Not too many foodies were surprised when the Michelin Guide went to Japan and handed out more three-stars to Japanese restaurants than they do in France. While France’s cuisine has been stagnant the last few years, Japan’s status as a great dining destination has only improved. Restaurant Azabu Yukimura is one of the leading restaurants.
One of the recipients of the Guide’s highest accolade was a small, 10-seat restaurant in Tokyo called Azabu Yukimura, helmed by Jun Yukimura. Chef Yukimura’s Kyoto-style Kaiseki cuisine is a multi-course affair – similar to the Western degustation menu of small plates.
The focus of Kaiseki is the combination of textures, colours and tastes of each course, and Chef Yukimura has been considered a master of Kaiseki since his training at restaurant Wakuden in Kyoto. Chef Yukimura’s Kaiseki cuisine at Azabu Yukimura is known as ‘kappo’ Kaiseki, where diners sit at a counter where they can watch the chef at work. Yukimura’s only dining table, a four-seater, is one of the most sought after tables in Tokyo.
Chef Yukimura’s cuisine was one of the highlights of last year’s Melbourne Food and Wine Festival and, luckily for us, he agreed to return for the 2012 Melbourne Food and Wine Festival as part of The Crown Melbourne‘s ‘Stars of Stars’ programme. Held from 6-18 March, the event saw a constellation of European and Asian Michelin-starred chefs – eight in total, with 16 stars between them! – descend on the Crown for a series of special dinners, master-classes and signature menus.
We met Chef Jun as he prepared for his sell-out first night at The Crown. Amidst tables being arranged, chefs nervously laughing, and waitresses memorizing the order of the plates and matching sakes for the evening, we chatted to the chef through a translator.
Chef Yukimura is modest about his achievements, protesting when we ask why his Kaiseki cuisine is so special, that it’s not up to him to say why it’s considered one of the best in the world, that’s it’s up to the customer to decide. To Chef Jun, it’s all about pleasing the customer.
When preparing for this short Melbourne stint, Chef Jun said he was thinking about the local customers and what they want and need to experience, and following on from that he decided which kind of fish and methods of cooking that Melbourne guests would prefer.
While Chef Jun didn’t give too much away about his methods, he did say that he never serves standard Kaiseki dishes, even though he respects the traditions of Kaiseki. Even a simple dish of sashimi is never served traditionally, it always has a little something extra to it – a flavour or texture – and it is always in balance. Chef Jun says he is also thinking about the “energy” of the seafood and this is reflected in everything he does, right down to which plates he serves the seafood on.
We asked Chef Jun about the Michelin accolades and again he was very humble, saying that given that the restaurant was already busy, he just noticed that the nationalities of the guests was a little wider than normal following the award. While the 2011 earthquake took its toll on the number of foreign diners, he has such a strong following in Japan that the restaurant has stayed as busy as usual.
While we spent a couple of weeks in Tokyo for our 2010 grand tour project, we deliberately and staunchly stuck to the more casual eateries to prove that Tokyo doesn’t have to be an overtly expensive city. Anything Michelin-starred was off the menu for us, so Chef Jun’s dinner was our first experience of this level of Kaiseki dining.
The standout dishes of the night were the sea urchin gelée with caviar (just sublime), a delicious fresh flounder with bottarga and preserved mullett roe, a lovely prawn mousse ball soup, and a tasty dish of slices of octopus layered with pumpkin and shallots.
All plates were paired with sake matched by a sake master. The Kokuryu Daiginjo sake – the sake that the sake master at the event said was his best tip for a great sake under $50 – excited everyone at the table.
While it might seem odd that after two trips to Tokyo our first Kaiseki dinner was in Melbourne, if you know Melbourne and know that it has a world-class, multicultural culinary scene, it seems completely normal.
If you’re going to be in Melbourne in March, make sure you get along to a few Melbourne Food and Wine Festival events and check out The Crown‘s ‘Stars of Stars’ programme for a chance to try some Michelin-starred cuisine from some of the finest chefs around the world.