One hot summer day, we traveled thousands of kilometer for a barbecue to remember at Yanagiya. We flew to the city of Nagoya in central Japan and stayed overnight, to take a local train for one hour to a small town in Gifu Prefecture. Here, a van waited to take us on a half-hour drive through rice fields and narrow streets for lunch at a farmhouse on top of a hill.
Yanagiya is a restaurant so deeply in the Japanese countryside that it looks like just another village house. Yet it isn’t.
ROAD TO FAME
For years now, in spite of its location and its rather formidable price tag, Yanagiya is the top restaurant in Japan, according to Tabelog, a well-respected dining website followed by serious food enthusiasts. Thus, many call this the best restaurant in the world since Japan has the most stringent dining standards on the planet.
Arriving with great expectations, we took our shoes off. And then we followed a lady in a yukata into one of the private tatami rooms where a seating for four is set up around an open-fire pit.
SIMPLE IS HARD WORK
Yanagiya may look disarmingly simple at first glance. But the family that runs it knows how to create impact; and this may partly explain how a seemingly ordinary country restaurant created a buzz on the international stage. Even Rene Redzepi of Noma has done the long trek to this holy grail of dining.
Meanwhile, foreign foodies continue to despair over the difficulty of getting reservations; the restaurant rarely takes calls, and even more rarely accepts new customers without an introduction. All this elusiveness, combined with an artfully created artless meal, has resulted in world fame.
BARBECUE TO REMEMBER
So in the irori (an open-fire sand pit), they coated eight river fish on sticks with salt, then staked it into the ground. This provided an interesting contrast as farmhouses with irori are symbols of old world 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.”
THE ART OF APPRECIATION
The river fish, a Japanese favorite called ayu, was grilled perfectly. This summer delicacy includes a pungent sauce of herbs and vinegar and then eaten from head down.
In line with Japan’s wabi sabi philosophy, the taste of ayu is so subtle that many locals expect foreign diners to miss its merits; but our band of hardy diners enjoyed every morsel. That day, we ate ayu in three ways including deep-fried in a tempura batter. Everything was delicious.
NATURE IN FRONT OF US
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. They only purchase the remains of animals that have been killed cleanly. This means focusing only on those shot in the head so that the blood of wounds does not spill over and taint the natural flavor of the meat.
Don’t underestimate the results of this choice; the game meat we ate was the very best. There was no aftertaste; in fact, the meat was way better than beef.
It was summer when we visited so the game was mostly wild boar and venison, which are 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.
SEAMLESS MEAL, HAPPY ENDING
However, everything operates like clockwork at Yanagiya, leaving no room for error, change, or extra orders. So the meal ended at exactly 3 PM, which is when the entrepreneurial 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, flavorful, and wonderful at the best restaurant in the world.