His culinary Holiness Chef Ferran Adrià has revolutionized the world of gastronomy with his inventive and playful style of cooking. Many of you have probably heard the sad news that the holy grail of all restaurants, El Bulli, will be temporarily closing its doors in 2012. Initial rumors reported that Chef Adrià was going to open a culinary academy instead, but he later refuted these rumors and announced that he was going to reopen in 2014. Whatever the case, nobody can argue that he was at the forefront of creating a whole new style of haute cuisine centered around the disciplines of molecular gastronomy.
Of all of the culinary trends that we have seen these past few years, this style of scientific gastronomy has had the greatest appeal to me. I am a self proclaimed science geek who did a Chemistry thesis on the different chemical components of acid rain for my high school studies. I was on the math team and competed as the science nerd on our BrainBowl team (our version of inter-scholastic Trivial Pursuit). I was a Biochemistry major in college, and I chose the path of medicine for my career. So when the high-energy particles of science and food collided, they broke the carbon chains of monotony and converted boredom into pleasure through a stable process called culinary fusion. I love when spectacular food appeals to my 5 senses, but I love it even more when it stimulates my cerebral cortex. You want to talk about how calcium chloride cross-links sodium alginate polymers to form jello? Pull up a chair and let me pour you a glass of wine, sexy. Purrrrr…..
Fortunately I live in Los Angeles where this culinary trend has taken off. I had a few excellent meals at The Bazaar last year, run by one of Ferran Adrià’s disciples Chef José Andrés. Chef Marcel Vigneron has incorporated similar techniques in his innovative cuisine, as demonstrated in his Hatchi dinner this past December. Liquid nitrogen infused cocktails have been popping up in almost every bar around town. On my recent pilgrimage to Tokyo, I had an opportunity to have a full-blown molecular cuisine orgy at the Tapas Molecular Bar.
Situated on the 38th floor of the majestic Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Nihombashi Tokyo, this exclusive restaurant has been raising a lot of buzz since it opened with the hotel in December 2005. It feels more like an exclusive club than a restaurant, as it occupies only a tiny bar counter space in the middle of the Oriental Lounge adjacent to the hotel lobby. The kitchen is run by head chef Jeff Ramsey, who used to work with none other than José Andrés at Minibar in Washington D.C. Ramsey, who is a Japanese-American hapa, is the perfect fit for this title- with his experiences working with both types of cuisines in both countries, he can formulate innovative avant-garde menu concepts with traditional flavors which will still appeal to the Japanese palate. The Tapas Molecular Bar has won 1 Michelin star for the second consecutive year.
There are only 2 seatings a night at 6pm and 8:30pm, and only 8 seats per seating. The reservations attendant informed me that I had to be punctual for my reservation as the meal was going to start exactly on time. Each item on the 20-25 course menu is introduced and described by the chef and subsequently served to all guests at the same time. My dining partner and I arrived 30 minutes early to our 8:30pm reservations, and enjoyed a cocktail in the chic Oriental Lounge overlooking the breathtaking night view of Tokyo. I ordered the Tapas Molecular Bar signature cocktail, the Fresh Pear Martini made with pear-infused Grey Goose vodka, La France pear espuma and Cointreau. With the flickering warm lights from the fireplace reflecting on the V-shaped glass and the spectacular backdrop of gem colored city lights, this was one delicious and sexy martini. The olives were also meaty, juicy and scrumptious.
Large silver metallic plates with the printed Winter menu greeted us at our seats. Like traditional Japanese sushi restaurants, this was interactive counter dining where creator and eater came face to face. Only this time, I felt more like a spectator at a theatrical chemistry lab watching the mad scientist and his docile assistant brew potions and create puffs of clouds over Bunsen burners. The small kitchen behind the counter was like an experimental workshop, full of contraptions that could cryovac, sous vide, foam, spherify, liquify and gassify. There were flasks, pipettes, test tubes and beakers abound, and all of us were mesmerized with the magical performance. With every pop, sizzle and poof we all giggled like children at a puppet show and couldn’t hold back our oohs and aahs with each twist that came with the dishes.
