Or rather, the meal was lunch; the menu was dinner.
Sleek and unassuming, tucked away from the street, under towers and across a plaza.
A little treat to myself for the end of the year, and a brief respite from the schedule of tour. Dan, ever the staunch food companion, joins in the adventure.
The inside sleek but warm, with dark wood accents and an amazing polished wood floor.
A glass sub-plate. Hot hand towels. Cold sparkling water.
We will be served the ‘Early Summer Collection, 2011’. The menu, in Japanese and English:
The first thing to arrive is a small glass of dough, in a white ceramic case, held over a tea light. It is a chestnut bread, with wild yeast from Shirakama. The heat will activate the yeast and cause it to rise, with vigour.
Then come the amuses:
A perfect radish, fresh and dewy, with ‘dirt’ – mustard seed, ground and fried in olive oil. Delicious complement of crunches and spicinesses, and playfulness with botanical categories.
Onions, coated in charcoal made from onions. Served on a dried, lacquered magnolia leaf. The coating is soft, almost fluffy, and intensely fragrant. The first bite releases a puff of aromatic steam directly into the nose and mouth, suffusing the senses with earthy sweetness and an underlying, tempered pungency. All from something that looks merely like a stone. Wonderful.
Chiayu (ちあゆ). Small river fish, just in season for a few weeks, deep-fried, served with sansai (山菜, lit. ‘mountain herb’) and sansai oil. Of all the different methods of deep-dry, I say leave it to the Japanese. How can something so otherwise brutal be made so delicate, so necessary? Whole fish has never been this good.
Oh yes, the bread.
By now it has risen and is ready to be baked.
In a 300˚C stone mortar, of course, coated with chestnut powder and covered for twelve minutes.
It keeps good company on the table.
Meanwhile, more gifts arrive.
White asparagus from Furano, Hokkaido; tomato from Kouchi; Smoked mackerel (aji); herbs and greens (nasturtium, arugula sprouts, parsley, pea shoots). Such balance of textures. The vegetables are perfectly cooked, tender yet crisp, yielding to the fork, with give. The mackerel is warm, savoury, smoky; the herbs are cool, fresh, sweet, bitter, spicy.
By now the bread is ready.
A rustic and heavenly roll. The mortar leaves the underside satisfyingly crisped, while the top is browned and supple. The insides are like gossamer woven back onto itself over and over again. Somehow, I swear, they managed to raise silkworms on a diet of chestnuts and herbs.
It is served with whipped butter and olive tapenade, in a flower pot. Cute, yes.
The bread sent me into a sort of reverie, from which wakes me something a little more pyrotechnical.
Yarika (やりか). Squid from Aomori, with ‘ash sauce’: a mixture of paprika, olive oil, and lemon, plunged into liquid nitrogen tableside and spooned immediately over the hot, charred squid.
More bonus points for temperature contrast. As for flavour, I don’t even know where to begin. A power play. I would not expect this coming from a Japanese kitchen or even a French-inflected Japanese one; this is something else, something Spanish maybe; I guess the word is ‘modern’ – and that is what makes it exciting. Perfectly cooked, somehow retaining all the textures of the different parts of the squid while ensuring they are all palatable. Seriously a triumph. Plus, it looks really very cool.
Even the last morsel.
There is a brief lift, and then
the descent into even wilder territory.
Kamo Nasu (かもなす). A variety of eggplant from Kyōto, sautéed; shiitakes, edible flowers, pine nuts; draped in a tomato ‘jelly’.
And this last bit is remarkable; it tastes like summer cocktail candy, sweet and tangy but somehow perfectly savoury, in that way only a tomato can do. I ask the captain about it; he explains to us that they take a tomato purée, purify it (somehow) until it is colourless, and use a touch of agar agar and high heat to render it into a thin, drapable film, highly concentrated in flavour, supple and gently dissolvent on the tongue. Dan says it “is like a beautiful dress for food.” I agree. The dish is meaty yet floral, robust yet delicate.
Langoustine. Something somehow both richer and more delicate than the last. Langoustine, seared in shell, slightly raw; kinka pork broth; broccolini greens and flowers.
