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)

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Tsushimi: A very stubborn guy from Hiroshima!

There are a number of restaurants, Gentle Reader, which one really doesn't want to publicize for fear of them getting so popular that Your Humble Correspondent might not be able to secure a reservation. Particularly 12 seat venues.
Or, heaven forbid, demand and supply comes into operation and said establishment gets beyond your Impecunious Correspondent's meagre budget. For although the sleeves are tattered and the elbow patches worn, YHC still seems to occasionally win the monthly battle to visit at least one fine establishment. And this time, triumph via Tsushimi, hiding in lowly Komaba.

Chef Seiji Tsushimi is, by any measure, an extremely experienced and wonderfully talented individual whose talent extends from kitchen to cave to interior design and tableware. He is also remarkably single-minded, occasionally veering all the way to stubborn or bloody-minded.
Very few people "hand back" (in his words!) a Michelin star by closing a restaurant on its 10th anniversary. Even less open a completely new concept venue on the same site. Fewer still insist on almost exclusively Japanese produce, with a very strong emphasis on vegetables and foraged plants. And only very, very few - can you say "Don Quixote" boys and girls? - have mainly only Japanese wines on the list.
The all-embracing theme at Tsushimi is hospitality. Hospitality born of intense passion for and pride in Japan, and expressed through some of the finest French technique one is likely to see in Tokyo. You have no doubt heard Your Humble Correspondent rattle on about technique before - the reason food is so uniformly excellent in Tokyo is the almost manic devotion to technique. Exacting technique can bring with it, though, a tendency to underplay creativity and experiment. This is not in prospect at Tsushimi.
Seiji Tsushimi is a genius, a rare solitary star in a firmament that more often feels more like a mega-galaxy. With a flair and a sense of theatre too often absent in Michelin-lauded establishments, he is a man of strong feelings and stronger passions, a man driven to realizing perfection through absolute attention to the smallest details. His professed hobby is “serendipping”, a consummation devoutly to be wished – and shared.
It would be pointless to write about the dishes with which he regaled The Professor and YHC that fine Spring afternoon. A meal with Tsushimi-san means 10 to 13 courses, each building on the last to the crescendo at the end (he also operates the very fine dessert concept venue Miravile Impact in Ginza). Each day is different, with a sharp – almost blistering – focus on “shun” or seasonality. He delights in the art of culinary ambush, springing surprises around almost every gastronomic corner. This is ambition, playfulness, and commitment at perhaps close to its best.
Chef Tsushimi advocates a self-generated style of “Cuisine Terreuse”, artfully blending “Heaven, Water and Earth” that celebrates terroir and provenance yet brings art to cuisine in a unique yet approachable manner. There is much of the “do not try this at home” in Tsushimi-san’s cooking, and a consequent awe and wonder that is sonorous and pervading.
A meal at Tsushimi engages all five senses, with a very keen eye given to the visual as well as the aural components of a meal to ensure a level equal to the olfactory, textural, and taste scintilla in the various dishes. Tsushimi-san is himself a gifted artist, yet also includes the work of a number of similarly talented individuals in the table ware, lighting and decorative elements of the restaurant.
Perhaps one waxes a little too much about Tsushimi, but you should visit it with fellow foodies and friends visiting from overseas. It is likely not a place for lovers, colleagues, or employers. There is just too much else on which to concentrate.
And should you hear a wailing and gnashing of teeth just outside the door, it is likely that this besotted gastronomic brigand has not been able to secure a seat. Be a nice chap and ask me in, won’t you?
Pip Pip!
Tsushimi:1Fl, Katagiri Bldg, 1-16-9 Komoba, Meguro-ku t: 03-6407-8024
: Food: 9/10; Stubborn-ness: 9/10; Service: 9/10; Ambiance: 9/10; Price-Performance: 9/10.
Total: 45/50 (4 Forks)



Thursday, 14 August 2014

Chemins: The Road Less Travelled

One astute person recently noted, Gentle Reader, that there seemed to be somewhat of a more-than-metaphysical relationship between these feverish scribblings and the erudite and interesting coverage of the site. Not in any biblical sense, and certainly not officially. But that lovely site (kudos on the design and bilinguality) has played the role of Muse for Your Humble Correspondent of late, suggesting any number of venues. You see, one of the challenges of a foodie blog is finding inspiration and new destinations without giving in to the desperate flailing of publicists and would-be restaurateurs. Enter EATPIA! It is a boon and a benison, and YHC for one is grateful for small mercies. And so it was that in the inexorable scheme of things, YHC found his way to Chemins in Akasaka.
What a delight! What a joy! A beautiful venue, marvellously managed by Owner/Sommelier Shibata-san, food that takes one's breath away, and sensitive and elegant decor that all adds up to sensational. The ensemble of Lobster and Melon Vichyssoise is quite honestly one of the most delicious things Your Humble Correspondent has ever had to pleasure to sample, and the amuse of bacon and sea salt served as a Madeleine was as remarkably flavorful as it was creative. The menu was packed with decision-ticklers, and left this besotted diner determined to return to try things like Coupe de mousse de carotte en gelée, Bavaroise de petit poix et crevette emulsion de oginon nouveau, or Vol-au-vent de rognon de veau et de ris de veau à la creme.
A number of things separate Chemins from other establishments in Akasaka: quality, class, atmosphere, street-presence, price ... the list goes on and on. But the stand-out for Your Humble Correspondent was an all-infusing sense of passion. The air crackles with an electricity generated by people all fully invested and committed to playing their role to the maximum extent possible, yet with a subtle, playful professionalism and team-work that makes the time pass in a surreal time-warpy sort of way, and always results in a surprising jolt when one consults ones wristwatch.
On the (Japanese) website, Chef Satoru Nobusada has a jolly time talking about the provenance of a dizzying array of ingredients in the Topics page. One certainly gets the sense that this is a kitchen that is devoted to consistently producing interesting and challenging - and exquisite - food. Chef even took the trouble to see me off once the meal was complete, although this may have been an added security measure to ensure this portly panjandrum actually left the premises.
Unfortunately it was lunch, so fully testing out the wine list was contra-indicated. That said, Shibata-san is an expert and accomplished somm and the list itself diverse and reasonably priced. One can do much worse than taking his advice, always delivered in an engaged and an involved manner - with just a hint of challenge and itazura-ness that this punter finds thoroughly enjoyable.
Chemins has a history of excellent chefs and some time ago Restaurant Hiromichi in Meguro (link here] served as a very suitable venue for a birthday dinner for The Once and Future Blonde. Also well worth a visit, IMHO.
You should visit Chemins with fellow-foodies rather than stolid work colleagues. It is not a place for a balance sheet discussion. It is not a place to discuss business strategy. It is a place to talk about sauces, and herbs, and seasons, and plating, and ...
And if there seems to be some almost demonic giggling from the corner table, it's highly likely the ensemble has been served to Yours Truly again...
Pip! Pip!
Chemins: Akasaka Tameike Tower Residence Annex 1F 2-17-7 Akasaka Minato-ku Tel/Fax: 03-3568-3344
: Food: 9/10; Delightfulness: 8/10; Service: 8/10; Ambiance: 8/10;
Price-Performance: 8/10.
Total: 41/50 (4 Forks)