One of the toughest places to book in Tokyo, even though it only has one Michelin star. But you couldn’t find a cuter Japanese menu!
Zaiyu Hasegawa is one of the most successful young Japanese chefs. He opened his own restaurant in 2008. 3 years after the opening he received his Michelin star, and he is performing very well on Japan’s most popular (and useful) restaurant rating platform, the Tabelog. Furthermore, at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants award ceremony in 2016, he received the “One to watch award”. Well, I’ve been following him already for some time and now I show you how his restaurant in Tokyo looks like!
According to good Japanese traditions, this restaurant is tiny. 8 people can sit at the counter and another 8 people in separate rooms and tables. The best place is nevertheless the kitchen counter, staying close to the action. If it comes to the Japanese, I'm a huge fan. I don't even mind if they are grumpy. But this is not the case for the staff of DEN - they are one of the most cheerful staff I've ever met. There are no formalities, you can make jokes, even the chef is making some, but in the meantime he’s concentrating on cooking, as this is the most important of course! The ambience is very cosy, you feel like at home; it gives the impression of a very happy and nice family’s home.
The chef prepares a seasonal kaiseki menu, following more or less the strict rules and order. Still, it’s something different. And of course here everything is kawaii (=cute), which is not rare in Japan, but in a fine dining restaurant it’s rather strange. It’s all very lovely, especially due to the fantastic quality: the cuteness here is not to hide mistakes, it’s an added value. (Although, the smiley carrot slice was almost too cute :)
After the welcome champagne, the first bite was already hilarious: a pre-packed, small sandwich with foie gras. The packaging was of course only a joke: it refers to the sweets called monaka, which are traditionally filled with azuki beans. Here, the foie gras has a seasonal sweet-fruity garnish. It was followed by a soup made of seasonal vegetables.
Then next joke is also in my honour. One of the chef’s emblematic dishes is the perfect chicken wings, which is served in a box with the face of the chef, resembling the KFC design. The name makes it clear, too: DFC, Dentucky Fried Chicken. In addition, these perfectly fried and amazing wings are filled: this time with green leaves called nozawana and sticky rice, but the filling changes all the time, too. The extra twist: instead of the usual face on the box, this time it was my face!
This was followed by the fish, the meat and the salad. First came the Japanese Spanish mackerel, the sawara, then the duck and bamboo sprouts and the salad, which is from at least 20 different ingredients with a few kawaii solutions to compensate the “seriousness” of the two previous dishes.
Then another dish - often underestimated by European guests - the steamed rice, which is usually served with fish, meat or mushroom. This time - luckily - I showed enough enthusiasm to receive two variations: one with wagyu and another one with fish (this time with bonito). Both of them were amazing! (On the wagyu there was some wasabi, the pulled fish was marinated and both of them were served with pickles and miso.)
A refreshing pre-dessert and a spade and mosses: charcoal, cream cheese, dried tealeaves and kasha (roasted buckwheat). And another joke at the end: in the Star Comebacks Den mug there is a cane sugar - truffle pudding.
A special treat is the Hungarian themed newspaper; it’s about sad news, but from the circled letters you can read out “Thank you”.
The whole menu is a parody and a funny reflection of the often several hundred years old or at least ageless pots and the style used in the kaiseki menus, while the gastronomic experience is at its very best. Very high quality and high-level dishes are prepared from excellent ingredients and it is all served in a wonderful atmosphere. I agree: he’s one to watch. (No wonder I voted for him...)
We have become good friends with Zaiyu since then. After Tokyo, we managed to meet up in Sydney a few times, and then again in New York. This seems to fast become a global friendship :)