The broth is a beautiful thing. Rich and full yet light, and lingering. There is a slight sweetness from the broccolini. The whole dish speaks of spring out loud, while always keeping in mind the fall to come, that savoury, underlying porcine note, coating each element, transparent yet glistening.
And now we move to some more serious stuff.
Amadai Snapper (あまだい). Fried filet; sesame tōfu; yuzu foam and zest; white miso sauce with cream and scallops; mountain greens (wakegi, わけぎ).
Playing with the expectations of ‘classic’ Japanese flavours and turning them in very new directions. Everything is very fresh but also very deep; there are complex interactions going on that you would never guess happening between these flavours. Perhaps it is the rather French treatment, or something else entirely. All I know is there are many different combinations to be tried and they all taste wonderful. The miso sauce in particular is a revelation, as is the wakegi, which tastes almost like green garlic.
And then the final entrée:
Hida Beef, basted in olive oil, coated in charcoal leek powder and finished, briefly, under the broiler; fried, salted bamboo shoots; red wine braise reduction; morton sea salt; and sake granité to cleanse the palate.
I made an exception for this meal, because I wanted to try everything. I am glad I did. This beef is the most succulent, flavourful beef. The captain brought out the cut, raw, before they began cooking it, to explain the process and for us to smell it. And it actually smelled, like a lot of things: earth, herbs, a deep, infused sweetness, harkening back to the eggplant and tomato, the frozen ash, the charcoaled onions. The design of the menu started to reveal itself; the woven components, techniques tweaked and altered in iterated progressions, riffs, convolutions.
And here, finally, we are presented with a simplicity of form belying a complexity of process. It is, quite literally, a charred hunk of flesh. But the flavour, the experience is nothing less than a pinnacle of civilisations. If it weren’t so clear throughout this meal (which it was, and only ever more so), the menu positions itself in multifaceted dialogue with our relationship with nature, with wild foods, mimicry of simple techniques and the complex preparations that made them possible. This is, if nothing else, a very smart meal.
The finished dish is a revelation. Even just the shape of the cut, a scalene pyramid oozing just the right amount of juice with each cut, each morsel a new discovery, an archaeology of the cooking and the growth of the animal. The bamboo shoots were simply the best I’ve ever had – a sheen of crisp and tender, fragrant flesh, better than even the best potatoes or cauliflower you could ever find. Salt is always a pleasure to have presented to the side, to pinch with the fingers. The slate, the slate. Do not get me started on that reduction.
I hereby nominate this sake granité to receive the beatification.
The desserts were nice, yes, so let’s do those too.
Annin (杏仁), geranium jelly, cherries. Annin is a type of almond jelly found across East Asia, in various forms. This combination, with the floral notes of the clear geranium jelly, is simple and delicious. Unfortunately, I’m slightly allergic to the cherries, so I can’t finish them. But I enjoy it despite my throat being scratchy.
Strawberries and Cream, or something like it. Strawberry rose compote, cream, meringue, and olive oil. Amazing olive oil. Fruity, grassy, and that perfect touch to elevate something simple and satisfying to something simple, satisfying, and intriguing.
And then come the mignardises.
This is not a fair way to end a meal. How ever do you expect me to select? To exercise choose one and not another?
Ok ok the list:
chocolate covered almond
chocolate ice cream
sakura leaf marshmallow
macarons: cherry blossom, violet, lavender, chocolate rose, and chocolate at 66%, 72%, and 80%, as if one weren’t enough
Their macarons even come in a little tray.
Oh how well the Japanese do sweets.
These incessant hearts. Ok I get it.
All in all an incredible, unforgettable, thought-provoking meal. I learned things I had never known.
Bravo to the captain, Yoshinobu Kimura, the wait staff, and the kitchen. The chef, Narisawa, wasn’t in, but Dan assures me he’ll let him know it was excellent (apparently, he’s a family friend).
We were the first to be seated at 12:00; we linger, enjoying our macchiatos and our last few mignardises, and leave, langurously, at 3:30, into a light misting rain.