DEN Tokyo: Quirky Modern Kaiseki Restaurant
The dinner at DEN. Where shall I even begin?! Probably from the most important. Don’t expect to have a dinner at your typical restaurant. Instead, you’ll feel like you’re warmly welcomed into the Emi and Zaiyu Hasegawa’s own dining room. A long communal table in the middle of the room accentuates chef’s intention to bring people together over good food via casual dining experience. During the entire night, chef Zaiyu communicates with the guests through the open kitchen, taking short breaks to personally serve some of the courses. Meanwhile, his wife Emi – “The Big Boss” of the house according to her business card – tends to each table, making sure each guest feels welcomed and at home.
The restaurant is currently listed at #45 on World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and chef Zaiyu has done quite a few collaborations with world-renowned chefs from around the world. It is located in Jingumae and is housed inside a former location of French restaurant “Le Gaulois.” It used to be the chef and his wife’s favorite restaurant so they kept the signage when they took over the space. To me in demonstrates how much loyalty matters to Japanese.
DEN’s pre-fixed menu is constantly changing. While it predominantly showcases Japanese cuisine, and follows the pattern of a kaiseki meal – with emphasis on organic seasonal ingredients harvested by the local farmers – what sets Zaiyu apart from other chefs in Tokyo are his creative and modern techniques that intend to amuse the palate and eyes (often in the most humorous fashion) whilst bringing out the best in local flavors. His dishes are inventive, well thought-out with flawless execution and incredibly playful, and the Japanese quirkiness shines through many of his plates. It almost feels like Zaiyu communicates and expresses his sense of humor through the food he cooks, and in many cases, presents funny twists on number of casual western classics. It’s a modern kaiseki sans all the traditional fuss and formality of it. “I want people to enjoy their time at Den without worrying about manners or rules. I want all my guests to be able to relax and have fun”, chef shared in one of his interviews.
Our meal opened with a nice refreshing glass of sake and was followed by dishes in a leisurely pace that lasted around three hours. The first appetizer was a Foie Gras Monaka, one of DEN’s signature dishes. It is a twist on classic Japanese dessert. Traditionally filled with sweet azuki beans, DEN’s version features foie gras marinated in miso and ingredients that change seasonally sandwiched in-between crispy wafer. This time the flavors that complimented the foie were daikon and marinated ginger. It was a delightful start and one of the highlights of our dinner. It was amazing to see the chef take something simple and staple, and transform it into a gourmet version.
We processed to anago tempura which was served with eggplant, daikon and yuzu. A hair of extra salt would have perfected the dish for me, otherwise it was delicious with tempura done perfectly and the eggplant cooked beautifully.
Yet another signature – and most recognizable – dish arrived next. The famous DEN-tucky Fried Chicken, which is a play on American KFC. Zaiyu personally serves each diner with a cardboard box which looks quite familiar. Each guest opens to find souvenirs from the country they’re visiting from (flag of your country) as well as a chicken stuffed with rice and matsutake mushrooms that was bedded on autumn leaves. Chicken was perfectly done, with scrumptious crispy skin, and flavorsome rice. If KFC’s chicken was this tasty I’d be lining up for it every day!
Next course brought fish and land together on one plate – tuna with slightly torched skin was paired with seaweed vinegar sauce which had a touch of sweetness, as well as freshly grated wasabi from Shizuoka Prefecture. A delicious combination which I wanted to have more of.
We proceeded to another stellar course – red snapper from Shizuoka was served in dashi broth with grated daikon and ponzu sauce, and covered with shaved stems of makomotake (Manchurian wild rice) and artichokes. The dish was light and had tons of depth of flavor. The fish melted on the palate like butter and ponzu added tons of dimension to the dish.
Garden Salad is yet another playful signature dish at DEN and chef Zaiyu is very proud of it – while collaborating with farmers in Chiba and Shizuoka, he marries around 25 vegetables prepared in different ways: tempura, pickled, served fresh – in order to send the diners on the culinary journey as they make their way through this “garden” and discover different temperatures, textures and flavors. Tomato marinated with vanilla alone blew our minds and every other bite excited our palate in a different way.
The final main course was temptingly luscious soup of duck cooked with leaks and six types of mushrooms from Mt. Fuji area. You could taste a hint of yuzu in the rich and flavorful broth too. So so good.
The savory courses ended in a traditional Japanese style: with a combination of miso soup, pickles and rice. Zaiyu serves his rice with different ingredients and during our night we had it with salmon roe. The rice was a delight to eat as it was deliciously savory. Every bite was like fireworks of umami as each egg popped in the mouth and complimented the rice so well.
The playfulness of the meal continued into the dessert courses. They set a newspaper with encrypted message via highlighted letters. Mine said “See you soon!” Then Zaiyu entered carrying hand shovel and working gloves. He folded the gloves into a form of bunny ears (or Victory sign) and placed them along with what looked like a muddy shovel speckled with “dirt” and “moss”, which in reality was a cheese mousse with green tea, charcoal powder, dill, black truffle and buckwheat. The herbs were all from the chef’s own small garden. It might not have been the most delightful desserts I’ve ever tasted, but the presentation was fantastic.
Lastly, we enjoyed “coffee” as a finisher. Presented in Star Comebacks mug (play on Starbucks), it turned out to be a combination of sugar cane, caramel, black truffle, custard and milk.
Before ending this amazing dinner, Zaiyu came out of the kitchen and introduced us to his cute dog Picu, who is the cutest little creature.
Dinner at DEN might not be the best you’d have in Tokyo, but the food and irresistible hospitality will never disappoint and perhaps that’s why they have so many returned customers which makes it almost impossible to make a reservation. I’m so glad I miraculously managed to snatch us a spot though, it was a delight to be hosted by Hasegawa family.