Monday, 11 July 2016

L'Alchimiste: A Beautiful Mind

The famous gastronome Brillat-Savarin apparently once said “A chef must be like an alchemist”. Apparently, he was also clairvoyant as he was obviously thinking of Chef Ken'ichi Yamamoto. Sometimes, Gentle Reader, it pays to choose what's behind the lavender door. 

Your Humble Correspondent (YHC) is an occasional visitor to this wonderful playground of a restaurant, run by a delightful husband and wife (chef and sommelier) team together with a sous. The formula for success is simple - he cooks, she serves and pours, you enjoy.

It has the added appeal of not allowing children under twelve, which seems to my feeble mind to significantly improve the dining environment as well as overall safety. It also does not take kashi-kiri bookings, preferring diversity and energy in its guest list rather than drab infections of bland sarariman and over-ebullient brokers.

L'Alchimiste is focused on quality, quality, and then quality. The food is inspired and playful, Gentle Reader, and a carefully considered and interesting wine flight / degustation turns a meal into a journey. Chef describes his food as "pop gastronomy" - which seems unfortunate to YHC - but serves to underline both the reflection of food trends (i.e. "pop"-ular) and the taste explosion in a diner's mouth (where a pop is certainly much to be preferred over a bang).

The illusion is sustained by a menu that only lists the ingredients (or at least did when YHC has dined) from which M. Yamamoto conjures whimsical courses which keep bringing one back to the relationship between the ingredients and the magic. The standard fare is a ten course degustation menu for Y12,000 or Y18,000 with 5 wines (Y20,000 with 7).

The wine list is broader than it is deep, and suffers slightly from a fashionable bias towards bio and organic wines. At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, this trend is more about marketing than oeneology - the best Old World wines have been bio for centuries, and planting and pruning has long been linked to the lunar cycle.

At the risk of not being able to get a table in this 14 seat den of legerdemain for oneself, Gentle Reader, this is foodie heaven and deserves your patronage. It is a place to take fellow gastronomes like Brillat-Savarin or lovers, but never colleagues. Never.

And should you spy YHC in the corner, that means my lavender camouflage has failed and one needs to flee ...

Pip Pip!

L'Alchimiste1-25-26 Shirokane, Minato-ku t: 03-5422-7358 
Rating: Food: 9/10; Lavender-ness: 8/10; Service: 8/10; Ambiance: 8/10; Price-Performance: 8/10.
Total: 41/50 (4 Forks)

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Keisuke Matsushima - Oh. My. Goodness.

It's been some time, Gentle Reader, since Your Humble Correspondent (YHC) bored you with his dribblings and scribblings about food in Tokyo. Been a tad busy really, but what ho! ... Time to get one's nose back to the figurative whetstone.

Keisuke Matsushima is apparently a bit of an enfant terrible in the world of French Cuisine, and it is entirely possible that he might have to have so many restaurants (six, with two cooking schools) in so many places simply to avoid the long arm of the critics. But having recently visited the Tokyo flagship with Lord Timothy of Spazio while M. Matsushima was briefly in town, YHC even more humbly admits to having become a convert to this particular sort of terribleness.

The setting is, of course, magnificent. Not in any sense isolated, but apart. One approaches young Keisuke's temple to the cuisine of southern France along a verdant pathway reminiscent of a medieval alleyway, before entering the hallowed halls from a slightly confusing lateral entrance. Table settings are refreshingly elegant, with almost a belle epoque look and feel along with a grand sense of space and style.

Service is a la russe, as befits the venue and the price point. Should you be concerned about languages, Gentle Reader, rest easy as one may choose between Japanese, English and French at least. People are marvellously attentive, and whims seem to be a speciality of M. Matsushima's particular flavor of epicurean philosophy.

There is a selection of set menus to choose from, refreshingly designed to match the size of one's appetite rather than one's wallet. We enjoyed the Menu degustation "Collection" - not cheap and a little of a stretch for your impecunious correspondent, but exquisite value for money. It would be tedious to go through each course (as well as impossible given the state of YHC's memory), but the word you should remember Gentle Reader is "exquisite". Balanced yet imaginative, original and inquisitive, surprising and still familar. The verbal descriptions which accompany each course are engrossing yet concise, recognizing that - sometimes - diners know almost as much as waiters, and that brevity is the soul of wisdom.

The carte has a modest range of impeccably selected wines, although some are obviously there for light relief at six-figure prices. YHC's bubbles-of-choice Duval Leroy is available by the glass.

Keisuke Matsushima is a venue for foodies and lovers, and should not be wasted on tiresome work colleagues. It is one of a very few venues in Tokyo that you should keep as a closely guarded secret. Because, after all, one's own convenience and ease of getting a reservation should be the highest priority for this sort of destination.

And should you get a glimpse of a forlorn figure on the dish-pig stand, you'll know that YHC's tastes exceeded his budget once again.

