In case you haven’t heard me say this enough times in my blog already, Tokyo has surpassed Paris as the most gourmet city in the world, winning the most Michelin stars on the 2010 guide and boasting the most 3-starred Michelin restaurants of any city. It was only a matter of time, as I know first hand that there is really no city quite like Tokyo where you can walk into any restaurant or hole in the wall and come out satisfied. Even the 7-Eleven convenience stores serve gourmet rice balls and take away bentos that are to die for. I’m proud to call this wonderful city my second home, and I was excited to explore more Michelin star restaurants on my annual trip home over the winter holidays.
Some important friends were in town, and I was given the responsibility of choosing the perfect place to celebrate the end of 2009. As I perused the Michelin guide, a certain restaurant caught my eye. Ogasawara Hakushakutei (which means Count Ogasawara’s residence) grabbed my attention for a few reasons. First of all, it was housed in a historic mansion that used to be inhabited by a Japanese count. Secondly, it offered creative Spanish cuisine by a Spanish chef. Lastly, I couldn’t believe that it was practically around the corner from our house, the same house that I grew up in. How did I not know about this place all these years?
Chef Gonzalo Armando Alvarez Melchor, who trained in Barcelona, took over as executive chef at Ogasawaratei in 2009. They offer set course menus for both lunch and dinner, which reflect traditional Spanish concepts with a touch of contemporary mischief using imported Spanish delicacies and local Japanese vegetables. I took one look at their sample menu online, and I knew that we were in for a real treat. I was delighted to see that they also had a café and bar that served classic Spanish tapas like tortilla de patatas and pescaditos fritos.
As I walked up to the restaurant on the pebbled pathway, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Here in the middle of Shinjuku district, the busiest district of the most densely populated city in the world, was a beautiful mansion built in 1927 that had been left protected and well preserved. An old iron lamppost, the kind that you see on the cobblestone streets of Paris, cast a soft glow of light onto the tree that shielded the terracotta tiles on the roof of this Spanish style villa. The grand entrance had a red carpet that led to the reception desk, after which the staff escorted us past the Grand Salon and the fountain courtyard to the waiting lounge. Stained glass windows, a majestic chandelier and antique wooden furniture adorned the beautiful lounge where a female pianist played classical music all night long. Creaky wooden floors and marbled pillars in numerous private dining rooms throughout this 2 story residence demonstrated old world charm and integrity. I felt like a butler in coattails wearing a monocle would show up any minute, and in fact it practically happened. Perfectly coiffed staff wearing crisp black tuxedos guided me every step of the way through my royal restaurant voyage, treating me like I was the mistress of the house. The grand dining room, next to the Moorish influenced cigar room with a blue-gold ceiling and mosaic tiles, was pristine, clean and sharp.
The level of professionalism that I observed in the staff was first class, and it simply did not compare to any other restaurant that I have ever been to. Swift, sharp, intelligent, courteous and calm, every person was at the top of their game. I felt really comfortable here because I knew that I was in good hands.
La ligera crema de ajo blanco y bastón de Jamón Ibérico de Bellota crujiente con queso de Arzúa-Ulloa
We started our tasting menu with an ajo blanco mousse flavored with olive oil, ham and raw almonds, and garnished with fine bread crumbs and chopped chives. The mousse had an incredibly light flavor that was enhanced by the subdued saltiness of a layer of tomatoes and anchovies that we were surprised to find at the bottom. Although this dish had an overall rich velvety texture, there was still a hint of graininess from the ground raw almonds which I really enjoyed. Our garlic cream mousse came with a crispy baton slathered with Arzua Ulloa cheese, black truffle powder and crusted jamón ibérico de Bellota . Oh, if they would only package these tantalizing baton chips by the dozens and sell them in supermarkets, this world would be a better place.
Los guisantes bajo un velo de caldo de Ibéricos, erizos de mar y un aceite de piñones ahumados
A warm silky blanket of Iberico broth gelée tucked a family of tender young peas into their porcelain crib along with their jamón ibérico companions. Each fresh pea burst with flavor in my mouth as it also released a veil of smoky aroma from the pine nut infused olive oil. The salty bits of chopped ham, the crunchiness of the chopped pine nuts and the creamy ooze of the sea urchin all danced on my tongue in a textural dance off.
El calamar impregnado en Sanpoukan, hilos verdes, tallos de acelgas y canela cassia
I loved the playful presentation of the citrus flavored squid dish where the head and the legs engaged in a private tête-à-tête. The squid was marinated for 30 minutes in Sanpoukan juice (a Japanese citrus) before it was grilled à la plancha. The moment this plate was placed in front of me, I could smell the faint aroma of Sanpoukan tickling my olfactory cells as I admired the architecture of the presentation from all angles. The swirls of sliced green beans had a great crunchy texture as well as the small dices of red and yellow swiss chard stalks that embellished its surface. The alternating dots of squid ink and cinnamon paprika sauce were the perfect acccompaniment to the exquisite and tender cephalopods.
La Cigala, cubitos de Hino-Na aderezados con un aceite de ajos confitados y salsa de queso de Galicia
We all loved the delicate grilled scampi that lounged on a mattress of white Tetilla cheese sauce and a pillow of Hinona turnips that had been marinated in confited garlic oil. 5 dots of green parsley oil looked lovingly at the majestic piece of succulent and juicy shrimp as they tried to jump on to the swirly mattress of creamy Galician cheese.
