Few restaurants manage to combine a sense of humour with outstanding cooking. Den in Tokyo’s Jimbocho is one of them. Zaiyu Hasegawa’s food is some of the most idiosyncratic in the entire city.
As hyped as the restaurant is, there is more to Den than “just” the food. From the moment you walk in, the warm and welcoming service makes sure you feel comfortable, and sets the mood for the meal to come. Such service is unusual in Japan, where you certainly have perfect, professional service at most top restaurants, but rarely find service that is this warm and friendly.
This very personal approach to welcoming guests also informs the food at Den, which is full of humour, and surprise. It feels effortless, and almost non-chalant. And yet, it is some of the most remarkable food to be had in Tokyo right now. Hasegawa’s cuisine is based on fine produce that is served in an engaging manner.
A most emblematic dish is a vegetable salad. Grown by the chef’s sister the greens are of a quality that you will hardly ever see elsewhere. The tomatoes for instance are astonishingly deeply flavoured, and sweet. Recently, an ant has been added to the plate, as an hommage to some of Hasegawa’s colleagues, but this is perhaps the only concession made to outside influences.
Apart from using exemplary produce, and being masterfully seasoned and cooked, this salad also introduces the humoristic element that makes eating at Den so much fun: a little piece of carrot is shaped like a smiley that looks up to you as you eat!
Another dish that makes Den so special is the rice course. It might be served with Kuroge Wagyu that has been prepared in a very particular manner. The result is a piece of meltingly tender, richly flavoured beef that clearly shows nuances of the miso that Hasegawa uses in its preparation. Eaten with the rice, this is as addictive and comforting as Kaiseki cuisine can be.
But it is the first dish served that encapsulates what Den is all about: a monaka, a very common Japanese sweet is served with the restaurant’s name on the packaging. Instead of the more common azuki bean filling for this snack, this particular monaka is filled with foie gras, persimmon and smoked radish pickle. The result is a perfectly judged mix of textures and flavours.
Den is a veritable Gesamtkunstwerk. It is a restaurant that manages to make Kaiseki cuisine accessible, fun, and engaging without ever loosing sight of the respect for the product, and rigorous technique that form its base. This combination is fascinating, and makes a visit to Den obligatory for anyone visiting Tokyo.