Kasuke: Japanese restaurant in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture

Reviewed by Lukas Kratochvil

Ordinarily this column focuses on Tokyo's culinary world, but a recent dining experience in the countryside was of such quality that I feel obliged to share it with you.

Kasuke is a restaurant located within a collection of beautifully designed villas making up the Hoshinoya Hotel complex in Karuizawa, a ski and hiking resort one train hour from Tokyo. Located in the midst of Karuizawa's lush greenery and lakes, Hoshinoya's main purpose is pure relaxation. To me, however, the main attraction was the food and sake.

Kasuke is a marvel of modern Japanese architecture built on a slope inside the main hotel building with tables located on five different levels all overlooking a Japanese garden. Despite the formal setting, dinner is a relaxed affair with diners invited to eat in their yukata, a summer kimono often worn at ryokan (traditional Japanese hotels).

We were served the main treat before a single morsel of food had passed our lips: the sake menu. Kasuke serves a wealth of rare sakes from all over Japan and a selection of unique local sakes. Sake tasting menus are available for the uninitiated, and the very knowledgeable and enthusiastic chef provides colourful explanations of each beverage.

While the best option is to request the restaurant to match a selection of sakes to individual courses, I recommend you also sample a rare aged local sake, the 1983 Miyamazakura. Smooth and elegant, this sake has an amazingly youthful and fresh flavour despite its age. For a sensational sake that is available throughout Japan, try the Kamoshibito Kuheiji junmai ginjo, a full-bodied, velvety sake with balanced sweetness and acidity and subtle citrus notes.

Swiftly moving on to the food, we started off with a consomm of venison and vegetables. I was struck by how wonderfully concentrated the venison flavour was. More of a winter warmer, this was nevertheless an impressive start.

I rarely go into raptures over a tofu dish, but the soramame (broad bean) tofu with wasabi leaves was special. Brimming with flavour and textured like pressed broad beans with milky tofu undertones, this was served in a salty soy-based sauce yielding a supreme harmony of flavors and textures - quite simply divine.

After a good but unexceptional starter of asparagus, egg yolk and vinegar sauce and pureed asparagus, we were served a soup of winter melon, eel, young komatsuna (Japanese mustard spinach), carrot and yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit). The stock was made with smokey-flavoured katsuoboshi (dried flakes of bonito) of astonishing quality. The freshest of eels, complemented by crisp winter melon, was rounded off by the subtle citrus flavour of the yuzu.

Next up was a selection of small dishes: sushi of local trout wrapped in bamboo leaf, tempura of wild plants, fried baby ayu (sweetfish), beef tenderloin and watercress dressed with kelp, amel tomato (a type of tomato from Karuizawa) pickled in vinegar, steamed udo (wild plant) with dengaku (miso with yuzu infusion) and baby melon pickled in salt dressed with dried bonito. All of those were heavenly, with the amel tomato's sweet and intense flavour alone warranting a return visit. The trout was delightfully elegant and perfectly matched with the sushi rice containing fragments of minty-fresh shiso (perilla) leaf. The tempura was crisp with a very light and thin batter and the ayu was a balance of bitter-sweet and salty tastes. A real concert of flavours!

The main course of shinshu golden shamo gamecock (selected over beef steak and salmon options) consisted of a simple serving of the meat that allowed diners to focus on the strongly flavoured, juicy chicken with no distractions. A revelation.

The gamecock was followed by a trio of eggplant, duck and light brown miso sauce. The succulent and wonderfully gamey duck beautifully complemented the char-grilled, sweet egg plant and miso and sake sauce.

After a rice dish with ginger, deep fried bean curd, miso soup and pickles (a type of dish commonly served as part of a kaiseki meal but rarely executed to such perfection) we were served dessert. This consisted of a fantastically buttery and creamy pumpkin cre brul with hints of clove, cinnamon and perfume of lavender.

The following day we had a world class beef shabu-shabu (hot pot) set menu in the same restaurant and learned that in winter it is possible to arrange ski trips with the chef, who brings his shabu-shabu equipment and prepares a meal right there on the slopes after a few hours of burning calories in the snow. We booked our New Year's visit to Hoshinoya the following day.

Kaiseki meals at Kasuke will set you back 12,600 15,750 yen, depending on the season. This is reasonable for the quality and service you will receive, though note that overindulgence on the sake front can increase the overall bill considerably. Nevertheless, any food lover willing to escape the concrete jungle of Tokyo for a few days should pick up the phone now and make a reservation at Hoshinoya.

Name Kasuke
Address 〒389-0194長野県軽井沢町星
Hoshino, Karuizawa-machi, Nagano 389-0194, Japan
Access from Tokyo Shinkansen "Asama" from Tokyo station to Karuizawa (66 minutes), 15 minute taxi ride from Karuizawa station
Phone +81-267-45-6000
Website Hoshinoya Hotel: http://www.hoshinoya.com/en/concept/index.html
Kasuke: http://www.hoshinoya.com/en/dining/kasuke_dinner.html
Opening times 5 pm 9 pm (LO) 7 days a week
Credit cards? Yes
Foreigner friendly? Yes: menu available in English; some English spoken
Non-smoking? Yes
Japanese restaurant reviews.

Books on Tokyo Japan