Pip Pip!

Keisuke Matsushima: 1-4 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku Reservations: 03-5772-2091 t: 03-5772-2151
Rating: Food: 9/10; Epoque-ness: 8/10; Service: 8/10; Ambiance: 8/10; Price-Performance: 7/10.
Total: 40/50 (4 Forks)

Monday, 9 February 2015

Tokyo Top Restaurants - Your Humble Correspondent's Review of 2014

"There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune".

William Shakespeare,
Julius Caesar Act 4, scene 3, 218–224.
Your Humble Correspondent was recently challenged, Gentle Reader, to list off his favorite (favored?) establishments for 2014. No mean task given the thousands of potential honorees, but made considerably easier by YHC's penury in this year just past. YHC thought it might be rather a hoot to list some places that perhaps many haven't visited (unknown knowns) rather than the old and bolds (known knowns)...

With gratitude to those generous souls who spent time with me in 2014, and most obviously The Once and Future Blonde ...

  1. Tsushimi: As mentioned previously, Chef Seiji Tsushimi is a genius. Very definitely a stubborn genius, but a kitchen Turing nevertheless. He focuses on the very original cuisine Terreuse with an absolute insistence on celebrating the very best Japan has to offer in terms of produce, design, and wine. A meal here is a discovery even for the most fastidious foodie - and in terms of crass considerations like value-for-money perhaps the best culinary investment you'll make in a year of fine dining.
    1Fl, Katagiri Bldg, 1-16-9 Komoba, Meguro-ku t: 03-6407-8024 
  2. Cork: Your Humble Correspondent is a very enthusiastic fan of the fruit of the vine, Gentle Reader; thus the florid cheeks and honker. Cork turns the tables on the normal restaurant model by having the guests select the wines and then matches the food to those choices. It helps that it shares a very good sommelier with a skillful chef - and that its sister venue L'As (where wines are matched to a single course menu) is co-located on the same premises. The novelty and quality of wines on offer - think a Bavarian Traminer or Portugese Green - is remarkable. And the cooking is heavenly.
    1Fl, Minami-Aoyama Kotori Bldg, 4-16-3 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku t: 090-6008-4069
  3. Sourire: Ah, this place is a joy! Seriously, seriously good. Perhaps one of the best ways of thinking about it is as one of Rummy's "unknown unknowns". One leaves the cooking and the portion details to Chef Yuzawa, and concentrates on the company and the conversation. The menu is highly seasonal so it is pointless to make a recommendation, but experiment with full confidence and courage. Be brave. A brilliant wine list (just noticed a Segla 2005 is available!).
    2Fl, AK-3 Bldg, 1-15-2 Aobadai, Meguro-ku t: 03-5784-2036
  4. Saru: Saru focuses on regional ingredients in an extremely serious way, yet manages to sustain a casual and friendly atmosphere that matches its excellent menu and highly original wine list. Chef Muramatsu seems to be having more fun than legally possible (try the Bagna Cauda or the Ezojika), and the staff are remarkably informative and helpful. There is a seafood version in Yoyogi-Uehara, and rumors of a "mountain" (yama-no-sachi) venue opening soon in the Gakugei-Daigaku area for those with chariots and prepared to venture that far.
    3-49-1 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku t:03-6450-4836
  5. Yamada Chikara: Should any of you feel like rewarding Your Humble Correspondent for his unstinting eating on your behalf, this place would be the venue-of-choice. While most Japanese chefs are strong on technique and less perhaps on creativity, Chef Yamada is a super-hero on both. Likely comes from his El Bulli experience. This is washoku stunningly re-imagined and beautifully presented.
    And the lovely Mrs. Yamada's tea ceremony as a post-prandial experience is seriously first-class. My fellow scribe Dominic has become a fan of Chef Yamada (see his post).
    1Fl, 1-15-2 Minami-Azabu, Minato-ku t:03-5942-5817

Pip Pip!

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Labyrinthe - Seriously Old School

 One often finds, Gentle Reader, that shifts in food fashions tend to throw out the enfant with the bath water. Your Humble Correspondent enjoys smoke and mirrors as much as anyone else (perhaps more ...), and innovation and experimentation is entirely admirable. Indeed, much of what we have come to see as de rigeur in French and Italian cuisine has been a result of enigmatic strokes of genius or happenstance. What ho, says YHC, and more power to them.

But there is also a place for classic cooking, represented in the French oeuvre as Cuisine Classique. And as practiced with a flourish at Labyrinthe in Shirogane a few lithesome steps in from the Shinohashi intersection on Meiji-dori. The Japanese-only website rather phlegmatically calls this "real" (honkaku-teki) French cooking, and it would be churlish to argue the point.

