3 Disappointments Experienced at Leading Japanese Restaurant "Ryugin"
It's already been a while since Seiji Yamamoto of "Ryugin" has been known as a "treasure of the Japanese cooking world."
"Yamamoto is a cooking genius. He was exceptionally talented even when training. He's still a point of pride for me."
Toru Okuda, who formerly trained at the same and restaurant as Yamamoto and now the chef of 2 Michelin starred restaurant "Kojyu," still continues to enthusiastically praise his one-time fellow student.
Yamamoto's restaurant, "Ryugin," has earned 3 Michelin stars over the past 7 years.
It also was awarded rank 31, the highest in Japan, in 2016's "World's Top 50 Restaurants" ranking.
Gourmet food-seekers from around the world are flocking to "Ryugin."
I first visited "Ryugin" in the winter of 2007, after it was granted its first Michelin star.
I remember being impressed by Chef Yamamoto, struggling to stick to the history and tradition of Japanese cuisine while adding in his own ingenuity.
Since then, I had completely lost my desire to go after losing a reservation, but I accepted an invitation from a friend and visited again for the first time in 10 years.
Unfortunately, I was shocked to see that "Ryugin" had changed from a "Japanese cuisine establishment" to just a "Japanese restaurant."
The following are 3 disappointments I, a true fan of Japanese cuisine, experienced at "Ryugin."
1) Disappointment in the menu
I visited "Ryugin" in late September.
Mushrooms, matsutake, chestnuts, bluefin tuna.... It was the season for a variety of seasonal ingredients that are perfect for Japanese food.
However! None of these seasonal ingredients made an appearance in any of the dishes I had during this visit.
It was my first time paying over 30,000 yen for a meal in a Japanese restaurant in September where I didn't get even any matsutake....
Instead, the main dish of my course meal was "sukiyaki."
Sukiyaki is highly dependent on the quality of ingredients rather than the chef's skills, so it's not something I'd expect to get at "Ryugin."
What a disappointing menu selection.
2) Disappointment in customer service
The floor at "Ryugin" is packed with wealthy-looking attractive staff who are fluent in foreign languages.
However, their explanations of dishes are monotone, like "It is a broiled dish prepared by the chef."
Closing your eyes and savoring the flavors after having heard a passionate explanation of the dish from the chef in charge of cooking is part of the enjoyment of Japanese cuisine.
"Ryugin" is a famous restaurant where many foreign guests unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine will visit, so I believe that the staff should be able to politely explain the details of the dishes and their ingredients.
3) Disappointment in take-home souvenirs
As I was about to leave, I was handed a small plastic bottle of water.
Bewildered, I asked what it was, and I was told "This is the spring water from the base of Mt. Fuji that we use in our dishes" by a staff member, again in a monotone voice.
Do they think that anyone who came all the way to "Ryugin" is going to be moved by getting a plastic bottle of water...?
Promotional items on the counter as souvenirs just add to the lack of atmosphere here....
On my way home, I remembered a small Japanese restaurant in Azabu-Juban run by a couple that I had visited with my friend from Thailand.
My friend told me that he had been incredibly moved by a letter written in Thai that had been attached to the box holding his leftover food.
Chef Yamamoto insists at every opportunity that Japanese cooking is the "soul" and "heart" of Japanese people.
Can "Ryugin," in its current state, really offer heartfelt hospitality to the foreign guests who traveled long and far to visit?
Unfortunately, at least during my latest visit, to me "Ryugin" isn't a "Japanese restaurant with heart," but more of a "business" that discreetly targets wealthy foreign customers under the front of a "Japanese restaurant."
There's no mistake that the chef has changed from how he once was 10 years ago.
Actually, there were some delicious dishes served during my visit.
However, I'd expect a restaurant that costs over 40,000 yen per person to offer an experience that transcends "deliciousness" rather than simply tasty food.
To fit with its expectations and the expectations of its foreign guests, "Ryugin" needs to regain its "heart."