With the most Michelin-star restaurants in the world, Tokyo is considered the capital of fine dining. Kaiseki—a traditional multi-course meal—is often revered as the epitome of Japanese haute cuisine.
Visitors to the city often encounter two problems when wanting to splurge on a traditional high-end course menu. Some places are not very accommodating to foreigners with no English menu or English-speaking staff and some might even downright refuse non-Japanese diners. Another disappointment might be that the kaiseki menu can seem a bit dated. Sometimes translated as “imperial court cuisine”, it can feel like the dishes truly haven’t changed much since the Edo era.
The concept of 808Tokyo in Nishi-Azabu, located close to Roppongi Hills, is to align kaiseki with modern-day dining while staying true to its traditional spirit.
How do you achieve this seemingly paradoxical feat? By deconstructing kaiseki to its core elements: seasonality, carefully selected ingredients, tried-and-tested cooking methods and presentation.
Japanese fine dining is highly dependent on the seasons and the different vegetables or fish available at each time of the year. The manager and sommelier of 808 tells us that it is their goal to not only let diners taste the seasons through the menu, but to also truly feel their vibe. In true Japanese style, they try to transport this feeling through small details: it can be a specific type of leaf that is floating in a clear broth (in December, it would be water dropwort) or by choosing an owan (a gold-plated lacquered soup bowl) that reflects the month’s mood and colors.
The menu changes not only every season, but every month to perfectly capture the zeitgeist of the day. While December to March is considered winter, each month evokes very different images of Japanese seasonality, which 808 aims to reflect. The emphasis is on vegetables and fish as these ingredients are thought to best embody the changing seasonality. However, make no mistake, when we came, wagyu was present on the menu, in combination with a leek and bonito broth cream and it went surprisingly well together.
Another element of washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine) fine dining is—unsurprisingly—that it must be Japanese. Restaurant 808 only uses Japanese ingredients, techniques and serveware, so rest assured that your experience will be genuine. Thankfully, an English translation to the menu is provided and English-speaking staff are on hand to provide more details or accommodate small changes to the menu, if for example you dislike a certain vegetable. Keep in mind however that kaiseki ryori cannot be turned into a completely vegetarian or vegan menu as it would take its very base away, which is usually fish and fish broth.
We were surprised to find dry-aged sashimi on the menu. What sounds like a fusion spin on the current dry-aged beef trend in the West is actually an ancient Japanese technique of preparing fish. For the process, the fish needs to be completely gutted and rinsed thoroughly. It is then carefully cured for up to 2 weeks, but usually served after about three to four days. The curing process allows the umami from the bones to seep into the meat, resulting in a strong flavor. The manager recommended we try the sashimi on its own or with a bit of salt, but to stay away from from the soy sauce which would overpower its carefully curated flavor.
One exception to the Japanese-only ingredients: Besides an extensive sake and liquor menu, the restaurant employs a sommelier and stocks wines from France, the USA, New Zealand, Italy and other selected regions. A wine and sake pairing with the course menu is available, at a fairly reasonable ¥7,000 for nine drinks that will be paired with nine dishes.
The monthly changing chef-recommended menu is a splurge at ¥16,500, yet still more reasonably priced than most kaiseki restaurants in Tokyo. A more affordable version for ¥10,000 is also available upon request.
If you want try Japanese fine dining true to its roots that not only perfectly captures the season but also the spirit of our times, 808 will not disappoint. Make sure to call ahead, as reservations are necessary but accepted in both English and Japanese. While the restaurant is often frequented by groups of business people on weekdays, on weekends it is a popular place for a sophisticated date or family dinner.