Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa needs no introduction. Many sing praises of the young chef’s ingenious cooking – and his playful interpretation of classical Japanese cuisine at his restaurant, Den, is celebrated as the front-runner of modern kaiseki in Tokyo.
Forget the stifling quiet and rigid formalities associated with traditional kaiseki restaurants in Japan – eating at Den is all about the good noise. The infectious noise of multiplied, friendly greetings, laughter and chatter with new friends made between courses, and a profusion of euphoric ‘Ooo’, ‘Aaah’ and ‘Mmm’ eating sounds. But make no mistake, Den is no rowdy izakaya, it is a fine dining establishment serving up a 10-course omakase meal with exceptional hospitality. True to the restaurant’s dedication to embracing omotenashi – the ultimate spirit of hospitality in Japanese tradition, we were spoilt with a lunch that overflowed with warm attention from Hasegawa san, the front of house (led by his wife, Emi san) and entire staff. For the lack of a better phrase, a meal at Den is one of good vibes only.
Den is regarded as one of the most essential dining establishments in Tokyo. Beyond its prestigious standing of two Michelin stars and a spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, the restaurant has garnered attention from renowned chefs around the world and chef Hasegawa san has even cooked with some in collaboration dinners (chefs Gaggan Anand and Pierre Gagnaire among them). Hasegawa san and his staff do not shy away from that fact; beaming with pride as they introduced guests to a central wall column in the restaurant filled with ‘graffiti’ of signatures and well-wishes from famous chefs who have dined at Den.
It is easy to see why many others want to fall in line to dine at Den. Beyond the excellent hospitality, the food is brilliant, with the highlight being Hasegawa san’s donabe-gohan (claypot rice) dishes which evolve with each season. In November, we were served two types of donabe-gohan: gindara (cod) and momoji (maple leave) shrimp. The gindara was a clear winner for us; the meat tender, flaky and sweet, the rice grains still in their pearly form and coated in the beautiful fish marinade. Ask for a second or third helping and you might just be rewarded with a perfectly good crust from rice at the bottom of the claypot.
A clear asari (clam) soup and the most delicate-flavoured homemade koji pickles were served as accompaniments. Also delicious and wiped clean as soon as they were handed to us.
Seasonal staples like the foie gras monaka, stuffed ‘DFC’ chicken wing and signature ‘Gar-DEN’ salad were evident of Hasegawa san’s creative and humorous ideation. But fun as these dishes come, they were a culmination of long-running ingredient sourcing, hard work and preparation. The starter dish of monaka alone is a candy-wrapped combination of monaka shell filled with foie gras marinated in white miso for 10 days, with imo (sweet potato) sourced from Kyushu and radish from Akita.
The Gar-DEN Salad is another example, with 20 kinds of vegetables sourced from the garden of Hasegawa san’s sister that are thoughtfully prepared in different ways. The salad included an acidic-tasting ant that arrived alive from Chiba. Fed with water for 2 weeks to detox its body, the ant is first boiled in warm water, frozen, then finally has its legs and body re-arranged just before the dish is served.
These dishes were – in the words of Den’s ‘DFC’ – so good, and came with a couple of surprises along the way. The dessert of ‘Star Comebacks DEN‘, the restaurant’s cheeky interpretation of the Starbuck’s coffee and an ode to its loss of a Michelin star in the past, was a true trickster. Cooked for 8 hours long, the concoction of sugarcane, black truffle and milk pudding tasted exactly like very good coffee pudding – so much so that my dining companion and husband quickly handed over his cup as he thought it was real coffee (Note: he is allergic to caffeine) – WOW and yay to the extra portion for me!
Verdict: The excellent first meal we had at Den is enough to warrant our next visit. Beyond the good food, there is a sense of ease dining at the restaurant. Plus, it was simply delightful to just pass by the restaurant on any given service day; I fondly recall the delicious smells of dashi wafting through the air of Jingumae district, the energetic sight of Hasegawa san working his crew in preparation of dinner service, the lingering thought of the best donabe-gohan (double portions for me), the precious pots of homemade pickles fermenting just outside the restaurant… Perhaps the only thing that could trump the meal is more food (we were, admittedly, not yet full). But who could blame us for wanting more?
Reservation: 03-6455-5433 (Call between 12:00-17:00 JST). Note that Den does not accept reservation by hotel concierge.
Architect house hall JIA, 2-3-18 Jingumae, Shibuya Ku, Tokyo
Dinner = 18:00-23:30 (¥20,000~)
Closed Sundays and Public Holidays (irregular)