I’m a foodie. I have a list on my phone that has tens of restaurants and dishes that I need to try. The Food Network is my go-to binge watch channel. I go out of my way to visit new hotspots in town the first weekend they open and often rally my friends to visit obscure locales in search of a picture perfect plate. And I even trek across the world to seek out inspiring food phenomenon. Tokyo, Japan (read my travel guide!) was no exception to my food obsession.
I initially wanted to go to this place called Shiba Tofuya Ukai located at the base of Tokyo Tower. We first arrived and were greeted by a line of servers in traditional Japanese kimonos at the front door—a signal to us that this place was not messing around and whatever we were getting ourselves into was about to be legit. One woman was appointed to us and led us inside through this peaceful, Japanese style garden. Although Shiba Tofuya Ukai can typically accommodate vegetarians, it was a preset menu that night and could not accommodate vegetarians (lesson learned: call ahead for a reservation). Nonetheless, the people was wildly accommodating and called ahead for a reservation for us down the street at a place called Daigo
In true traveler adventures, the maître d’ could speak English, but couldn’t write or read it. So he wrote the address to the new restaurant in Japanese and directed us to a general spot on Google Maps and sent us on our way. At this point in the night, we had been walking for hours through the city and hadn’t eaten since breakfast. We were approaching hangry and ready to sit down at the first place that had English menus. After a few wrong turns and more creative communication methods with non-English speaking locals on the street, we eventually found our destination and excitedly were escorted into the restaurant’s waiting room.
An elderly man in a simple hakama wrap greeted us and a woman in an elaborate kimono delivered us a menu. It had three tasting options on it at varying prices (15000-19000 Japanese yen). Since we were celebrating that night, we decided to go with the full 15 item course option. Go big or go home when Japan, right?
The restaurant was silent with no music and simple decorations. We sat there awkwardly in the waiting room for about 20 minutes, unclear of what we needed to do to get seated and worried that they were going to send us away because we didn’t have a real reservation.
Eventually, the woman return and escorted us to our table. We removed our shoes before entering the real section of the restaurant.
We were seated in a private dining room for four with sparse decorations. Everything was made of natural wood and bamboo with a large glass view into a garden. The hori-kotatsu table was low to the ground with a dropped floor that we could place our feet into.
For the next three hours, we sat in this room and were served 15 draw-dropping, artistically inspired courses served Kaiseki style. We drank sake and green tea, ate everything with chopsticks, and gradually overcame the initial cultural awkwardness that struck us when we first walked in (the sake probably helped with this).
Before each course, two servers would come in and clear our plates and introduce the ingredients in the next dish. Each plate varied in size from a few bites to a hearty bowl of soup with rice and mushrooms. Each plate was assembled with such intention and purpose as part of Buddhist tradition. Even the ceramic dishes coordinated with the food and elevated the entire tasting. If this was a round of Chopped, the chef would have won hands down on taste, presentation, and creativity.
Daigo’s mission is to stimulate each of the five senses with each bite. The room was brightly lit (especially compared to Western dinner dining standards) and there was no music. So with minimized distractions with each course you had no choice but to appreciate the full color of the dish, feel the different textures, smell the aromas, hear the sound of the food as you chewed, and taste with intention.
The meat eaters in the room were initially very hesitant about the whole ordeal because the first few courses were delicate bites of tofu (Daigo specializes in tofu preparation) and vegetables. They kept making jokes about going to Burger King afterwards. After a few courses we all acknowledged that we were getting full, and I furtively checked my phone to see how many courses were left, just to discover that we were barely halfway through!
This meal preparation is an art form that inspires so many restaurants in the US. I always read articles about some upscale restaurant in LA or New York that has 12 seats and costs $300 per person, and never really understood the draw until I experienced the most authentic version of the meal myself. The closest thing we have to this type of meal in Houston is at Oxheart. I went there a few years ago for my birthday and drooled over the creativity in the 5-course menu. After going to Daigo, I can’t wait to go back to this Houston favorite, but know that it likely will never top the once-in-a-lifetime experience that I had in Japan.
At the end of the meal, our two servers, the elderly man and woman accompanied us to the door. As we were putting on our shoes again, the chef, Yusuke Nomura, came out and thanked us for enjoying his meal. It was so sweet! I gained from our broken English conversation that Daigo has been open since the 1950s and the chef was the fourth generation son to work there and the other people who worked there were his family. We bowed awkwardly, profusely gave our thanks for the incredible meal and were then lead out through the garden by the small elderly man holding a lantern—yes, a LANTERN—once again confirming that this was the best meal I’ve ever had (and likely will ever have) in my entire life.
Where’s the best meal that you’ve ever eaten?