JAPANESE fine dining strives to find harmony with nature. This involves everything from the tableware and restaurant décor to the choice of ingredients and menu.
Upscale Japanese restaurants generally feature quiet and peaceful surroundings. Warm décors and soft lighting are designed to have a calming effect on diners.
Black shiny stones, trickling water fountains and bamboo are popular decorations, narrowing the distance between diners living in a big city and nature.
Many top restaurants exclusively serve kaiseki, a sophisticated set menu featuring light flavors and small portions that originated in Japanese temples. The meal involves anywhere between seven and 11 dishes. Each course features small portions served over several hours.
Generally, the set starts with an appetizer, usually pickles, and then followed by a soup and sashimi. The heart of the meal provides grilled, stewed, and deep fried (mostly tempura) dishes. A traditional salad with vinegar dressing comes next to cleanse the palate.
Staples like rice, sushi or noodles — depending on the season — indicate the meal is almost over. A dessert like red bean soup, mocha cake or black sesame ice cream rounds out the dinner.
The order of dishes is important. They are designed to complement flavor transitions and bring more health benefits. Soup is served early to warm the stomach. Salad comes after tempura and before the staple food to cleanse the palate and open the appetite.
Some chefs will change the menu seasonally while others may do it weekly or monthly. Most Japanese chefs believe in using the freshest ingredients since they not only taste better, but also lead to better balance with nature.
The selection of tableware is often based on the season. Glass plates and bowls are used in summer to highlight the freshness of the food.
Pottery helps keep foods warm in the winter. Porcelain is used in both spring and autumn, however, the patterns will change depending on the flowers in season.
As for food presentation, chefs like to highlight bright colors when the weather is warm while maximizing rich and dark colors on cold days.
Japan’s respect for nature explains why most of its foods are light and mild. Chefs tend to use simple cooking techniques and less seasoning to maintain the original flavor of produce, of which their use of raw fish and seafood is perhaps the best example.
Even when grilling food, Japanese chefs tend to tread lightly, using a few drips of lemon juice or pinches of salt.
Here are five upscale Japanese restaurants in hotels — four in Shanghai and the other in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province.
Okura Garden Hotel Shanghai
The restaurant opened by Okura, one of Japan’s most famous hospitality brands, has been popular in Shanghai for more than 10 years.
The restaurant’s philosophy emphasizes simplicity to highlight the natural beauty of the best ingredients. Kaiseki, tempura and Japanese hotpot are popular. The black Wagyu beef boiled in homemade sauce is a winner. The grilled cod, marinated in miso sauce, is juicy and creamy. The latest menu addition is sea bream steamed with vegetables and served with a tart ponzu sauce.
Next month’s set menu features tuna. Try the tuna sashimi, have it boiled in sauce or go for the deep-fried option.
The restaurant probably serves the best tempura in Shanghai, crispy and flavorful, yet light and fluffy. Inagiku’s chef says the distinctive taste is because they deep fry the vegetables in an oil made from Nagano white sesame.
A traditional pressing and filtering method is known as tamashibori to make the oil.
The teppanyaki and sashimi creations are worth trying since premium ingredients are sourced globally, especially Wagyu beef from Australia and various fish from Ehime, Japan.
The lunch bento box is also recommended. It features fresh salmon, sweet shrimp and scallops. A good selection of sake and tea complements the food.
Inagiku is a historical restaurant brand that began as a small tempura house in Hamamachi in 1866. It gained worldwide fame after its opened at Waldorf Astoria New York in 1973, its first restaurant outside Japan.
Its Shanghai branch features classic Japanese minimalism with separate sushi and teppanyaki bars. Diners can watch chefs in action.
Opening hours: Daily, 11:30am-2:30pm, 5:30-10pm
Address: 2/F, 555 Xizang Rd M.
Shanghai Marriott Hotel Changfeng Park
Sakitori has long been delivering exquisite dining with the essence of contemporary Japanese cuisine. As the name suggests, it is all about Japanese charcoal grilling and you can find more than 20 kinds of sake representing different areas in Japan.
A 10-meter-long grill runs down the center of the restaurant, where traditional Japanese food gets a modern touch.
More than 30 foods including meat, seafood and vegetables are available for grilling.
The dobin-mushi seafood soup is a seasonal delight enhanced by matsutake mushrooms. Also try the grilled beef and vegetable kebab.
Sakitori uses grain-fed Wagyu beef from Australia. The meat is juicy with just the right amount of fat while the vegetable adds a wonderful crunchy texture.
Kaiseki is the highlight at Hanano this month. Guest chef Yoshiyasu Uehara is known for his modern kaiseki sets that combine authentic Japanese flavors with a Western food presentation. The kaiseki set menu is available until July.
Next month a special menu featuring tuna will be available. Every Saturday evening, Uehara will demonstrate his fine cutting skills, carving a tuna from head to tail. Only 20 seats are available and reservations are required.
Fresh assorted sashimi, including sea bream, sea bass, salmon, yellow tail, tuna and cuttlefish, is another highlight at Hanano.
Opening hours: Daily, 11:30am-2:30pm, 5:30-10pm
Tel: 6275-8888 ext 4920
Address: 2/F, 5 Zunyi Rd S.
The Westin Ningbo
The restaurant featuring modern décor has a teppanyaki counter and a long sushi bar. Grilled Wagyu beef, chicken, vegetables and seafood prove popular. Unagi sushi and California rolls are two other highlights.
Mai’s signature dinner set is Japanese beef teppanyaki. It includes sashimi, prawn, fried vegetables, miso soup, pickles, rice and most importantly, beef imported from Tokyo.
Opening hours: 11am-2pm, 5-9:30pm
Tel: (574) 8910-8888 ext 6972
Address: 2/F, 75 Rixin Street, Haishu District, Ningbo, Zhejiang Province