Food & Drink

Roketsu – an authentic Japanese culinary experience in London

The refined Kyoto cuisine of kaiseki delights diners in the UK capital.

Once viewed as an exotic novelty, today Japanese food can be found in supermarkets and dining districts across the UK. Hundreds of Japanese restaurants serve everything from sushi and ramen to okonomiyaki and katsu curry. Yet, there are still relatively few options for those in search of the very finest Japanese cuisine. Enter Roketsu, which opened in London’s West End in 2021 and specializes in Kyoto’s traditional kaiseki cuisine, often described as the Japanese equivalent to French haute cuisine

From the outside, with its black painted façade on the ground floor of a traditional Georgian terrace, Roketsu could be an ordinary London restaurant. But to step inside is to be instantly transported to Japan.

The hinoki-cypress fittings were shipped from Kyoto, then installed by the craftsmen of Nakamura Sotoji Komuten, a carpentry firm that specializes in the sukiya style of Japanese architecture. The interior was inspired by a Japanese tea house and features a long counter cut from a single tree that was seasoned for over 100 years. Serving-ware, chopsticks, and many other items used in the restaurant have also come directly from Japan.

The restaurant is headed by owner-chef Daisuke Hayashi, who trained at Kyoto’s renowned Kikunoi and has gone to enormous effort to recreate a genuine Japanese dining experience in the UK capital. The wooden sign at the entrance to the restaurant previously hung at Kikunoi’s main restaurant. Its beautiful calligraphy reads “Kyoto Cuisine”.
“It was my teacher, Yoshihiro Murata, who encouraged me to open a restaurant in London,” says Hayashi. “My aim is to popularize Japanese food and to serve true kaiseki cuisine in this city.”

Ingredients are gifts from the gods

Kaiseki, which is particularly associated with Kyoto and the Japanese tea ceremony, is the name given to a traditional multi-course meal considered the most refined form of Japanese cuisine. At its heart are dashi fish stock and an exquisite sense of seasonality expressed through everything from the food itself to decorations and serving ware.

In keeping with this, everything served at Roketsu is meticulously prepared to bring out the subtle and essential flavours of ingredients. Hayashi sometimes explains to guests that ingredients are gifts from the Japanese kami gods and, as such, it is the duty of the chef to change them as little as possible.

As the restaurant’s menu changes each month, many customers come back again to taste Hayashi’s latest creations. Some come from as far as the United States.

“We create menus that bring together both ingredients from Japan and locally sourced products such as vegetables,” he says. “Right now, it is March, a good time for edible wild plants. We devise dishes that use the essential natural flavour of these ingredients, including their bitterness.”

The kombu kelp to make dashi stock at Roketsu is sourced from Kikunoi in Kyoto, but because the other key ingredient of dashi, Japanese katsuobushi (bonito fish flakes), cannot currently be imported into Europe, Hayashi uses katsuobushi from Spain. When it comes to fish, freshness is paramount, so many of the seafood ingredients used at Roketsu are sourced locally. Some other key Japanese ingredients, such as green yuzu citrus and Japanese pepper leaves, are imported by plane.

Fresh seafood from Japan

Japanese seafood is, of course, renowned for its enormous variety and quality. And with the growth in popularity of Japanese food, more fresh seafood from Japan than ever is available to London chefs. For example, recently Hayashi has been using Japanese scallops.

“Japanese scallops are large and succulent,” enthuses Hayashi. “Raw, they can be used for sashimi or sushi. Cooked, they are suitable for various dishes. They are one of the best Japanese ingredients, combining delicious flavour with versatility.”

Japan’s top scallop producing regions are Hokkaido and Aomori. These scallops are known for being plump, while also low in fat and rich in vitamins. Sophisticated processing technology allows them to be exported around the world without loss of freshness. They are excellent not only used in Japanese cooking and with sake, but in other cuisines and with other alcohols. At Roketsu, chef Hayashi prepared special dishes using scallops from January to March 2024.

Alongside its flagship Kaiseki 10-course Menu (with optional sake and wine pairings) Roketsu offers several other special ways to enjoy Japanese dining. One is the Counter Kappo Experience, during which chef Hayashi takes center stage to present a selection of the day’s freshest ingredients while conversing with diners in an intimate setting. Then there is the Lunch Roketsu Gozen Set, a “gozen” boxed meal that showcases the finest seasonal ingredients and aromas. Or for guests who wish to enjoy the gentle flow of time in a relaxed atmosphere, there is the a la carte menu of the Bo-sen Wine and Dining Room.

At Roketsu, a sommelier is always on hand to provide pairing suggestions from a list of around 500 wines and 60 sakes. While wine is the favourite drink of many London diners, and the city itself has long been an important hub of the wine trade, sake is a popular choice at Roketsu. Hayashi says that many of his customers are impressively knowledgeable about Japan’s national drink, for example understanding the difference between sake grades such as ginjo and daiginjo.

Introducing the culture, customs, and spirit of Japan

Since 2019, Hayashi has served as a Japanese Cuisine Goodwill Ambassador. Alongside his restaurant work, he has spoken at local secondary schools, and at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

On 11 March 2024, he took part in a symposium in London to celebrate the 10th anniversary of washoku’s (Japanese traditional cuisine) registration as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. At the event, lectures were held on Japanese food culture, fermentation and the Japanese “fifth taste” of umami, while cooking demonstrations were given by five chefs. Around 80 guests attended, including local restauranteurs, chefs, food retailers, and influencers.

Hayashi is also keen to use the medium of “shokuiku” (children’s food education) to further raise awareness of his nation’s cuisine. In the UK, where almost a quarter of children are obese at the end of primary school (age 10 and 11), Japanese food has great potential as a healthy option. Hayashi notes that Japanese food can be prepared without dairy ingredients, deep frying, oil, or excessive salt. His dream is that one day Japanese food might be a standard part of UK school lunches.

A communication that goes beyond words

At Roketsu, chef Hayashi communicates his passion and philosophy not only through the food he prepares, but everything from tableware to the actions of serving staff.

“I will carry on the things I have inherited from my teacher and strive to spread the word of Japanese food in the UK,” says Hayashi.

Roketsu’s rabbit logo was inspired by a favourite saying of the 16th-century tea master Kobori Enshu.

“Once you catch the fish, the net does not matter. Once you catch the rabbit, the snare does not matter.”

These words express Hayashi’s desire for guests to savour their experience at Roketsu in the moment, free from any need to think about how it was made possible. They also convey his belief that humans have no need of words to establish a heart-to-heart conversation and understand each other.

What better motto for a chef communicating Japanese culture via kaiseki cuisine in the international city of London?

Daisuke Hayashi profile

Chef Hayashi began his culinary career aged 18 at the renowned Kikunoi restaurant in Kyoto. A protégé of chef Yoshihiro Murata, when Kikunoi opened a restaurant in Tokyo’s Akasaka, he took on the role of sous-chef. In 2008, he supervised the menu served to Prime Ministers, Presidents, and other VIPs at the G8 Summit held in Toyako, Japan. In December 2019 he was made a Japanese Cuisine Goodwill Ambassador. In 2022, he received the Minister’s Award for Overseas Promotion of Japanese Food from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF). He is Deputy Chairman of the Japanese Culinary Academy EU and supervises in-flight meals for business and first-class passengers on JAL flights from London, Helsinki, Frankfurt, and Paris.

In-flight meals for business and first-class

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