920-0981 Ishikawa



2 Chome−2−25 1F


The Food:

Assorted sashimi platter: sea urchin, squid, sea bream, tuna and king prawn

Blackthroat sea perch (nodoguro) with bonito flakes

Rice bran-pickled blowfish ovaries

Avocado with akegarashi mustard miso

Sauteed maitake and fried dried young sardines salad

Diced Noto pork cooked in Kagabocha tea

Figs with cream cheese

The Wines:

Azuma Sake Brewery SEVEN Shinsen Junmai Ginjo Nama 91
Kiyoto Sake Brewery Kachikoma Junmai 95
Fumigiku Sake Brewery Haneya Shine Limited Namagenshu    94

By the time you read this Vinous Table, my end-of-year review will be in the rearview mirror. This restaurant was the one I chose as my favorite meal of 2023, and it won simply because of the unsurpassed elation that the food and the place elicited. This is the place that I want to return to more than any other in Japan.

The Gyo-kaijin counter

What caused my euphoria? Cuisine aside, maybe it is partly because I enter with modest expectations. After all, it is a last-minute booking, having consulted the hotel receptionist in Kanazawa. I was not seeking the city’s best restaurant, but rather, if she could recommend anywhere half-decent within walking distance. It is also partly due to the restaurant’s lack of pretension, a virtue that appeals more and more, perhaps reflecting a more general move away from fussy gastronomy. Gyo-kaijin is down-to-earth without a trace of pomposity. Décor is no different to Japan’s countless local bars and izakayas: a wooden interior with bare varnished tables, a counter with a dozen or so seats overlooking a typically small but functional kitchen. I am instantly struck by the lively atmosphere, clusters of office workers loosening their ties, enjoying frothing beer and grub. As they become louder and crimson-cheeked, I wonder if they appreciate the quality of the food or whether they are inured to its excellence.

The Gyo-kaijin menu

Greatest hits from Billy Joel and Cindy Lauper play in the background as I take a ringside seat to watch the team of young, casually attired chefs in black t-shirts work together as a well-oiled machine under the discrete direction of the laconic but friendly head chef. Ornately-decorated, brightly-colored lacquerware from the Kutani-yaki pottery is neatly piled in columns along the counter. The menu is presented and, without asking, is offered in both English and Japanese, each with useful illustrations of every dish. Perhaps it gives the false impression that Gyo-kaijin is a step down in terms of culinary excellence, a mistake that many make coming to the country. “This is a restaurant where cool adults gather to have a ‘gorgeous feast’ in Kanazawa,” reads the menu’s introduction. I’m not sure about “cool adults”. But “gorgeous feast” is spot on.

Assorted sashimi platter: sea urchin, squid, sea bream, tuna and king prawn

We commence with a sashimi platter and pause to bask in its presence. The luster of the raw fish indicates that these finned and tentacled ocean dwellers were swimming around mere hours ago. It is heavenly. Every mouthful elicits tears of pleasure. Deciding which slice to broach next is torturous as it means one less sashimi to savor. I’ve been privileged to eat sashimi from some of Japan’s most renowned establishments, and this ranks alongside the best. It’s the nonchalance that blows me away, served without airs and graces, sea urchin, squid, sea bream, tuna and king prawn, decorated with bonito flakes, lime, ribbons of daikon and freshly-shaved wasabi. This sashimi platter is my gustatory highlight of 2023, presented on exquisite lacquerware.

Blackthroat sea perch (nodoguro) with bonito flakes

Next, a local specialty of blackthroat sea perch, known as nodoguro, is literally named after the black markings around its mouth. This fish is a native of the Sea of Japan and lurks 200m-300m beneath the waves, making it comparatively difficult to fish and is therefore highly prized. You will find it on many menus restaurants around Kanazawa and Japan’s north coast, plus high-end restaurants further afield. Don’t embellish this fish too much because you want to appreciate its sweet fattiness and oily texture. The bonito flakes are all that is necessary.