To the best of YHC's foggy-at-best memory, Labyrinthe has been dancing the classique fantastic for more than 15 years and little has (thankfully) changed in terms of approach and attitude over that considerable period. New items do appear on the menu, which should rather be termed a catalogue given its breadth and complexity. No fewer than 25 entrees ("starters") and 20 main courses ("entrees") covering a veritable menagerie of animals grace the carte.

In light of this, and perhaps emphasized by the somewhat eclectic wine list, one recommends establishing a good relationship with the rather dapper maître d'. A nod every now and then when fresh oysters are in hand, or when Chef is struck by a moment of inspiration, makes for a better experience and the culinary foreplay adds to the anticipation.

The Andouillette here is excellent as an entrée, or should your fancy tend a little more towards seafood try the Crab Flan. Seasonal vegetables are always a good choice. In the main courses, the Duck Confit with Rocket is well executed, and the rabbit or goat will get a conversation going quite apart from being quite delicious.

Labyrinthe seems to have a serious candle obsession, with perhaps a manic focus on wax. But the décor is playful and occasionally naughty, while the lighting and the low ambient noise suit Your Humble Correspondent to a "T". The open kitchen must have been revolutionary when Labyrinthe opened all those many years ago, but speaks to the sincerity of their desire to celebrate food and fine dining. So do the servings, which are generous to a fault.

Make no mistake, Gentle Reader - the cooking is first class yet humbly true to a tradition not often seen in these Noma-ridden days (honestly, ants on sushi?). Younger Gen-Y punters may find Labyrinthe a little faded and predictable, but take them along any way. Count it a duty to show them what byways cooking has followed over the last hundred years, and count it a benison that you get to share in the experience.

Labyrinthe is a place for lovers and friends, for people comfortable in each others' skin and who enjoy long conversations and longer digestifs. And that faint scratching at the window? Don't mind me ...

Pip Pip!
Labyrinthe: 3-2-7 Shirokane, Minato-ku t: 03-5420-3584
Rating: Food: 7/10; Classique-ness: 7/10; Service: 7/10; Ambiance: 7/10; Price-Performance: 7/10.
Total: 35/50 (3 Forks)

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Hayari - Get your sausage on!

Well it's been some time, Gentle Reader. Much has happened, and there have been times when Your Humble Correspondent wondered whether this pitiful little correspondence might continue. But to respond to a comment from Vijay, here is the first of what one hopes is a continuing series in 2015. One should expect a wider palette of offerings, as well as a focus on restaurants in the general vicinity of YHC's new digs in Shirokane. Selfish indeed, but eminently satisfying.

Many of you are aware of YHC's predilection towards all things encased. A good sausage goes a long way towards achieving bliss, as the actress said to the bishop. And while there are many fine establishments which feature one or two examples on their carte, Hayari (the website is regrettably only available in Japanese) is the only venue that YHC has found here in the Big Mikan that focuses so heavily on ground meats. While some might call this an "obsession" on Chef Takeshi Murakami's part, this writer prefers more positive categorizations like "inspiration" and "trait de genie (stroke of genius)".

In fact, Murakami-san features 24 different sausages from 15 countries in his line up, although only 7 or 8 are available each day. Each is lovingly hand-crafted in his 'studio' in Yamanashi, and no chemical preservatives or binding agents are used. Ingredients are always of the highest possible quality. It shows. He is also a scholar of all things sausage-related, and should you have a favorite not on the list he will undertake to consider its inclusion.

YHC knew that an expedition to assay the sausage-ness of Hayari was not a thing to be undertaken lightly, and was a quest that would require expert assistance. In these sort of circumstances, it is always good to have someone with detailed knowledge. Someone Teutonic, if at all possible Austrian. Herr Krokodil was the perfect companion.

We sampled five different sausages that blessed evening - each was perfect in its own way. Each was perfect - in fact - in any way. Herr Krokodil was beaming from ear to ear (something that is fearsome to behold), and Your Humble Correspondent was valiantly yet hopelessly trying to find a way to get more than his fair share. Hayari is not Pete's House of Brats or a wiener bar, and patrons need to foreswear any florid application of ketchup, onions, or any liquid mustard.

Your Humble Correspondent is also told that other items like salads, soups, and desserts are available although the notion seems somewhat superfluous and dilettante at first take. The wine list is somewhat quirky, although it steers clear of cheap Chilean muck and is very more-ishly priced.

Hayari is very definitely a place for friends or the occasional frequent social nomikai. And if you should see a mangy fellow hanging around the door with that sort of sausage-deprived look in his eyes, do invite me in!

Pip Pip!
Hayari: 2Fl, Grande Ebisu Bldg, 3-48-5 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku t: 03-5422-8467
: Food: 8/10; Sausage-ness: 9/-10; Service: 7/10; Ambiance: 6/10; Price-Performance: 7/10.
Total: 37/50 (3 Forks)