In the dead of winter, when all is dormant, a culinary shaman summons the elements of earth, fire and water, recreating vibrant landscapes of forest and sea on beautifully presented plates. Tender green leaves sprout from moist edible dirt and pearly white shells resonate with the brilliant splash of ocean waves. Mother earth’s energetic vibrations are translated into delicious stories through this spiritual guide, Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa, whose elegant cuisine reflects the beauty of the seasons and the natural landscapes that nurture us. He reminds us of where we came from through his edible interpretations where guests ‘should not only be eating a meal, they should absorb life itself- and there is no feeling that can exist beyond that experience, for one cannot perfect that which nature has created.’
His 2 Michelin star cuisine at Les Créations de Narisawa in Tokyo that was recently ranked 12th best restaurant in the world in the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants List has a message, and it is an important one of balance, harmony and beauty. Through flavors that are European (having trained in Switzerland at Girardet’s, France at Robuchon and Italy at Antica Osteria del Ponte), aesthetics that are distinctly Japanese, techniques that are modern and concepts that are uniquely his own, he takes inspiration from our surroundings to create a culinary experience that awakens our senses.
In his Winter Collection 2011 menu, he guides me on a journey through ocean and land for a delicious celebration of life. The experience begins with ‘Evolve with the Forest’, Narisawa’s edible tribute to how humans should symbiotically coexist in a forest ecosystem. A bubbling tabletop concoction of fermenting bread, slowly rising from the gentle heat of candlelight, releases a waft of yeast aroma as our vegetable course arrives. A fresh crimson colored radish, sprinkled with edible dirt made from deep fried mustard seeds, appears as if it was freshly pulled out of the earth.
Narisawa’s tasting menu is minimalist, listing only the main ingredient of each course and whether it is a ‘gift from the sea’ or a ‘gift from the forest’. The first ocean treasure washes up on a plate of sea shells, Toba oysters from Mie prefecture prepared as thick fluffy fritters in a powdered charred leek batter. While the fritters are not the most handsome looking players on the block, the intense smokiness of the charcoal black batter lends an intensity and depth of flavor that fares well with the bivalves.
Land and sea come together in beautiful union in the hirame carpaccio dish made with thinly sliced hirame from Awaji-shima, scallop cream sauce and domestic olive oil from Kagawa prefecture. The clear plate creates an optical illusion of a vibrant garden sprouting from the ground with edible flowers, garden greens and herbs reaching tall and high up into the sky.
The spear squid dish, named ‘Wind of Basque’, undergoes a dramatic transformation in the blink of an eye, from a naked virgin to a seductress concealed in a veil of black mist. Like a matador that whirls his red flag in one graceful arc, our server sweeps in with a spoonful of charcoal black liquid nitrogen ash made with burnt red peppers for a dramatic presentation. Burnt red pepper soup, Basque pimenton sauce and now a blanket of pepper ash create three layers of smoky pepper flavors to augment the tender squid. 2007 Domaine André Vatan Sancerre finishes all 3 of these seafood courses on a good note.
The fully risen bread, now ready for baking, is placed in a heated stone pot on a table adorned with twigs and dried citrus. A smidgen of chestnut powder is lightly dusted onto the bread before it is covered with an oak tree lid to bake for 12 minutes. A faint aroma of yuzu seeps through from under the lid to tantalize our appetites as we wait for what seems an eternity until our hot bread is ready to be served.
Chestnuts and roasted walnuts add a wonderful earthiness to the warm bread introduced on the menu as ‘Bread of the Forest’. Tender young buds sprouting from the pot of soil that signify the return of spring are in fact red cabbage sprouts in a layer of dehydrated Taggiasca black olive tapenade and whipped butter. To be able to experience the full evolution of this bread course is a unique Narisawa concept that certainly brings man and nature closer to eye level.
The Saint-Sever foie gras dish, scoring high on the pleasure factor, is my favorite dish of the evening. The rich buttery foie with a perfectly seared exterior that is first poêléed in red wine vinegar and fond de veau, then finished with balsamic vinegar and strawberries, has the perfect balance of acidity, sweetness and savoriness that leaves me scraping the plate for every last remnant of sauce. Our bottle of 2008 Domaine Prieuré Roch Nuits St Georges pairs especially well with this memorable course.
My expectations are heightened when they present this beautiful chemistry set-like display of soup-filled glass tubes for the next ‘gift from the sea’. Chinese Jinhua ham soup releases an intoxicating perfume into my nares as it is poured onto our spiny lobster dish, but the end result is a disappointingly uninteresting plate of incongruous flavors. Bitter nanohana brassica takes away from the finesse of lightly dusted spiny lobster fritto while the prominent acidity of sudachi shavings seem to compete with the savor of the prized ham broth.
