The block of buildings on the right as you leave Hikone Station is devoted to restaurants, and one of these, on the corner facing the crossing is Ryūrin. It’s located on the fifth floor, offering an interesting view of the streets below. The décor is very Shanghai-esque, with a lovely curved counter looking onto the kitchen. Over lunch, I talked to Brand Manager Ōta Hidetaka and Chef Harada Kōhei.
Ōta-san: “The restaurant is putting a lot of effort into lunch, and until the coronavirus struck, we had a lot of visitors from China, America, and Europe, who would drop in on their way to and from Hikone Castle.”
Ryūrin specialises in Cantonese food, although Sichuan favourites like mapo tofu are also available. “We use authentic Chinese ingredients, but we adjust the seasoning a little to suit Japanese tastes. For example, we tend to use less salt and oil.”
The first dish to arrive is a stir-fry of abalone, squid, and scallop with wild rice stems and a spinach puree seasoned with Sichuan pepper oil. Harada-san explains, “The combination of pale seafood and the green spinach represent the auspicious gemstone, jade.” It also happens to be a very felicitous combination in terms of flavour and texture.
The menu features many of the standard Chinese favourites, but the specific ingredients change with the seasons. When available, Japanese spiny lobster is used in the chilli shrimp, and the ingredients of the fried rice match the season. Ōmi beef is used where the recipe calls for beef, such as the next dish, gyōza dumplings. This rich and satisfying dish includes marinated beef tongue, and when you take a bite, it’s wise to have a dish handy to catch the tasty juice. Harada-san: “It took some trial and error to develop a shape that doesn’t leak during the cooking process. Of course, we make the dough from scratch too, taking care that it doesn’t get overwhelmed by the taste of the meat.” It appears I have the honour to be the first to try them. They certainly earned my seal of satisfaction.
Harada-san trained at restaurants in Kyōto and Ōsaka, one of which was awarded a Michelin star. “I suppose that Chinese food is changing all the time. How do you keep up with the latest trends?” “YouTube (laughs). Even if you don’t understand Chinese, you can see what the presenters are doing. Like any other national cuisine, there’s a lot of fusion cooking going on.”
“What do you recommend to drink?” Ōta-san: “Since this is Chinese food, a Chinese beverage like huangjiu goes best with it. We have huangjiu aged for five, eight, twelve, and twenty years. In the summer, it’s refreshing with ice.” I opt for the twelve year on the rocks.
Harada-san appears again bearing deep fried Dongpo pork with a sticky black vinegar sauce. “The pork is braised for several hours and the tender meat contrasts with the crispy coating. The tangy vinegar sauce lightens the overall impression”. Words hardly do justice to the superb combination of aromas and textures, especially with a sip of huangjiu.
The final dish is stir-fry of Ōmi beef thigh with aubergine, spiced with habanero pepper and dry chilis, caramelised to bring out their sweetness. Harada-san: “I was given some ‘ii’, the rice left over from funazushi, so I marinated the habaneros in it for a while. The lactic acid gives them an additional richness.” I order another glass of huangjiu, this time at room temperature, which allows its full character to shine.
To finish, Ōta-san proposes a glass of baijiu. This fiercely strong spirit has a sophisticated aroma and complex flavour, bringing the meal to a perfect close.
This quality of food explains why Ryūrin has thrived for over forty years in the same location, and why some visitors come to Hikone just to eat here.