tai served with Iwatake mushroom - The Sea bream was delicate, fragrant and sweet. Chef Matsukawa chose to pair this Tai with the highly-sought after Rock mushroom. Iwatake is rare with jelly-like texture and unique smell while taste wise, it's rather plain. In the past (maybe even now), Iwatake was often associated with longevity 
Grilled Awabi served with Matsutake mushroom - The grilled abalone was chewy and not oily; I always love Matsutake for its aroma, texture and even flavor. Some lime squeeze would add citrus aroma and subtle acidity. It's good, but I thought steamed abalone would've been better 

Chilled Soba in Sudachi broth served with Nameko mushroom - The handmade soba was excellent - it's "sticky and chewy" with clear buckwheat flavor. The citrus-based broth, served cold, was very refreshing. The mushroom enhanced the dish; the daikon's affect was mild
Konoko served with Kabu and its dashi - Another item I ate for the 1st time. Konoko/hoshiko is a (dried) ovary of Sea cucumber - prized delicacy. By itself, it could be too salty/a bit 'smelly'. I learned that to appreciate this dish, I had to chew the konoko slowly for quite a long time in order to extract its intense brininess, then eat the turnip and drink the watery dashi altogether. After sometimes, I could also feel the hoshiko ocean aromas throughout my palate

Gohan served with Tomewan and Kounomono - Well cooked rice served with delicious yuba miso soup and decent Japanese pickles.  
Side dishes for the Gohan - Chirimenjako, nori, Ikura and karasumi. I always love Salmon roe for its explosiveness (small 'pop' producing amazing and immense flavor); the seaweed was nicely cut and crunchy; mullet roe paste was just the right amount and lastly the small anchovies were fine (my least favorite item here) 

Dessert 1: Azuki paste with ginkgo nuts - The red bean paste was smooth and sweet in contrast to the gingko that provided some bitterness and harder texture. The white color paste was supposed to be some mild sweet flower roots (I forgot the name). A decent wagashi ..
Dessert 2: Kaki with pomegranate seeds - This Autumn special fruit, persimmon was sweet and tender combined with the tart and bursting taste of pomegranate  
Dessert 3: Mizu-yokan - Matsukawa's signature dessert. Chilled red bean jelly (made with azuki, sugar and kanten) was very delicate/light, not overly sweet with fine texture. This "water jelly" became semi transparent when the light falls on it. An ethereal dessert as well as a piece of art.

2nd meal - Lunch (seated at the normal private room)

Awabi served with Okahijiki and special sauce - Sliced abalones served cold were pristine, nicely combined with the delightfully crunchy land seaweed. The light and acidic sauce, I believe, was a mixture of awabi's liver, okahijiki and 'watery' dashi. A nice and clean dish to kick of our lunch meal
Fugu Shirako served with Uni - A beautifully presented dish. This soft roe of the Blowfish, was better (soft and creamy without being cloying) than the more common Cod's milt. Slightly contrast to sea urchin's richness, but with rather similar texture. To balance it, the sticky dashi 'sauce' was more acidic with a hint of bitterness at the bottom from the yuzu peel. Bravo!

Fugu sashimi served with young chives, daikon and ponzu sauce - The thinly sliced of raw pufferfish (& its skins) was excellent, producing refreshing and crunchy flavor in my mouth. Somewhat similar to Ishikawa's dish but with higher quality ingredients
Taiza kani and Matsutake mushroom served in a soup - As promised, we truly enjoyed this awesome dish for the 2nd time. Juicy and sweet snow crab with deep taste; distinctive fragrant of Matsutake mushroom with its complex flavor; yuzu aroma with delicate bitterness; clear and excellent soup stock. What a perfect dish!
Ise Ebi sashimi - Spiny lobster flesh was beautiful and spectacular. Its taste was inherently sweet and tasty even without shoyu/wasabi. The Ebi's brain was even more delicious without any hint of bitter flavor. Simple but incredible
Bottarga served with white radish and mochi - the same dish I had from my 1st meal. Please see above for the description 