Shattered Rose Martini 粉々のローズマティーニ
Liquid nitrogen was slowly poured into the martini glasses, creating a cool white layer of fog that brought mysticism and magic to the aperitif. As the fog started to clear, it gave way to a cluster of flash frozen ‘shattered’ rose petals floating on a delicate thin top layer of ice. Imagine a floating iceberg on a tranquil red sea in the cool arctic mist.
Puffed Barbequed Pork ふっくら焼豚
Triple Cooked Kuwai カリカリくわい
TMB’s version of chicharrones was a light and crispy piece of deep fried pork rind with a caramelized coat of dark sweetness and what I thought to be a hint of star anise. It tasted like soy senbei rice crackers with a perfect addictive combination of sweet and salty. Kuwai, a Japanese arrowhead vegetable that looks like an upside down apostrophe mark, was cooked to a golden crisp exterior while the bulb still maintained a warm and fluffy consistency.
Arctic Potato Chip 厳寒チップス
When I picked up this thin yellow ruffled sheet, I was surprised to find that it broke into pieces very easily between my fingers. That was when I realized that it was a delicate piece of ice falling apart under the warmth of my fingerpads, and I’d better eat it fast before it all melted on my lap. The water that remains after boiling potatoes was frozen into sheets and served as a chip. I understood the intention of having this ice flake mimic the crispiness of a potato chip, and it was even salted very generously to taste like it came out of a bag; but it was too cold and too watery for me to appreciate the gustatory illusion.
Apple and Manchego アップルマンチェゴ
This was a TMB classic that has been served in other seasonal menus. The exterior of this mini cigar was made of thinly sliced and baked apples which were rolled into tight cylinders. A manchego cheese and apple juice sorbet was made with a Pacojet and piped into the apple tubes. It made for a delightful sweet and creamy snack that I would love to have around the house for an afternoon tea session.
Roast Pepper Caviar 焼きパプリカキャビア
A strange contraption of hanging syringes filled with alternating red and yellow liquid was brought out to center stage. The chefs slowly pressed down on the plexiglass plate on top which evenly distributed pressure among the syringes filled with paprika essence and sodium alginate. Upon contact with the receiving pool of calcium chloride, a chain reaction occurred where cross-linked polymers were configurated in the form of a thick gel, thus transforming liquid droplets into viscous pellets. The bright colored ‘caviar’ was seasoned with olive oil, thyme and salt and served in a small porcelain spoon. They didn’t have much flavor, but I loved the bouncy and slippery textures.
Tai Chazuke 鯛茶漬け
Ochazuke is a classic Japanese comfort dish where warm green tea is poured over a bowl of steaming white rice and condiments which typically include dried rice crackers and dried nori seaweed. In this deconstructed version, a delicate slice of kelp-infused sea bream was garnished with strings of fresh kombu seaweed and crispy dried arare rice crackers, and served with an umekombucha (pickled plum and kelp flavored green tea) liquid sphere. When I closed my eyes and took this dainty spoonful into my mouth, the briny aroma of salty seaweed perfumed my sinuses, invoking a dynamic phantasm of a mighty sea bream swimming boldly against the strong currents of the winter Ohotsuku sea.
Bacalao Espuma バカラオのエスプーマ
Bacalao (salted dried cod) espuma was layered over a tomato cream base in a tall shot glass and decorated with a small garden of microgreens and red tomato caviar (seeds). I loved the subtle flavors of the smooth bacalao cream and the overall playful art deco composition of the dish. A thin baguette wafer topped with kalamata olive paste and semidried tomato bits added an extra layer of saltiness that complemented the sweet mellowness of the cream.
Scallop with Cultivated Pearl ホタテの真珠添え
Flash boiled scallops served on its shell with sweet papaya slices and paprika cubes were cooked to a perfect tender consistency, but the real beauty of the dish came from the glistening white pearl on the edge of the shell. The gel foam made with honey, yogurt and lime juice, and painted with a gloss to make it shine like the real deal, was a bit too sweet for my taste but I appreciated the elegance and artistry of this aesthetically memorable dish.
