In August we flew Japan for lunch at Yanagiya, considered by many to be the best restaurant in the world. To eat here, we had to fly to the city of Nagoya in central Japan. Then we stayed overnight at a hotel in Nagoya to take a local train to a small town in Gifu Prefecture the next day.
We finally reached the sleepy train station of Mizunami, where a van was waiting to take us on a half-hour drive through rice fields and narrow streets for lunch at a farmhouse on top of a hill.
LUNCH IN AT YANAGIYA
The object of our herculean efforts just to eat good food was tucked away so deeply in the Japanese countryside that it looks like just another village house. Yet it isn’t.
For years now, in spite of its location in the middle of nowhere and its rather formidable price tag for a meal, Yanagiya has been the top restaurant in Japan.
This is according to a well-respected interactive dining website called Tabelog that is participated in and followed by serious food enthusiasts.
Thus, by default, many gourmet call this the best restaurant in the world since Japan is considered to have the most stringent dining standards on the planet.
THE BEST RESTAURANT IN THE WORLD
Arriving with great expectations, we took our shoes off and followed a lady in a yukata — the traditional summer dress in Japan — into one of the private tatami rooms where seating for four is set up around an open-fire pit.
Yanagiya may look disarmingly simple at first glance. However the family that runs it certainly knows how to create impact.
This may partly explain how a seemingly ordinary country restaurant in a village few people have ever heard of has managed to create a buzz on the international stage. Even Rene Redzepi of Noma fame has done the long trek to this holy grail of dining.
Meanwhile, foreign foodies continue to despair over the difficulty of getting reservations as the restaurant rarely takes calls. It even more rarely accepts new customers without an introduction. So all this elusiveness, combined with an artfully created artless meal, has resulted in world fame.
BARBECUE TO REMEMBER
The irori is the Japanese term for an open-fire sand pit. Here, eight river fish on sticks, coated with salt so that they resembled cast iron, were staked into the ground like installation art at a modern museum. This provided an interesting contrast as farmhouses with irori are well-loved symbols of old Japan.
Then the youngest son of the family came in to begin cooking our meal — or rather, curating our experience.
“My grandfather started our restaurant business,” he said, not looking up and all the while expertly turning the fish so that these all cooked equally. “But it was my father who began the irori tradition. One of our customers at a local bank suggested this to him.”
HOW TO EAT THE JAPANESE RIVER FISH AYU
The Japanese river fish called ayu was grilled perfectly. A summer delicacy, it’s dipped in a pungent sauce of herbs and vinegar and then eaten from head down.
In line with the wabi sabi philosophy of Japan, the taste of ayu is so subtle that many locals actually expect foreign diners to miss its merits. However our band of hardy diners enjoyed every morsel. That day, we were served ayu in three ways including deep-fried ayu in a tempura batter. Everything was delicious.
WHERE TO EAT GAME MEAT IN JAPAN
However, the piece de resistance is grilled game, which Yanagiya is famous for. Yanagiya sources its wild meat from the forests and mountains of Gifu.
Furthermore, it only purchases the remains of animals that have been killed cleanly. This means focusing only on those that have been shot in the head so that the blood of wounds does not spill over and taint the natural flavour of the meat.
The results of this targeted choice should not be underestimated because the game meat we were served was the very best we have ever eaten. There was no aftertaste. In fact, the meat was way better than beef.
It was summer when we visited so the game was limited to wild boar and venison. These are the perfect options for novice game aficionados like myself. I ate everything and I could even have ordered another round of the venison because it was that good.
ICE CREAM FOR DESSERT
However, everything operates like clockwork at Yanagiya. There is no room for error, change or extra orders of what is in essence a barbecue. So the meal ended at exactly 3 PM. This is when the Yanagiya family assembles outside to wave everyone off and the van takes diners back to the train station.
Interestingly, Yanagiya didn’t serve a proper dessert save for some kind of small sweet at the end. So everyone headed straight for the mini-grocery at the train station to buy a US$1 ice cream to cap three hours of salty, flavourful and wonderful at the best restaurant in the world.