Grilled Mana-Katsuo served with Iwatake mushroom - The meat of the Star Butter fish was indeed buttery and rich. Minimal marination was applied to let this katsuo's flavor shine. Once again, the precious Rock mushroom appear to elevate the overall dish higher
Cooked Snow Crab served with kani miso - Wow! The highlight was the greenish paste, which was the king crab's brain. The aroma was a little intoxicating; the kani miso was creamy and quite intense. A perfect sauce for the already umami crab meat. Matsukawa-san is Japan's "Ichiban" chef for preparing/cooking Zuwai-gani

Ohmi wagyu served with fried shredded onion - The Omi beef, from Shiga prefecture, was marbled and more 'meaty' (perhaps due to higher viscosity in its fat) than the 'sliced' version I ate at Waku Ghin. It's tender and very delicious as expected, nicely complemented by fried 'red' onions
Buckwheat noddle served with nametake and citrus-based dashi - the same soba I ate a week earlier. A cold and sour dish to rest our palate; the soba was consistently chewy and pleasant

Ebimo served with sliced yuzu - The shrimp-shaped taro was soft and not too intense. The plain ebimo was enhanced by lightly sweet 'dashi' and citrusy aroma and sour taste. With light & easy dish, it meant the shokuji was soon coming  
Rice dish and its condiments - The Fall quality rice was nice; the miso with tofu skin was flavorful As in the 1st meal, the dishes complementing the gohan were dried Shirasu, nama Karasumi, seaweed and Salmon roe (I consumed more than half bowl of Ikura)

Dessert 1: Red bean paste with ginkgo - Again, the same dessert as I had in the 1st meal
Dessert 2: Azuki bean jelly - Still smooth with natural sweetness, an ethereal jelly. I was happy to have this dessert again in my 2nd meal
Dessert 3: Grapefruit jelly - Finally, we're served a new dessert. The jelly was incredibly light/soft, but it had strong 'watery' grapefruit flavor. A great way to end our fabulous meal

Tea is possibly the most important element for any kaiseki; during dinner and lunch, we were also served brewed (powdered) matcha and hojicha. The meals in both occasions were outstanding. Matsukawa-san's cooking was "pure and simple". It's all about showcasing the fresh and high quality ingredients and transforming them into pristine and refined dishes that are incredibly delicious. He generally uses only 1-2 (main) ingredients and let all of them shine by itself as well as complement each other well.  Chef Tadayoshi Matsukawa was modest, gentle and kind. He even served a couple of dishes himself to our private room during lunch. Despite his limited English, he sincerely cared and tried to communicate with us using simple Japanese which I might understand some of them. He wanted to make sure that we enjoyed the food and had good experiences. It would not be that easy to find somebody better than him in terms of preparing Japanese traditional cuisine (washoku). As far as the food is concerned, I only wish Matsukawa-san would be more 'creative' for the shokuji part. I heard his rice dish is the same throughout the whole season.    

The restaurant was nearly full house (including all 3 private rooms were used) during our first dinner. I was glad to be seated at the counter. I believe Chef's interaction was an essential part of kappo-kaiseki. For our 2nd meal, we had our food in the normal private room since all of the counter seats were occupied. The staffs were generally friendly and helpful. There was one lady, perhaps working part-time, who spoke fluent English. She usually explained our dishes during dinner and became the 'bridge' for our communication with Chef Matsukawa. However, room for improvement was still possible. For instance, the staffs should be more pro-active such as more consistently re-fill our drinks or anticipated our needs without us having to raise our hands several times. During our lunch, we had less issue as one waiter was assigned exclusively taking care of our room. Another incident: at the end of our 1st meal, I requested for Matsukawa's signature dessert, Azuki yokan, to one of the cooks, but she politely declined our request. Then, we tried one more time conveying this intention to the Chef. He simply smiled and immediately prepared the red bean jelly that we liked very much - that's why he gave us this dessert again at lunch. It might be no big deal, but this small matter could make a big difference for guests experience. Before we left the restaurant, the kaiseki Master and charming Chef personally thanked us, then escorted us to the door. After expressing my appreciation and exchanging a few bows, Matsukawa-san bid us farewell.      

Matsukawa is probably one of Tokyo's best kept secret. I had 2 fantastic and memorable meals. I just hope I will be able to secure seats here should I come to Tokyo again in the future. Matsukawa is the kind of restaurant that I have no problem to put it in the same stature with Europe's best tables such as Le Calandre, Oud Sluis and Ledoyen. For pictures, please check the following link: Matsukawa Fall 2013

Food: 98 pts

Service: 93 pts

Overall: 96.5/100


cbezault said...