The final ‘gift from the sea’ is a madai red seabream from Awaji-shima, a well prepared slice of fish with crispy skin that I also find difficulty enjoying with its diffuse and somewhat disjointed plating of components. A scallop-esque cylinder of sesame tofu fritto, bright green wakegi onion sauce, Japanese putit vert greens, sudachi lecithin foam, and Kyoto white miso and scallop ribbon sauce are all individually delicious, but I struggle to grasp Narisawa’s philosophy of appreciating our natural landscapes through simple forms of beauty when I am too busy assembling each bite.
Chef Narisawa does, however, make up for it in his ‘gift from the forest’ dish of expertly prepared Hida wagyu rump roast where he manipulates the element of fire to express ‘rebirth’ and ‘transformation’ through another charcoal black presentation of carbonization, a recurrent theme throughout his tasting menu. Leeks are charred, allowed to mature and cure for 3 days to remove its bitterness, then coated onto the beef. The meat is arroséed with olive oil on low heat in a frying pan, requiring 1 chef to continuously baste the meat by hand for 30 minutes on the stovetop. The result is a tender moist cut of meat, evenly pink throughout as if temperature controlled sous vide, full of juiciness and the very flavor and essence of what beef is meant to taste like. A red wine bordelaise, some sweet Japanese chijimi spinach, a palate cleanser of Japanese sake granité and a bottle of 1998 St. Emilion Denis Barraud ‘Lynsolence’ later, I find myself soaking up the energy of the natural elements through my satisfied taste buds.
The first dessert course, served in a dramatic glass sculpture of winter landscape, features Le Lectier pear smoked with magnolia chips, magnolia flower ice cream and a chocolate fondant made from 125% Valrhona chocolate. A long overwhelming explanation of how chocolate can have a cacao percentage of 125% is kindly given to us by our server, but its technicality loses my attention and my brain fails to comprehend this concept. It seems though, through swirling the thick creamy chocolate dessert in my mouth, that Valrhona has somehow devised a way to create one of the most intensely concentrated dark chocolates in a product called P125 Coeur de Guanaja chocolate, and I am happy to receive.
Warm and pleasantly bitter matcha green tea french toast is presented in a dessert duo with milk ice cream coated with sweet sugar cane powder, a contrast of temperatures and flavors.
The dessert cart at Les Créations de Narisawa is quite a spectacle, its multi-tiered trays of smoothly sanded tree barks offering an irresistible array of bite sized sweets, from tarts (pear, muscat, chestnut and Satsuma), macarons (chestnut, tea), chocolate truffles and kirsch cherries to galettes, meringues and choux cream puffs.
A signature Narisawa item, a colorful gradation of petit macarons completes the tasting menu, with flavors ranging from white chocolate to rose and cacao intensities ranging from 41% to 80%. While a fun concept and a delight for the eyes, the macarons are dry, brittle and overly sweet.
Les Créations de Narisawa’s philosophy is an admirable one, one that honors nature, respects the elements and derives inspiration from our beautiful surroundings. With unique concepts and new methods of preparation and cooking, my meal here proved to be a great learning experience, but somehow didn’t take my breath away as a memorable one. With long introductions, lengthy explanations and technically elaborate dishes, I found this tasting menu to be more cerebral and less visceral, and one that I unfortunately don’t look back at and yearn to relive again. With such passionate visions to pay tribute to the forest, the sea and the earth, one would hope that these inspirations would translate more easily, but its complexity and technicality had me distracted on more than one occasion, creating within me a sensory block to receive Narisawa’s art.
Nature, for me, is raw, bold and at times chaotic (and in that there is such beauty)- the very opposite of what I felt at Les Créations de Narisawa that night where the food, the service, the quiet dining room and the spotless kitchen (my utmost respect to the cleanest kitchen I have ever seen where they even wipe the light bulbs every day) were pristine, polite, sterile and almost too perfect. Some day I hope to return to this restaurant during a different season and with a different mind set to be able to be more vulnerable to Chef Narisawa’s artistry and completely fall under his spell.
2-6-15 Minami Aoyama
Phone: +81 (3) 5785 0799
Random trivia: Oysters are considered aphrodisiacs. According to Greek mythology, Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, sprang forth from the sea on an oyster shell and promptly gave birth to Eros, god of love.