June 14, 2017
The Economist called the Michelin guides “opaque and hopelessly out of touch with the times.” That was back in 2000. The situation is only worse nowadays, especially in non-European markets. Taking advantage of this opening is the expertly-marketed “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants” ranking, a list that arguably has more problems than the Michelin guides. Eurocentric? Check. Male-dominant? Check. In love with expensive tasting menu? Check check check.
Case in point is Japan, Michelin’s favourite country — improbably it only has two entries on the list, Narisawa and Den. These French-Japanese fusion restaurants might very well deserve their accolades, but where are all the highly revered institutions that specialize in Japanese cuisine?
Anyway, according to that list I was about to dine at the best restaurant in Japan, partly because unlike many of its peers it actually takes internet booking. I was also intrigued by its signature dishes — Satoyama Scenery and Bread of the Forest.
Opened in 2003 in one of Tokyo’s most affluent zip codes, the restaurant occupies a one-story building with eight large tables. The chef to patron ratio was around 1:2. Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa previously trained in France, Italy and Switzerland from 1988 to 1996 under Joël Robuchon, Paul Bocuse and Frédy Girardet before opening his first restaurant in Kanagawa.
His cooking philosophy is one he called “Innovative Satoyama”, which pretty much means eating locally and seasonally in layman’s terms, with an emphasis on the forest and the ocean. Sourcing of ingredient is taken very seriously; the origin of most ingredients are both labeled on the menu and spelled out by the staff before each dish.
While the menu changes seasonally, a few items such as the first dish “Satoyama Scenery” are always featured. Comprising of green tea and spinach powder, soybean yogurt, deep fried gobō, charcoal and various leaves, this artistically arranged plate of nibbles on a wooden slate certainly made a strong impression. Despite the many element the ingredients complimented each other when eaten together, although once the yogurt was finished I found the powder to be a little harsh to the throat.
Tasted just like regular water was the Essence of the forest, a cup of water soaked with oak.
Rarely is bread so prominently featured at a high-end restaurant. At Narisawa the staff would first let you see a wheat dough with walnut and yuzu in a glass tube where it gradually proofed while we focused on the Satoyama Scenery. It was then transferred a hot stone cooker next to our table for another twelve minutes of fermentation.
Was the theatrics backed by substance? With good texture and refreshingly sweet, the bread paired well with the black olive powder and green moss coated Hokkaido butter. We ended up having three pieces each.
Sweet fish is a summer staple of kaiseki cuisine. Here the two tiny things from nearby Kanagawa were grilled to two crispy strips. The head, an explosion of ferrous bitterness, was the best part.
Two more small bites appeared in the form of deep fried crackers, the green one was puree of broad bean from Kagoshima and the orange one contained ameabi and sakura shrimp from Ishikawa and Shizuoka, respectively. The shrimps were extremely sweet and fresh.
When the waiter introduced the green pebbles as “green caviar”, I found the hyperbole amusing. These were only green peas! I was truly humbled by how wrong I was — I didn’t know peas could be that sweet and juicy, with none of the unpleasant grassy taste found in most peas. The oyster was relegated to an afterthought.
Dish by dish the flavour was getting more intense, although the sea bass in seaweed broth, which concluded four consecutive seafood dishes, was still relatively light. The broth was a mouthful of umami flavour.
In a meal that was a non-stop feast to the eyes, the “Gion Festival” still managed to awe us. Named after the famous Kyoto summer festival, this was actually a piece of eggplant topped with some petals and a blanket of translucent jelly. The taste was what you would expect from grilled eggplant, but it does take really vision to transform the humble plant into an Instagram fixture.
The first of two beef dishes, the lightly seared slices of Saga beef were served with shiitake mushroom in a seaweed essence. The meat was so tender it melted in the mouth.
Perhaps early summer is the season where many ingredients are at their sweetest, as here was another dish that’s predominately sweet. Made with Japan’s finest onion from Awaji Island, the thick broth stole the spotlight from the langoustine, similar to how the hot fudge always overshadows the sundae.
Again, there was nothing wrong with the deep fried conger pike, but my attention was captured by the side of white asparagus with udo sauce, an antidote to the the richness of the past three dishes. Udo is a plant native to Eastern China, Korea and Japan with a pungent flavour, somewhat similar to horseradish.
Sounds like a government file, “Sumi 2008” means coal in Japanese and 2008 was the year when chef Narisawa determined, in collaboration with a lab at a Japanese university, the ideal method and temperature to prepare beef was to slow cook at 60°C.
Who would have expected a meal of continuous artistic wizardry would end with a lump of charcoal? 55°C olive oil was first repeatedly poured over a piece of Kobe rump steak for half an hour, then the meat was coated in a powder of charcoal-grilled leek to age for three days. Don’t judge a book by its cover — the alluring pink meat under the unappealing surface was intensely flavourful, aided by the slightly burnt sweetness of the leek powder. The rump was slightly chewier than the typical wagyu cut, which tends to prize tenderness over flavour.
Dessert was served over three dishes: An anmitsu centred around a green plum, Uji matcha ice cream, and monaka with Okinawan pineapple stuffing. Of the three I only preferred the slightly bitter matcha ice cream, paired with dried Yame tea leaves and black syrup from Okinawa.
I relished almost everything the kitchen dished out, not an easy feat for such a lengthy menu. The waiting staff was knowledgeable and attentive. ¥20,000 is hardly cheap, but consider the immense amount of manpower that goes into all these dishes this price is more than reasonable.
So is this the 18th ranked restaurant in the world?
Who cares. These rankings and guides should never be taken literally, especially among outsiders like myself. The only thing I am certain of is Narisawa is undoubtedly one of the best restaurants in Tokyo.
Address: 2-6-15 Minami Aoyama, Minato, Tokyo
Opening hours: 12:00 – 15:00, 18:30 – 23:00; Tuesday – Saturday