What hotel did you stay at that was able to get you the reservation?

Bu Pun Su said...

We were staying at hotel Okura Tokyo
However, I believe there's no longer "introduction-only" policy
So you should have no problem to secure Matsukawa's reservation via any hotels' concierge

John Rocca said...

What's the address of Matsukawa?


Bu Pun Su said...

The restaurant is located on 1-11-6 Akasaka, Minato-ku
Close to US Embassy and Hotel Okura

You're welcome
Hope this is helpful

Carla said...

Really love reading your blog! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this place. I wouldn't have known much about it if it weren't for you.

I'm trying get a reservation there at the moment but wanted to ask you something directly. Is there an email I could reach you at?



Bu Pun Su said...


Thank you for your feedback and kind words
Do you mind giving me your e-mail instead and I will contact you afterwards?

Note that: I would not publish your e-mail if you don't want to


markmich said...

Bu Pun Su, I love your review of Matsukawa and so jealous of your dining experience there that I tried to make reservations for my upcoming trip to Japan. However, my concierge is asking me for a "referral" who can verify their dining experience there since I'm a first timer. I don't know anyone... I would appreciate anything you can do to help me. Thanks!

Bu Pun Su said...


When do you plan to dine at Matsukawa?
Could you give me your e-mail address and we can continue from there?


Unknown said...

Bu Pun Su,
I tried to reserve through my hotel concierge (Four Seasons). But was told about the invitation-only policy. Would you have any suggestions on how to obtain a reservation? We very much would like to try Matsukawa!

Thank you!

Bu Pun Su said...

Hi there,

Could you leave me your email address?
I will not post it and we will communicate from there


herman trisno said...

Hi Andi, my name is Herman from Indonesia and i would like to ask your opinion about which do you consider the best kaiseki restaurant in Japan? either Tokyo or Kyoto. I'm a culinary student and in a few years would like to work in Japan, on my current top list to apply would be Jimbocho Den, Matsukawa and Ryu Gin. Hope you can help me decide where should i learn from the best. Keep up the good content, thank you.

Bu Pun Su said...

Hi Herman, halo dan apa kabar?

All the places you mentioned were great places albeit I've never been to Den and Ryugin Tokyo. Since you asked from the perspective of working there instead of eating at those places ... Here are my 2 cents:

-Seiji-san (Mr. Yamamoto of Ryugin) is the most internationally well-known and he has overseas branches. It's likely that he and his staffs should have the most experience dealing with non-Japanese worker. In addition, his food is very innovative
-Matsukawa-san is shy and did not seem to talk a lot even to people who spoke fluent Japanese / locals. However, his dishes were amazing and (most of them) incredibly delicious - more of the traditional Nihon ryori
-Zaiyu-san (Mr. Hasegawa of Den) seems to be the nicest chef and fun to talk to or work with. His food looked really creative and unusual, but many said they're tasty too

I assume (Japanese) language will not be any issue for your case? It's hard for me to say which one would fit your the best since I don't know what your goal in the future is or what kind of Japanese kaiseki you want to master - meaning I don't know which of those restaurants above would suit your taste but all of them are very good. If you want to learn from the "best" currently, maybe you should also consider Ishikawa in Tokyo and for Kyoto, try Ogata and Mizai. Good luck and wish you the best

Kyle Robertson said...

Hi Bu Pun Su,

I'm heading out to Japan in the last week of June and am dying to eat there. Any advice on how I can get a reservation as it's now introduction only?


Lu Xie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bu Pun Su said...

Dear Kyle and Lu Xie.

I am not sure how to answer / 'solve' these kind of inquiries anymore ... I tried to return to Matsukawa in 2015 and early this year but both did not work out (was told that the restaurant was fully booked)

Probably the best way nowadays is to get the reference or even better dining with friends who have been to Matsukawa in the last year or so. You would probably notice that my visit there was quite a long time ago, a period when Matsukawa was not as popular as now

I wish I could be more of help. That being said, don't be too discouraged - Japan has a lot of great restaurants. Who knows when you dine somewhere, you would meet and talk to Matsukawa's regulars ... probably he/she would be able to assist you. Good luck!