Fermented tofu with the tangy redolence of blue cheese; generous cubes of rich, fatty pork; crunchy clusters of seaweed shaped like miniature bunches of grapes. The forthright flavors of subtropical Okinawa in the far south of Japan are, like its climate and culture, very different from those in the rest of the country.
Given the geography, this is hardly surprising. Okinawa lies as close to Shanghai as it does to the Japanese heartland. The food is exotic, almost foreign, far from the understated elegance of Kyoto and its elaborate kaiseki cuisine. And yet these two worlds are brought together seamlessly on the table at Akasaka Tantei.
The meal opens with a fanfare: A large black lacquered box showcasing numerous colorful tidbits from both sea and land. There are a dozen morsels or more, prepared in a range of contrasting styles—some raw, others grilled, yet others deep-fried or simmered.
The exact composition will change according to the season, but one dish that is ever-present is jimami-dofu (peanut “tofu”), a white sphere with the smooth texture of tofu but an undertaste of creamed peanuts. Simple but refreshing, this is one of the classic recipes of Okinawa.
There will also be a small saucer of mozuku, a delicate seaweed that grows profusely in the southern ocean, here served in a gently vinegared sauce. And without fail, there will be some crescent-shaped slices of goya, a dark-green gourd that amply deserves its English translation as “bitter melon."
The next course is a clear soup featuring fine shreds of daikon, runner beans and kabocha squash, in a light but fragrant dashi soup stock prepared from konbu kelp. Although this seaweed grows off northern Japan, it has been part of Okinawa's famously healthy diet for centuries, thanks to its position on the ancient trading routes to and from the Continent.
“In Okinawa,” the old saying goes, “every part of the pig is eaten except the oink.” Making a virtue of frugality, the islanders eat nose-to-tail and ear-to-trotter. But the main dish at Tantei is a more luxurious cut: rafutei, cubes of glazed pork belly that have been simmered slowly until meltingly soft.
Because much of the fat is carefully skimmed off during the cooking process, the meat is rich and satisfying, yet light on the palate.
After a serving of rice...
…the meal closes with a slice of cheesecake made with a layer of ta-imo, a yam that is an island staple. It's a non-traditional touch that encapsulates the cuisine at Tantei. Modern but respectful of tradition, based on exotic ingredients but prepared with finesse, this is contemporary kaiseki with a flavor all its own.
Instead of a single open dining room, Tantei serves its kaiseki in individual rooms which open off a central corridor decorated in wood and coarse plaster, to evoke a rustic Okinawan tea house.
From the outside, Tantei looks unremarkable, identifiable only by a plain illuminated nameplate, a small lantern and a driftwood arrangement by the entrance...
And, if you look very carefully, an ancient urn and an Okinawan shisa guardian lion.
Akasaka Tantei is the only kaiseki restaurant in Tokyo -- or anywhere (to my knowledge) -- that incorporates Okinawan foods and recipes.
The full version of this text ran in the current (August) issue of Skyward, the JAL seatback magazine.