Spider Crab and Jamón たらば蟹とハモン
A glorious red chunk of sweet spider crab lounged in the center of this playful dish, getting pampered with a deluxe facial spa treatment consisting of a moisturizing jamón iberico mask and an invigorating chardonnay vinegar cleansing foam. The warmth of the crab meat slowly melted the paper thin sheet of jamón fat into a shiny coat of luscious savor, tucking all of the tasty crab essences into the plump meat. Pink grapefruit jelly garnished with thin microgreens and coarse green pistachio crumbs added more texture and freshness to the crustacean, and for me personally the green ice plant stole the show. With its dewy complexion and crisp crunchy texture, this vegetable was an absolute delight. The fleshy and hearty green leaves were covered with small silver fibers which made them look like moist dew drops glistening in the early morning sun.
Black Truffle, Lily Bulb 黒トリュフ、百合根
A hearty yurine lily bulb cream soup was layered with truffle infused foam and topped with succulent wedges of lily bulb flesh, shaved black truffle, truffle oil and drizzles of concentrated bouillon caramel. The savory flavors of all of the components came together in a successful melange of rich divinity, not to mention the seductive bouquets of rich earthiness wafting from the truffle slices. This was one of my favorite dishes, and as a truffle enthusiast, I was very happy.
Secreto de Cerdo イベリコのヒミツ
Shhh….can you keep a secret? Or two?
This dish named ‘secreto de cerdo’, or ‘the pork’s secret’, had more than one secret twist. It was presented in a covered porcelain bowl that, when opened, released a puff of aromatic cherry wood smoke. When the beautifully scented rich smoke cleared, voila! It revealed perfectly cooked slices of Spanish Iberico pork on a bed of bok choy. The other ‘secret’? The section of pork meat served was actually called secreto, which is the highest quality marbled meat located under the arm beneath the layer of fat in the armpit. It’s a special cut of pork that can only be harvested in small portions from each animal, and it’s practically like bacon. The deep savory flavors of the secreto jus went wonderfully with these divine cuts of tender meat that were infused with the smokey perfumes of cherry wood. This dish in particular paired perfectly with our Chilean Cabernet, a masculine bottle of 2007 Montes Alpha with hints of tobacco and black peppercorn.
Foie, Coffee, Potato フォアグラ、コーヒー、じゃがいも
My least favorite dish was a haphazardly plated array of roasted asparagus and thick potato discs which were garnished with frozen foie gras shavings and drizzles of espresso glaze. The Hokkaido potatoes were starchy and bland, and were severely lacking in flavor despite being confited in foie gras fat. The shaved slices of frozen foie gras melted quickly into a sad flesh-colored blob before I could salvage it with my knife.
Wagyu Ravioli, Kinome, Maitake 和牛のラビオリ、木の芽、舞茸
The translucent ravioli in this following dish was made with reduced wagyu beef consommé, brimming with rich meat flavors and bouncing with a firm gelatinous spring due to the high collagen content. The ravioli was packed with savory morsels of beef shank and buttery bits of braised Achilles tendon. Sautéed maitake mushrooms added earthiness to the dish while a rosemary cream foam tempered the robust flavors of the meat. The green kinome pepper leaves brought vibrant color and zest to this fantastic course.
Xiao Long Bao 小龍包
Next came my other favorite dish of the evening, and the one that made me smile the most. By this point in the meal, I knew that I couldn’t take the menu literally. There was inevitably going to be a twist on ‘xiao long bao’, Chinese soup dumplings, and I toiled over what they were going to serve. Was it going to be a deconstruted XLB? An inside out XLB? A liquid XLB sipped through a straw, or a puff of XLB scented smoke? The chef was busy torching away at something behind the counter and I couldn’t wait to see what was coming out.
What’s this, a lamb chop? I was confused, as were all other guests. This was TMB’s version of the popular XLB soup dumpling, where they took the same concept of having flavorful juice inside of a sealed package that bursts inside your mouth. A pomegranate and meat jus gelatin cube was placed in the middle of the lamb chop through a center incision, sealed with meat glue, and cooked to perfection. We were instructed to eat the whole thing in one bite so as not to waste any of the flavorful juices onto the plate, and boy was this one juicy and mind blowing dish. I closed my eyes when I went for the kill and I felt my heart skip a beat as the hot mouthwatering juices burst inside of my mouth and filled every crevice with its intense richness. I didn’t even bother with the sweet potato, pistachio, honey and ginger purée, as the lamb XLB was already perfect on its own.
