At the beginning of last month, chef Zaiyu Hasegawa celebrated the fifth anniverary of opening Jimbocho Den with a remarkable commemorative banquet.
It was a collaboration, together with his good friend Hiroyasu Kawate, held over two evenings at Kawate's brilliant little modern-French restaurant, Florilège in Aoyama. Both chefs have an inventive, irreverent approach to their respective cuisines. This meal was a chance for them to pool their creativity.
The evening actually started before we got inside: a box of dirt (below right) and much the same sign as you see outside Den (left below), except this one says: "Florilège is also cultivating moss. Attention!"
Our table was set with special anniversary tenugui towels.
Nobody knew quite what to expect — was it going to be Japanese or French or what? Basically it turned out to be like a longer, crazier version of a meal at Den — but in the plush, luxury of Florilège's bijou dining room it felt very different...
…while we perused the menu. Not that it was giving much away...
And then the action started. Beginning with...
Two glasses of hot broth: one white, the other red. A fragrant katsuo dashi; and a rich bouillon. Den meets Florilège.
2. "冷たい奴だな" (tsumetai yatsu dana) = A cold guy
Throughout, the menu was all basically word-play. Because what Hasegawa-san and Kawate-san like doing is food play. Dishes are not what they seem; traditional favorites are deconstructed or given a totally new twist.
In this case, the name is a riff on the kanji characters for hiya-yakko. And sure enough, instead of a standard tofu seasoned with shoyu, we were served a "tofu" made with ricotta; and the smoky-flavored sauce in the little fish dispenser was made from a "burnt" olive oil base.
3. "他人のそらに" (ta-nin no sorani) = An accidental resemblance
A cube resembling goma-dofu but made with sora-mame broad beans rather than sesame, then deep-fried firm on the outside, soft and creamy (and pale green) inside, with a tapenade-like sprinkle as the only seasoning...
4. "I'm only sleeping"
The customary colourful Den salad. But this one with a couple of very special extra features…
Such as the dirt sauce underneath — though there was as much truffle in it as earth, and the "soil" was mostly composted coffee grounds.
And what's that, sleeping in this floral bed of vegetables? An inago grasshopper, cooked down in sweetened shoyu, in tsukudani style — the way it's done traditionally up in the mountains. Savoury... crunchy!
And then there was a long, pink worm — thankfully, it too was sleeping... Which turned out to be a very realistic-looking pasta contribution from Kawate-san.
?. "Who are you? (bonus trick)"
One of the highlights of the evening, and it wasn't even given its own number... Two spoons of pâté — one made from iwashi sardine; the other from woodcock. Both with a similar texture, but totally different provenance. Especially, since we were invited to eat them blindfolded (the bonus trick)...
…and also a mini "burger" of the same iwashi, served on a patty of sushi rice.
5. "肝に銘じる" (kimo ni meijite) = Take to heart / deeply impressed
The word-play here, of course, is that kimo means liver. A tea ceremony sweet, served with a bowl of sencha green tea...
The composition of the outer layer, like the bird shape, was entirely traditional, made from lightly sweetened mochi rice flour...
But inside, instead of red-bean an... a generous block of foie gras.
Another traditional snack came with it: isobe-yaki. Normally this is grilled mochi, served warm and soft, slathered with sweetened soy sauce and wrapped in a sheet of nori. Except normally it does not contain a core of rich foie. Superb!
6. "ひさしぶり" (hisashiburi) = It's been a while
A play on the word "buri" — one of the names for yellowtail/amberjack. It was a wonderfully rich miso broth, featuring a slice of kan-buri (winter yellowtail).
On the side was another fine contribution from Kawate-san: handmade ribbon pasta topped with grated parmesan...
All that umami! We tipped it into the broth and slurped it up, like some kind of decadent crossover ramen.
7. "猪突妄進" (chototsu moushin??) = Reckless (??)
Someone will have to help me with the reading of that kanji phrase — and with the exact meaning (though it's something to do with recklessness). But it's all about the first character, which means "wild boar" or "hog". Cue a wonderful dish of grilled pork...
...which was accompanied by "Peking duck" style pork crackling. Outstanding.
8. "No rice No life"
Time for the rice course. We were offered a choice here: that good old home-cooking staple, omu-raisu (omelette wrapped around seasoned rice)...
… or chazuke, with fine-chopped pickled nozawa-na vegetables — served in those distinctive gold Florilège bowls.
9. "姉さんおつかれ!" (nēsan otsukare) = Thanks for the hard work, sister!
The first of several dessert courses, which (as always) were prepared by Den's talented souschef, Rei Mochizuki — the "sister" referred to in the name. This first bowl extended the "earth" theme: a tiramisu-style sesame cream sprinkled with coffee "dirt".
10. "Coke 2"
A new take on the classic Den "moss" dessert — and served (as always) on a trowel with a layer of that same "dirt". Sitting on a sheet of Japan Times newsprint (how did she know?). The moss on top was fine-ground pistachio, and the mascarpone inside was tinted the same colour.
And the name? It's nothing to do with cola. It's actually a variant way of spelling koke, which is the standard romanization of 苔, meaning moss. And it was the Mark II version of that dessert.
Around the same time we were also served a wooden masu (sake measure) containing parched soybeans — an allusion to the upcoming setsubun festival. No faces on these beans, though...
11. "Good luck"
As the final parting shot, a tray filled with mugi-chocolate (chocolate-covered puffed wheat). Straight out of the packet, nothing special there. Until we picked one of those strings...
...and found out if our final sweet was white or dark chocolate. Whichever it was, we were in luck.
What a feast it was. And didn't we have a great time! Almost as much fun as the two chefs.
Congratulations, Hasegawa-san! And big thanks, Kawate-san!