WHERE TO EAT: Umu — The First Michelin-Starred Kyoto Kaiseki Restaurant In London
Umu is a wooden-fronted restaurant half-way down Bruton Place in Mayfair, with the kind of sleek, signless exterior that is clearly not in the business of appealing to passing trade.
With two Michelin stars already under his belt for Umu, owner and head chef Yoshinori Ishii is now a master in the art of kaiseki cuisine. Originally presented to the royal noble classes, a kaiseki dinner today follows these ancient traditions, serving up to 12 courses of Japanese cuisine and ensuring that the entire experience embodies the concept of ‘omotenashi’, which means generous hospitality.
This is because the central tenet of kaiseki is to convey respect, which means Ishii aims to not only produce a tasting menu of the highest-possible quality, but to make guests feel cherished and relaxed.
For Ishii, the quality of the glasses, plates, bowls, chopsticks and spoons used in his restaurant are central to this quest. In a nine-course meal held during London Craft Week, he wanted to celebrate the exquisite craftsmanship of his countrymen, and allow his guests to focus on the sensual experience that occurs when eating his Michelin-starred food on plates that look like art and drinking saké out of ornate glasses that could be jewellery.
“I believe every aspect of a kaiseki meal must feel like art and give pure pleasure because there is beauty everywhere you look,” he says. “The finest kaiseki meals are an expression of both time and place, and that is what I have tried to encapsulate here. I wanted to speak to you without too many words.”
The evening began when a large wooden box was placed on the table. Reminiscent of a scene from Alice in Wonderland, inside there were 20 glistening multi-coloured glasses from Horiguchi Kiriko, made by Toru Horiguchi. Some represent love, others represent youth or bravery but all were hand crafted from thin delicate glass that had been cut, polished and refined to the highest degree. We each picked one and a shot of perfectly chilled saké was poured inside.
Once the meal began, the nine courses were served on a variety of plates. Some were glass slabs whittled down by Toru Horiguchi with hidden messages appearing as the Portuguese red pawns on tosazu jelly or the Cornish white fish usuzukuri were slowly removed.
Most of the other plates were made by Kazuya Ishida, an artist born in Bizen, a Japanese city famous for its ceramics. Renowned for the sculpture-like pottery he produces in his noborigama and anagama wood-fired kilns, his work is highly individual. On his raw, exposed plates, we ate grilled quail with kasu saké egg and homemade tofu purée with morel mushrooms. There was one exception only, the akadasku miso soup, which Ishii served to us in ornate, black-and-gold-painted bowls from his personal collection that date back 400 years.
It was an exceptional evening, with guests including some of the most distinguished members of the Japanese community in London, writers, art collectors and the designers themselves, and conversation should have been flowing. But as we finished our ninth and final course of strawberries with sakura mousse on a plate decorated with wild flowers and washed down with sparkling saké in delicate 100-year-old glasses, the table was struck into silence by the dedication we had witnessed.
“Kaiseki chefs strive for excellence in every detail,” says Ishii. “Because it is through the details we can tell our story.” And in a small restaurant in Mayfair, we realised just how rich and beautiful Ishii’s narrative was.
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