Far from Tokyo in Kanazawa is an English-speaking celebrity chef who draws famous chefs from around the world to taste his two-star Michelin cuisine and engage in fascinating conversation. Your imagination flows as you stroll the streets of the charming former samurai town to Zeniya to enjoy the highly personalized Japanese cuisine of second generation Chef Takagi.
In a romantic neighborhood of central Kanazawa lined with cobblestone streets and dotted with old samurai houses, the gentle trickle of a water well and a delicate bamboo ladle invite you to purify your hands and heart. Entering the intimate restaurant, there is a sense of nostalgia in this space that has not changed since the chef’s father and first owner opened it in 1970.
It is difficult to choose between the lovely traditional setting of a private room and the lively conversation at the counter. In the hinoki counter dining area, creamy green square tiles decorate the wall, amid cupboards and doors in different timber tones. It is minimal to the extreme; only knives lay in their rack ready to start service. The spacious private rooms beckon you to sweep your feet across the tatami mats and take a seat on a comfortable cushion. Thin strips of bamboo shade the windows and draw your focus to the greenery and stone lantern in the garden outside. Your eyes move around to view the austere beauty of artwork, calligraphy, and ikebana. Wherever you are seated, you will find a lacquerware tray with chopsticks and small lacquerware dish, the latter a vessel for a traditional welcome drink of sake that signals the start of the meal.
Enjoy Kaga style Kaiseki.
Zeniya offers Japanese cuisine, influenced by the local Kanazawa cuisine known as Kaga Ryori. But there is no menu. The chef goes to the markets daily and creates a menu around the seasonal ingredients that inspire him. Courses are brought together through discussions with staff and an understanding of guests’ preferences and experiences, and even their feelings on the day, to adapt and create the perfect menu for each person and each moment.
Infused throughout with touches and tastes of the season, dinner follows the pattern of a traditional kaiseki course meal, including about ten dishes.
A sakizuke dish comes first, a kind of amuse bouche with elements that set the tone of seasonality that will be carried throughout the meal. In summer, velvety handmade goma-dofu or sesame tofu is topped with a lavish amount of uni sitting on a lotus leaf and adorned with lotus flowers. Resting on a glass pedestal, charcoal-grilled Noto-gyu beef is showcased with salted green gingko nuts, only found for a very short season in summer. With no other garnishes or sauces, the presentation draws the guest into the pure beef flavors and the seasonality of green gingko nuts.
The signature dish, first created by the chef’s father and served ever since, is abalone steak. Lovingly prepared in meticulous steps, the abalone is steamed, simmered and grilled before being presented ever so simply on a vibrant daisy dish, which highlights this beautiful ingredient. While the traditional Japanese influence is clear and Zeniya has focused on seasonal local ingredients since opening, there has always been innovative flair thanks to the chef’s father who liked to include unconventional items like balsamic vinegar and caviar, somehow seamlessly weaving them into his cuisine. This knack has been inherited by the son, Chef Shinichiro Takagi. The underlying concept is that cuisine is intended to nourish both the body and soul, and Shinichiro strongly believes that the positive effect of the joy of food in that moment has an immeasurable impact on our well-being.
Given the menu is entirely determined by ingredients found at the market each day, proximity to the incredibly well-supplied central market in Kanazawa is key. Picking up the best of local seasonal ingredients ensures a strong Hokuriku focus, added to by produce from further afield, secured through direct requests to producers throughout Japan. These very close partnerships span decades, and the length and breadth of Japan.
Zeniya’s tableware collection contains many priceless pieces. With everything from Takagi’s father’s collection, there is almost certainly a sentimental attachment that adds to the value, and yet Takagi insists that every tool and item of tableware is there to be used – not a single piece is for decoration. He loves the stories behind them and how you can intertwine that with the cuisine, and many times customer conversations are sparked by these beautiful items. The black, green, white and yellow of a daisy plate shows the bold character distinctive of works by Ogata Kenzan, one of the most revered ceramicists of the Edo Period. With some more than 250 years old, there are bespoke glassware items, pieces of local Kanazawa Kutani-yaki ceramics, as well as lacquerware known as Wajima-nuri, from a famous enclave of lacquerware artists on the Noto Peninsula of Ishikawa. Lidded vermillion lacquerware bowls with a vivid cherry blossom design have been made with a method called makie, incorporating iridescent metallic powder. Captivated by this stunning design, when you eventually remember to lift the lid, incredible aromas will waft from within.