El foie à la plancha, salsa de uvas, arena de azúcar moscabado y virutas de macademia
Grilled foie gras is always a crowd pleaser, especially with the crowd that I was dining with on this special evening. The succulent foie gras was perfectly seared with a coat of dark brown muscovado cane sugar and topped with light snowflakes of shaved macadamia nuts. Peeled naked grapes and figs escorted this noble monarch of Liverville down the royal carpet of rich red wine and green Swiss chard sauce. This was one of my favorite dishes of the evening.
The grilled foie gras went especially well with our bottle of house red wine that we ordered for our dinner. Palacio del Conde de Ogasawara’s 2006 Ramón Bilbao limited edition Tempranillo was exquisite. I was impressed that this restaurant had a special house wine made by the one of the most famous and reputable bodegas in Spain. I was even more impressed by the startling high level of service here at Ogasawara. I keep a collection of wine labels, and have a special wine label kit where I stick a clear adhesive sheet to the label, peel it off and store it in a special folder. I forgot to bring a sticker, or étiquette de vin, and asked them if I could take the empty bottle home with me. Within minutes, the sommelier returned with the wine label already placed on an étiquette sheet for me to take home. I was speechless.
El arroz negro con sofrito de sobrasada, pimientos salteados y flores de nira
This was my other favorite dish of the night that simply blew me away. The arroz negro, rice cooked with black squid ink, had a dazzling texture that was like mochi rice. It had fantastic ‘koshi’, a dense texture that became richer and more elastic with each chew. Small morsels of spear squid mixed in with the arroz negro also added an auxiliary level of ‘koshi’ texture to the dish. Annular drizzles of yellow saffron sauce added an ethereal aroma that perfumed the dish, while a Majorcan sobrasada sausage sofrito added tang and smokiness. Sautéed yellow, orange and red bell peppers contrasted the arroz with its crunchy texture while a Japanese garlic chive (nira) flower graced this heavenly plate like a star on a Christmas tree.
La lucerna escalfada en un caldo azafranado, puerros cocidos en las brasas y caviares de colores
I didn’t care much for the fish dish, made with an unusual fish called a gurnard or sea robin (and called houbou in Japanese). The fish filet, served in a saffron sauce with hearty Incan potatoes, was a tad overcooked and didn’t have much flavor. Shimonita leeks were prepared in a traditional Catalan style of cooking calçots, which are Spanish scallions. At a calçotada, a calçot cookout celebration at the end of winter in Spain, the outer layer is charred over an open flame, then wrapped in newspaper to keep them warm and tender. Afterward, the blackened skin is carefully peeled off to enjoy the soft and tender flesh. I loved the touch of molecular gastronomy in the garnish, with dainty colorful paprika ‘caviar’, made by spherification, brightening up the dish.
La presa Ibérica, pure de navos de Kioto, romero y salsa de turron
The savory portion of our tasting menu ended with a bang with the tender and juicy cut of Iberian pork presa, which is a succulent cut of shoulder meat. The sweetness of the red wine sauce was in perfect balance with the richness of the luscious pork fat, and crunchy sprinkles of sweet turrón nougat rounded out all of these flavors. I loved the hints of select Japanese vegetables used throughout the course, such as the Shogoin turnips from Kyoto which were puréed into a silky spoonful of delight. Bright green leaves of sautéed spinach were curled back into a shoulder stand and awaited their turn to strut their stuff down the catwalk on my tongue.
La sopa de mandarina y espuma de vino tinto
Our pre-dessert palate cleanser was a refreshing soup of mandarin orange mikan capped with a baby pink foam made with Spanish red wine. The fine miniscule espuma bubbles released a rapturous burst of wine and citrus bouquets as they dissolved and disappeared in my mouth.
El mousse de chocolate y café, trufa con sablé de queso y helado de haba tonka
The sleek and velvety coffee-flavored chocolate mousse gave way to a hidden center of Galician tetilla cheese filling that tasted like a firm version of Mascarpone. Cinnamon cookie crumbles held their own and formed a crunchy foundation for the soft mound of chocolate mousse as a roll of cheese sablé dusted with chocolate powder saluted 2 succulent cherries marinated in eau de vie. The most amazing scoop of tonka bean ice cream waited next in line on the dessert assembly line, imparting a wondrous flavor reminiscent of vanilla and almond.
Delightful petit fours of chocolate almond and green tea cookies finished our sensational meal at this historic mansion.
Was this restaurant worthy of 1 Michelin star? For the spectacular and creative food, the spot-on attentive service and a rare opportunity to dine in an illustrious historic estate? I say 2 stars. After dinner we took a walk outside to their beautiful backyard. As we strolled through the perfectly manicured garden and gazed up at the stars through the wrought iron gazebo, I tried to imagine what it was like here 70 years ago when the Count would have his lavish balls and afternoon tea parties. I could almost hear the scratchy tunes of Duke Ellington playing through the phonograph as women in flapper dresses and cloche hats pranced about on the lawn while their husbands smoked cigars and talked about Al Capone’s latest misconducts. Being on the grounds of Count Ogasawara’s mansion was a time trip to a special era, and it seemed far removed from the flashing neon signs and noisy pachinko parlors of Tokyo’s concrete jungle.
Palacio del Conde de Ogasawara
10-10 Kawada-cho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 162-0054
Random trivia: Did you know that tonka beans are illegal in the US? These black wrinkled seeds have a magical aroma that is reminiscent of vanilla, almonds, cinnamon and cloves. It’s frequently used in perfumes and tobacco. The seed and its oils contain coumarin, which is a potent anticoagulant. For this fact, its import and use in food has been strictly banned by the US Food and Drug Administration. (Pssst… if you search online, there are places where you can order it on the black market)