The lunch specials at Michelin star restaurants in Tokyo are the culinary equivalent of a tease. They flatter customers wanting to indulge in the experience of fine dining without having to part with (too much of) their hard-earned yen, yet they rarely provide more than a glimpse of the technical artistry and innovation which has earned them their enviable reputation. Putting it more bluntly, it’s rare for Michelin star restaurants to pull out all the stops for weekday lunch services when there is little chance to upsell. The majority of customers are working individuals who need to duck in and out during their limited break time, thus having little chance to ruminate over their food.
The style of Japanese cuisine for which Kien, a one-star Michelin restaurant in Akasaka, is known is the antithesis of fast lunchtime fare. As a restaurant specializing in kaiseki—or traditional Japanese cuisine comprising multiple courses—Kien requires its diners to settle in to an extended culinary experience. Like a degustation, the brilliance of kaiseki is realized through the complementary and contrasting textures, flavors, and appearances of each course. Often, dishes in kaiseki take inspiration from the four seasons, not only in terms of ingredients but also decorative components.
Although a dramatically truncated version of the kaiseki, the weekday lunch sets at Kien do a fine job in showcasing the main elements of this cuisine at a modest price. More than that, the simple, yet refined selection of ingredients for each dish, along with the perfect execution of techniques, are a clear reminder of why Kien is recognized by Michelin and has become a ‘destination’ restaurant for locals and tourists alike.
Tucked away in a small alley and wedged into the bottom of a residential building, Kien appears altogether unremarkable. As you step inside, you are swiftly escorted into dining rooms no larger than a broom closet. The style of dining during the lunch rush is shared; if you’re not so keen on locking eyes with a total stranger while eating your lunch, you’ll be even less so after your time at Kien.
The lunch menu ranges from the modestly priced sets for ¥1,700 up to the kaiseki multi-course prix-fixe (Fuku) for ¥8,900 (reservations required). I’m given a choice between two lunch sets: teishoku and ochazuke with snapper. I opt for the teishoku and wait patiently for my meal, doing my best to stare at the bare walls rather than my fellow diners. Of course, those who have booked kaiseki in advance or who dine at Kien in the evening have the privilege of sitting in the main area, sumptuously decorated with Japanese ceramics and illustrations. I’m all for communal dining, however the annexed rooms for non-reservation customers have the look and feel of demountable architecture.
My teishoku arrives and I’m delighted by its presentation. I begin by having a side dish with braised eggplant and cucumber. The vegetables are generously dressed in ponzu and sesame. The fried onions have a pleasing crunch against the slipperiness of the eggplant, whereas the cucumber adds some brightness to the dish.
I move on to try some of the maguro (tuna) sashimi, which has been generously coated in a red miso paste that is smooth and faintly sweet. While I’m generally a fan of all things golden and fried, the chicken katsu is ordinary. To be fair, it’s a delicious morsel, but is ultimately outshone by dishes surrounding it of superior taste and execution. The teishoku also includes a dish of simmered pork, mushrooms, peas, and eggs. It’s absolute comfort food; the pork is infused with the sweetness of the soy broth and the eggs have a slight spring to them as you make your way through the dish. The teishoku is rounded out with the staples of Japanese cuisine—rice, miso soup, and pickles.
Overall, my meal at Kien encompasses what is enticing and mildly frustrating about lunch specials at Michelin star restaurants in Tokyo. You get just enough, but not enough, to make you want to come back for more.