Something magical happens when you sit down to dine with Takashi Miyazaki. It happened the first time I visited his eponymous restaurant, Miyazaki, on my birthday a couple of years ago, and it happened again last week when we sat at the Kappou counter of his new fine-dining restaurant ichigo ichie.
For me, this is what happens: first, the excitement. The thought of trying something that is a genuinely new experience. Secondly, the fear. The fear of chopsticks specifically, for nature saw it fit to provide me with thumbs that are worse than useless and render me unable to ever use chopsticks correctly.
Thirdly, you are transported. Just as I forgot where I was the first time I ate at Miyazaki, the meditation of noodles, broth and contemplative music sending me off far beyond the boundaries of Cork, so yet again within the cocoon of ichigo ichie, somewhere around the eighth course, did I notice I had transcended any physical place. Was I in Cork? I think so. But yet again I could have as easily been in Tokyo, Okinawa, London, New York…
The point is that when Takashi is crafting food into art for us to eat, he has the ability to transport from what you thought you knew, what you thought food could be, in a way so gentle that you barely even notice it is happening.
But let me take you back to the beginning…
The excitement when word began to spread that Takashi was opening a fine dining Japanese restaurant in Cork was beyond palpable. When people spoke about it there was a frisson of electricity, a glint in the eye of anticipation, chatter thinly disguised as wanton gossip: Any news of when it is opening? When is the website going live? Have you seen the space? Have you spoken to Takashi about it at all? In all my years, never have I experienced a tautly strung eagerness around a restaurant opening as this one.
Three weeks before the opening, the online booking went live and a block of initial dates for April, May, June and July were released. To say I went “in like Flynn” is an understatement. My husband, Mr Flavour, was barely awake, one eye open battling a hangover as I burst into the room like a rambunctious child, phone and credit card in hand shouting Friday or Saturday repeatedly at him until he finally asked me to shut up and explain myself. We settled on the Saturday, 6.30pm, for the Kappou style sitting. Booking made, I left Mr Flavour to collapse back into bed to repair the damage I had inflicted upon his hangover.
There are three options to choose from when dining at ichigo ichie. Miyabi Kappou – or at the counter, five seats reserved for an up-close and personal dining experience watching Takashi create the dishes on the menu. Nagomi “Harmony Dining” seating 12 and situated in the middle of the restaurant and finally, Zen “Japanese Garden” at the front of the restaurant in a cool calm space flanked by a garden of white gravel, an arrangement of large slate coloured stones, bamboo and candles.
The décor is classic Japanese with a modern edge. Dark charcoal grey against a stark white floor; the Kappou counter gleaming in smooth blonde wood and Takashi in his Japanese chef whites at the head of it all, in total effortless command.
After promptly knocking my chopsticks on the floor the moment we were walked to our seats, I decided I needed a drink to calm down. The drinks menu is illustrated by Takashi with dishes from the menu, an indication of how personal this restaurant is to him. I ordered a rather punchy Plum Sake which frankly was so delicious I ended up having, let us say, more than one.
The words ‘fine dining’ can conjure up thoughts of a staid and stiff experience firmly outside our comfort zone. But as soon as the dishes were presented to us, the sake flowed and the chat amongst the five Kappou diners started to liven up, it became obvious that the fine-dining element here was very much about the gastronomic experience and nothing at all to do with polished diner etiquette.
The menu is a Japanese tasting menu, known as Kaiseki, 12 courses in length and changing every six
weeks to reflect the seasonality of the Irish and Japanese ingredients on the menu. Although the words and descriptions may seem unfamiliar, the flow is as you would expect a tasting menu to be: a series of main courses and side dishes flanked by an amuse bouche, sushi, starter selection, broths, fish and dessert. There is a definite flow of flavours building from delicate to powerful, through hits of intense saltiness, sweetness and layers of heart thumping umami.
It would be utterly pointless of me to try and explain each dish to you: how it tasted, the textures and aromas, the beauty of the presentation. But what I can say is that this goes down as one of my all-time
favourite dining experiences. I say experience rather than meal because this is what ichigo ichie is and what
it does, for long after I have departed this restaurant what will remain are the indelible taste memories, laughing at the thought of Takashi walking around Douglas in the early hours of the morning collecting cherry blossom from the trees; admiring the carefully chosen pottery for each individual course, studying the Japanese calligraphy in Takashi’s own hand; even chatting with Ría about coffee and the space age toilet (you’ll know what I mean when you go there yourself!), and of course watching the Master himself at work.
The beauty of the Kappou counter is the proximity to the action. Somehow, Takashi must balance serving 25 people 12 courses of perfectly presented and flavoured food and chat to the five inquisitive diners at his counter. Watching Takashi work with his knife rhythmically slicing the squid into fine ribbons of noddles, or his movements almost tai chi like as he forms the sushi rice for the nigiri and then each plate served up to us with two hands, an almost imperceptible bow, a smile and a lightening quick description of the dish: These are the practiced motions of someone who is consummately familiar with his art. To acknowledge that this was only the restaurants second day is unfathomable, as everything is flowing with metronomic constancy.
It is hard to say with certainty what my favourite moments during the meal were as they were innumerate, but these few things have created taste memories that I will go back and relieve time and again:
- The mackerel nigiri
- The salted cherry blossom on top of the set asparagus curd
- The ginger and bonito dashi broth served with the daikon, castletownbere brown crab and mitsuba
- Those squid noodles with the quail egg yolk
- Soy milk, chocolate, mochi rice cake, mocha and Jameson cask whiskey
I asked Takashi if he was happy. For a brief moment he looked taken aback as if this was the first time being asked. But then a broad smile swept across his face, a deep exhalation of breath before saying that he was, very happy indeed.
ichigo ichie translates as “once in a lifetime” – an experience that diners may never have had before,
and may not experience again. And although my plan is that this visit will not be the only one I ever make, I know this: the next time I do go the menu will be sufficiently different that I will indeed have another once in a lifetime experience.
But more than what the diner experiences, I cannot help but feel as though ichigo ichie is as much about Takashi’s own story and journey: His own once in a lifetime experience in bringing his unique approach to gastronomy finally to life. A chef is one of our last true journeyman trades: A product of years of study and learning, travelling, building on failures and successes alike. Takashi Miyazaki has taken all of that, all of those years, and wrapped it up into a gift given to us.
Kaiseki menu is a set menu priced at €95pp. Drinks and gratuity are extras.by