If you want weird-and-wonderful dining experiences, go to Japan. And double-Michelin-starred Osaka restaurant Hajime will not disappoint on this front.
Like all good restaurants, Hajime understates its excellence. It is easy to walk past without noticing the unremarkable white-glass doors on a quiet precinct of Edobori. The small-printed black-and-white sign ‘Hajime Yoneda’ is only visible when standing a foot away.
But once you enter, the renowned Japanese hospitality is in full throng. Lining up to meet us at the door and politely nodding and bowing is what appears to be the entire kitchen staff, as well as the quixotic chef Hajime Yoneda.
Just a handful of tables run in regimented lines against the minimalist, dramatic decor. Spot-lit white tablecloths offset dark mahogany walls inset with plain-gold panelling. A single vase of exotic flowers is the room’s only splash of colour.
Yes, this was a truly Japanese experience, including the formalities. As we sit down to begin Hajime’s famous 14-course tasting menu (priced at an eye-watering JPY32,400 — US$316 each — with an extra JPY25,200 for the wine-pairing course) we are politely asked not to take photos of the food. To a happy-snapping Instagram addict this seems a terrible shame. Why not? So that the food doesn’t get cold. What about the cold courses (which make up at least half of the menu)? Cue Buddha-like smile and polite, yet firm, shake of head.
Then there is the chef. Yoneda is a design engineer by trade, having graduated from Kinki University’s Faculty of Design and Engineering. He says he worked as an engineer in order to pursue his dream to put himself through culinary school in Osaka. But it was his stint in France that taught him how to cook like a wizard, as well as his three years spent under the tutelage of Michel Bras at Toya in Hokkaido.
At Hajime, expect French-style food executed with Japanese meticulousness, with a lesson in spirituality thrown in. Elevating food to a metaphysical experience that surpasses the boundaries of common consumption, Yoneda offers a short lecture on his own Darwinian theory.
“When apes began to not only eat, but cook their food, their brain was simultaneously developing into becoming human beings,” he says. “The brain is stimulated when man eats warm food. Gastronomy is fundamental to intra-terrestrial life — it has more power than we think.”
Yoneda’s lofty planes of thought penetrate his menu. “I read various kinds of books every day and therefore talk about non-chef-like things,” he explains. His tasting menu this year is called chikyu tono taiwa (dialogue with the Earth), with courses including mori (forest), seimei (life), iso (rocky coast) and the final course fuyu (winter).
His signature dish is chikyu, a sharing dish, which, he explains, represents planet Earth. The 60cm arita-yaki earthenware plate arrives as the pièce de résistance. Using 110 different vegetables, grains and herbs precisely arranged around a sweep of shellfish foam, this huge plate is breath-taking in its vivid colour and beauty. Ingredients range from chrysanthemum to okra, from lotus root to purple sweet potato, cooked in numerous ways.
“This dish, which joins the minerals of the Earth and the sea, makes us feel that we are also part of the natural providence and could be seen as a message from the Earth to human beings,” he explains when he pops out of the kitchen for a chat.
Each course is a masterpiece and so it is no surprise when we learn that chef Yoneda is an artist in his spare time. He puts so much effort into preparing and arranging each course that he can only open at lunch or dinner, but not both. His staff work so hard that he lets them take a nap on the dining tables if there are no customers around.
Other standout dishes include ‘sky’: a ruby-red sliver of duck representing a setting sun, against which a flock of tiny birds made out of black garlic are flapping. Then there is ‘destruction and assimilation’, which is a roll of foie gras terrine with nuts and pumpkin puree; and ‘mother earth’, which consists of gorgeous pink lamb juxtaposed with colour-popping green oseille and pomegranate.
Forty-two-year-old chef Yoneda is just back from a trip to Singapore for Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2014, where he ranked 42nd, a downgrade on the previous year’s position of 21st. Last year, he also lost one of his Michelin stars, leaving him with two. But Yoneda says he is not disheartened.
“There is a different set of values between Michelin and Hajime. Michelin prefers stable. We’re continuing [with] innovative challenges. We concentrate on sending the best emotional experience in the world to the guests, therefore, it is okay if our guests make the judgement.”
Go. Judge. Be amazed. But leave the camera at home.