Kozue: a pinnacle of Japanese food experiences

Let's say you're ready to splurge for a night out in Tokyo. Sure you can find great French, Italian and, oh, whatever kind of high cuisine. But no matter where you decide to go in Tokyo, there's always a feeling it's going to be a compromise. No matter how much you seem to spend, it's never going to be as good as what you could get in a first-class restaurant in France, Italy or, oh, wherever.

If you're going after a first-rate dining experience in Tokyo, the only way to make sure you're going to get the best available anywhere is to have a first-rate, no compromises meal of Japanese food. When you choose to seek out the high end in Japanese cuisine, you're assured that you've definitely come to the right place -- a meal like this just isn't available, at any price, outside of Japan.

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So where do you start, particularly if you don't read any Japanese, much less speak more than a few phrases of it? We've all heard the stories of the special restaurants that require a personal introduction, and probably even a financial audit. We also know those swank yet tasteful little places with largely undecipherable menus in handwritten script, sans prices. We even know those expensive sushi shops where you know the fish is top quality, but an endless parade of little balls of cold rice topped with cold fish just doesn't add up to a total dining experience.

While it may seem that the top end of Japanese cuisine is simply unavailable to those without the right connections and requisite language skills, Kozue Japanese restaurant in the Park Hyatt Hotel in outer West Shinjuku proves to be the exception to the rule.

What you'll find at Kozue is simply the best of the best. As part of the Park Hyatt Hotel, Kozue has the resources not available to most stand-alone restaurants in obtaining the best ingredients of the season throughout Japan. They seat nearly 80 diners, and do a fairly brisk business daily, so they have the clout to get the finest of the freshest fish, vegetables and meats available.

Moreover, the main menu is available in English, and prices are clearly indicated. Since the Park Hyatt is a world-class hotel (and considered among the finest in Tokyo), the well-trained staff can explain everything in English, and even discuss the food with you and make recommendations. The staff at Kozue are used to having foreign guests who are interested in the more esoteric kinds of Japanese food, so you'll never feel out of place, as is sometimes the case in those exclusive little places in Akasaka or Ginza, where the help has already decided that since you're a foreigner, you're going to have a really difficult time with out-of-the-ordinary Japanese food.

What helps push Kozue into the realm of special experiences, however, is the restaurant itself. Slabs of rich, amber wood make up the table, floor and walls, with a stained bamboo installation providing highlights and counterpoint. All tableware is one-of-a-kind earthenware pieces crafted by a group of some seventy noted artisans throughout Japan.

As if this wasn't enough, Kozue offers something that's a complete rarity among top-class Japanese restaurants - a breathtaking view. Located on the 40th floor looking west, Kozue affords an unobstructed view of western Tokyo, all the way to Mt. Fuji. Reserve a window table at dusk, and be prepared for a slowly changing view from the air as the silhouette of Japan's most famous mountain slowly melts into the night as a carpet of lights gradually emerges.

While the setting is breathtaking, the food somehow seems to surpass it. However, it is harder to describe since it's continually changing with the seasons. Chef Kenichiro Ooe overseas a crew of seasoned professionals, while creating unique executions of the best and freshest in both traditional and country-style Japanese dishes. He is also noted for his individualistic interpretation of kaiseki, a highly refined meal containing a great number of painstakingly prepared small dishes which traditionally accompanies the tea ceremony.

On a recent visit our group had an incredible assortment of melt-in-your-mouth sashimi, presented in a spectacular display of color. This was followed by fresh figs in a mild and savory sesame sauce with ginko nuts, making for exciting contrast not normally expected with Japanese food. Do I detect a remarkably restrained hint of California cuisine whimsy at work here?

For your meal, you have two ways to go. You can pore over the menu and decide upon a selection of separate dishes, then add the "gohan set" (rice, miso soup and Japanese pickles) to make it a complete meal. Or, you can avail yourself of one of the superbly assembled full-course dinners ranging from Y12,000 to Y20,000 per person. (During the daytime, full-course lunches begin at Y3,900.) Either way, you can rest assured you're not likely to have a better Japanese meal anywhere, and at least one meal at Kozue will certainly make your Japan experience a more complete one.

Kozue also boasts an impressive and well-chosen selection of high-end handcrafted sake, the drink of choice with this type of Japanese food. Special recommendations are the pleasingly dry Bijobu Junmai Ginjo from Kochi prefecture, the hearty Isojima Tokubetsu Honjozo from Shizuoka prefecture, and the highly aromatic Kozue Daiginjo made especially for the restaurant by a small sake brewer in Aomori prefecture.

Those who really must have at least one glass of beer when the sun goes down, and I definitely count myself in that group, will be pleased to know that Kozue serves Kamuy, a high-quality microbrew from Erimo Beer in Hokkaido. Kozue's relationship with Erimo has already resulted in a few special-order small batches of a yuzu ale and an apple lager, which have been seasonally offered at the restaurant. The remarkable thing about Kozue is that their attention to detail in bringing you the best also extends to beer, an attitude which is totally unexpected, but refreshingly welcome, from a serious Japanese restaurant.

While Kozue isn't the sort of place that most of us can afford to patronize with any regularity, it is a truly superb choice when your budget allows, or when you've lucked into entertaining a visitor to Tokyo who treats. All in all, no stay in Tokyo should be without at least one visit to a Japanese restaurant of this caliber. Why settle for having, say, one of the best French meals in Japan when you can have one of the best Japanese meals in the world?

Kozue is open daily for lunch (11:30-2:30) and dinner (5:30-10:00). Allow for about 20,000 yen per person for dinner, and about half that for lunch, although you can get by for less with careful ordering.

Kozue is on the 40th floor of the Park Hyatt Hotel, located on the outer edge of West Shinjuku near the corner of Koshu Kaido and Nishi Sando at 3-7-1-2 Nishi Shinjuku. Look for the building with three large towers. The front entrance to the hotel is on the street that runs along the south edge of Shinjuku Central Park, a block north of Koshu Kaido. Phone ahead for reservations at 5322-1234.

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Copyright (c) 1998 Bryan Harrell

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