Miso Soup 味噌汁
Another winning dish for the evening was the deconstructed miso soup. A jiggly blob of miso soup ‘sphere’ garnished with white tofu ‘caviar’, a drop of green onion oil and dried wakame seaweed powder were all presented as separate entities on the porcelain spoon. However, in that one swift bite, the miso sphere burst open like a water balloon under the slightest pressure of tongue on palate to mix with the other components to trick my taste buds into thinking that I was having a comforting sip of warm miso soup from the bowl. This dish was fun, clever and playful.
Snow, Sel Guerande 雪ー冬のいぶき
The first dessert course was a winter dish that was made with nitro-frozen shavings of milk with sel guerande. The liquid nitrogen formed that characteristic white mist that slowly and eerily spilled out of the bowl. The crispy and crunchy flakes tasted sweet like condensed milk, and I loved the dragon’s breath effect that the liquid nitrogen created as diners munching on the dessert unwittingly snorted white smoke out of their nostrils.
Dessert plate デザート
An architectural display of various bite-sized sweets was presented to us as we started winding down from our extravagant meal.
Mont Blanc モンブラン
This delightful ball had a light whipped creamy interior with a dusting of brown chestnut powder.
Raspberry Soda 木いちごのソーダ
Olive oil gummy オリーブ油のグミ
The pink raspberry soda disc that fizzed with carbonation on my tongue tasted sweet and creamy at first, then changed to sour and tangy once the fizzing started. The yellow olive oil gummy with sugar coating had a sweet yet rich and slightly nutty flavor.
Cappuccino cotton candy カプチーノ
Genuine chocolate truffle 正真正銘のトリュフチョコレート
I loved the cappuccino flavored cotton candy fluff ball whose fine soft fibers melted and collapsed in my tongue into a sweet coat of sugar. The genuine chocolate truffle was genuine in both senses of the term- it was a silky black chocolate truffle that was generously coated with real black truffle powder. The balance of sweet and savory, sugary and earthy were superb and divine.
The finale to our elaborate molecular cuisine extravaganza was a guided journey through the wacky world of miracle fruits. First we were instructed to suck on a lemon wedge to confirm its almost painful sourness. After we washed our mouths with a swig of cold water, we were told to suck on the small red oval miracle fruit for 1 minute. After we spit the red seed out, we sucked on the same lemon wedge again. Gasps, laughter and shrieks simultaneously erupted from the arena as all 7 diners were taken by surprise by how sweet the lemon tasted. We sucked on the lime to find that this too was as sweet as honey. The juicy navel oranges? Practically like mango. The miracle fruit changes sour flavors to sweet, and this effect lasts for up to 2 hours. They told us that the reaction is stunted by heat, so hot liquids like coffee or tea can destroy the sweetening effect. I unknowingly took my last sip of Cabernet and was jolted by the fact that it tasted like vintage port wine. What an amazing fruit!
Some dishes lacked flavor and finesse, but all dishes surprised, fascinated and entertained. Each dish had a creative interpretation and clever twist that kept us on our toes all evening. I was disappointed that Chef Ramsey didn’t do our 8:30pm seating, and instead we had a rookie Japanese chef who seemed a bit nervous and diffident. I still got to chat with Chef Ramsey after my meal and overall I was happy with the unique experience. For 14,000 yen it was worth every precious minute to be a VIP front row guest to this exclusive private show that would almost put Cirque de Soleil to shame. Floating gadgets, morphing forms, disappearing objects and colorful illusions captivated all who were fortunate enough to participate in this once in a lifetime memorable meal at the Tapas Molecular Bar.
Mandarin Oriental Tokyo
2-1-1 Nihonbashi Muromachi
Chuo-ku, Tokyo, 103-8328 Japan
Telephone: +81 (3) 3270 8800
Random trivia: The miracle fruit, which is grown in West Africa (the one we had at TMB came from Ghana), contains an active glycoprotein called miraculin. Although the exact mechanism is unknown, miraculin binds to taste buds to create an illusion of sour foods tasting sweet. Research is being done to use this for cancer and diabetic patients.