Many of Japan’s best restaurants are not listed in guidebooks; my favorite local restaurant is ichigen-san okotowari style, which translates as “no first time customers”
– someone has to introduce you to the restaurant before you can eat there. If I write about the place, I’ll be banned, but I can bring you personally. This means that many of the best dining experiences in Japan are not in the Michelin guide, because they chose not to be. This time, I venture slightly outside Hiroshima for Japanese haute cuisine along the seaside, on the way to Miyajima, at a place that you won’t find in the guidebooks.
A ryotei is a restaurant specializing in kaiseki-ryori, without being attached to an inn (ryokan). Kaiseki is generally considered the pinnacle of Japanese cuisine, and as such I was apprehensive about my meal at Jigozen. Some people like formal dining; I like fine dining. There is a difference, and often kaiseki falls on the formal side, and the ritual of it leads me to not appreciate the flavors of the meal. To my great relief, Jigozen has little pretense and a lot of flavor.
Jigozen is where I would celebrate a milestone birthday, where I would bring visiting relatives who want “real” Japan, and where I would impress my mother in law or a business partner. It’s also where I would bring my five year old and her friend’s family visiting from Tokyo without fear of disturbing other diners. About half of Jigozen’s dining areas are beautiful private rooms, where kaiseki course menus are served in a refined yet relaxed fashion. The other dining rooms are beautiful, especially for lunch, but even so, try the one of the tatami mat rooms.
Shortly after we had gotten accustomed to our room and looked over the guide to our pre-planned nine-course meal, our host, Ms. Naito, returned to take our drink orders. She was able to efficiently recommend both alcoholic and non alcoholic drinks that paired with our meal perfectly. And then we were alone again.
Kaiseki meals come in a set pattern and generally reflect the seasonal foods of the region, as well as give the chef the opportunity to blend Heian-period imperial court cuisine, Muromachi-period samurai cuisine, Kamakura-period Buddhist cuisine, and 15th-century tea ceremony cuisine — all of which Jigozen does as well. Yet Jigozen’s chef, a Hiroshima native, does this with a playfulness and sense of humor that relieves any tension that the diner might have when eating what could be an otherwise pretentious and stiff meal. Every course brings a new surprise and experience, stimulating the senses and the conversation. Halfway through our meal, the room went dark. Just as we were wondering what had happened, the door slid open and, much to our delight, the next course, designed to look like a small village, was presented with candles incorporated into the fare itself.
Meals here are ever changing, as Jigozen has a new menu monthly, which can be, depending on the availability of certain special items, updated weekly.
Our meal was decidedly autumn themed and featured Hiroshima’s local ingredients, ranging from a steamed soup presented in earthenware pottery with some of the best Matsutake mushrooms I’ve ever had, beautifully presented sashimi, bonito tuna slow cooked all day in dried wara grass, the yakimono course with its fish grilled over cedar planks at our table, and an amazing taro stuffed with a yuzu flavored miso beef.
I could go on about the food, but it will be different when you go, and you should go, and when you do, bring a Japanese speaking friend. Jigozen is a restaurant where you could do alright with minimal Japanese: There is an English language web page, and they will undoubtedly do their best to make you feel welcome. However there are stories behind the different courses and explanations of why the chef is using certain ingredients, and even suggestions of the order in which to eat certain items to have the best balances of acidic, sweet, and savory. The interaction with our host was an essential part of the meal, as she guided us through the meal, answered our questions, pointed out the views outside, and entertained us with various anecdotes related to the local foods, kaiseki traditions, and insights to the chef’s choices and techniques.
When the meal came to its conclusion, we were not rushed out but rather offered more tea and a tour of the lovely grounds and various salons and dining areas, each with a different theme. And when we finally left, of course Ms. Naito accompanied us to the gate at the parking lot, seeing us off personally and waiting there until we were safely on our way, much like when you visit a Japanese home.
The combination of service, food and atmosphere, compels me to recommend Jigozen, even over several local Michelin starred establishments.
Tranquil, private, sophisticated and relaxed. There are larger dining rooms for lunch and parties; however the true experience is in the private dining rooms. Surprisingly kid friendly, without fear of being interrupted or interrupting others.
Whatever the mood of your party, within your room; quiet elsewhere.
The Kaiseki-ryori set courses. There are three options, at the following price points per person: the Seto at ¥6480, the Itsukushima at ¥8640, and the Misen at ¥10,800. These prices include tax, but not beverage. We had the Itsukushima course.
Drinks and Wine
An excellent selection of sake to compliment your meal, also other wines, spirits, beer, and soft drinks.
Lunch: 11:00-15:00 (Last order at 14:00)
Dinner: 17:00-22:00 (Last order at 20:30)
Open year-round (excluding year-end and new year holidays). Reservations are required.
Street level, no major obstacles or stairs. There is a step to the tatami rooms.
What the Moons Mean
Ratings range from zero to five moons. One moon is awful or some major problem. Two moons, satisfactory, but not worth a long trip. Three moons, very good, worth making an effort to eat there. Four moons, excellent, well worth making reservations far in advance. Five moons, life changing.
Ryotei Jigozen 鄙の料亭 地御前
Address: 5-19-14 Jigozen, Hatsukaichi-shi, Hiroshima
Address in Japanese: 738-0042 広島県廿日市市地御前5-19-14
(less than one kilometer from Jigozen Hiroden station on the Miyajima line)
URL: http://www.v-style.co.jp/shop/ryotei/jigozen_en/ [en]