Rice bran-pickled blowfish ovaries

Next, blowfish ovaries that had been pickled in rice bran. Blowfish, or fugu, is Japan’s infamous poisonous delicacy and obliges specially-trained chefs to prepare it and avoid the mortuary slab. Every year, two or three people die from eating it. Fortunately, I was not one of them. This dish had an arresting, bitter, almost acrid tang that threatened to overwhelm the blowfish, a distinctive taste and texture I appreciated more after a few bites. It’s a flavor that you could learn to love.

Avocado with akegarashi mustard miso

A straightforward dish follows: slices of avocado that are beautifully garnished with akegarashi mustard miso. Wonderful! Plus, there is no chance of death.  

Sauteed maitake and fried dried young sardines salad

Next is a divine dish of sautéed maitake mushrooms (aka hen of the woods) served with fried dried young sardines and salad. These are the most delicious fungi and seem impossible to buy here in the UK, even though they are inexpensive to buy in Japan. I’ve seen them served at some of London’s top restaurants, so they must be available somewhere. So nuanced in flavor, the maitake mushrooms are perfectly cooked and marry perfectly with the tiny sardines.

Diced Noto pork cooked in Kagabocha tea

The diced Noto pork is cooked in Kagabocha tea and is served on exquisite aquamarine lacquerware. This is packed full of flavor, the meat is tender and fleshy, and the skin is brittle and avoids any chewiness. Maybe with this dish, I should have ordered some rice to just tone down its intensity. Otherwise, it is absolutely delicious. We finish with fresh figs and cream cheese. The latter is served as a rabbit for reasons I never enquire about.

This is a restaurant where wine does not seem an ideal match, so Japanese sake is ordered. In hindsight, this was the night when my appreciation of sake clicked. If someone had offered a Montrachet, then I would have waved them away. The menu provides useful information on the variety of sake wines and the temperature at which they are served. The top of the page reads: “We have some hidden sake. Please ask the staff.”

I ask.

The SEVEN Shinsen Junmai Gingo Nama from the Higashi Shuzo Sake Brewery, founded in 1860 in Ishikawa, is so called because Yusuke Higashi is the seventh owner. Sales are limited to just seven stores. It is released in July, and seven is a lucky number in Japan. Served cold, this sake is all about purity of taste with no obvious flavors that leap out at you. It is equivalent to some of the neutral, low-intervention wines that I encounter in South Africa. There is a subtle resinous scent on the nose, perhaps a distant note of mountain pine. The palate is exquisitely balanced, fresh and slightly oily in texture. It is a perfect foil for the sashimi, cleansing the mouth with each sip.

Two of the “hidden sake” bottles posing with the ornate glassware in which it was served.

Now for two of the “hidden sake” offered by the owner, to which I say, arigato gozaimasu.

The Kachikoma Junmai Nama was the first limited sake bottling from the Kiyoto Sake Brewery in Takaoka City in the Toyama Prefecture, founded in 1897 and registered as a cultural property in 2000. Production is limited because this sake is handmade by just five brewers from Gohyakumangoku rice, which is 50% polished. Served cold, the bouquet is complex with hints of dried banana skin and Anjou pear. Like the SEVEN sake, the palate is all about umami sensation, fresh and lively but with real depth, just a very slight bitterness imparting tension on the oily-textured finish. The Haneya Shine Limited Namagenshu comes from the Fumigiku Sake Brewery in Toyama, founded in 1916, using water from the Joganji River that flows from the 3,000-meter mountains. Again, this is an artisan operation. Slightly more aromatic on the nose, there was a hint of rosewater and yellow fruit. The palate is slightly more viscous in texture yet with ample freshness and weight on the finish. It’s all about the umami, and it is absolutely delicious.

Gyo-kaijin encapsulates everything life-affirming about Japan’s dining scene. It is inexpensive, has impeccable service, a lively ambiance and, most of all, a standard of cuisine that you have to eat to believe. It was a serendipitous discovery, but knowing Japan as I do, I recognize that there were probably half a dozen other establishments lurking around the corner that would blow my mind and my tastebuds in a similar fashion.

Next time.

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