As we walked through the front door of Ristorante Honda, an elegant Michelin-starred restaurant in Tokyo’s Gaienmae neighborhood, I was struck by the realization that eating out may never be quite the same again.
Inside the restaurant’s stylish dining room, with its neutral tones and white table linen, stood two men wearing face shields over their masks, looking like characters out of a Star Wars film.
“Some customers are quite concerned about contagion,” explained the maitre d’ from behind his protective gear.
Surely, Honda must be commended for putting its customers’ safety first but I could not help hoping the day would soon come when we could dine out safely without having to look at each other through plastic coverings.
After the Japanese government proclaimed a nationwide state of emergency on April 7, many people, including ourselves, heeded the government’s pleas to practice jishuku, or self-restraint, and stayed at home as much as possible.
Since the emergency orders were lifted on May 25, restaurants have gradually re-opened with strict measures in place to ensure their rooms are well ventilated, their guests use hand sanitizer at the door and are seated with plenty of space in between.
Fortunately, the slightly unsettling sight of our servers behind face shields did nothing to detract from the joy we experienced in being able to partake of an outstanding meal prepared by proprietor chef, Tetsuya Honda.
The first dish of our 8-course meal (Y11,000) was a cold soup of fresh onions, or shin-tamanegi, which are a spring specialty. While regular onions are left to dry for about a month to improve their shelf life, fresh onions are shipped to market soon after they are harvested in March and April and are therefore milder and sweeter than onions that can be found in supermarkets all year round.
The chilled fresh onion soup was as rich and creamy as vichyssoise, though much sweeter, even though no sugar or any other sweetener had been added. A dollop of ice-cold onion gelato, a crunchy garnish of lightly cooked onion and a pinch of piquant pepper added vibrancy to ensure the overall effect was perfectly balanced.
The next dish transported us to the rocky reefs off the coast of the Goto Islands in Nagasaki prefecture where isaki, or grunt, abound. It was a carpaccio of delicate slices of isaki cured in kombu kelp, which sat on a bed of nanohana, or rape blossoms, and fukinoto, or Japanese butterbur scape.
As if all that were not enough to satisfy our taste buds, the carpaccio, artistically arranged like an ornamental ball, was garnished with a generous serving of caviar and a fresh green sansho (Japanese pepper) leaf. The pale pink of the otherwise shiny white isaki was accentuated by the delicate pink flowers and leaves sprinkled here and there.
Isaki is particularly tasty in early summer, when the female fish lays eggs, so May and June are the best time to enjoy it as sashimi. The varied and unusual garnishes to this isaki carpaccio managed to add just the right amount of punch without distracting from the freshness of the raw fish.
Ristorante Honda may be an Italian restaurant but the cuisine is a creative mix of Japanese and western ingredients and techniques.
“We aim to serve Italian cuisine that conveys a taste of the seasons of Japan,” says chef Honda, who credits his mentor, Mamoru Kataoka of Ristorante Al Porto in Tokyo’s Nishi-Azabu neighborhood, for steering him towards his current cooking style.
After working in France and then Italy, where he was taken under the wing of Ezio Santin, proprietor and chef of Antica Osteria Del Ponte, a three-Michelin starred restaurant in Milan, Honda returned to Japan as sous chef at Al Porto. He opened Ristorante Honda five years later in 2004.
His culinary aspirations began with a love of spaghetti as a young boy in his native Odawara, southwest of Tokyo. “I come from a big family of mikan (tangerine) farmers – my father is one of nine siblings – and many of my relatives were self-employed. I grew up hearing from my (relatives) that I needed to acquire a skill of some kind,” he says.
“I wanted to bring people together and thought of opening a café where I could serve good food as well,” he says. Since he loved spaghetti, he naturally decided his café-cum-restaurant should be Italian.
Honda has certainly come a long way from his spaghetti-loving days, winning a Michelin star every year for the past 12 years.
The third course that evening was Hokkaido snow crab hidden under a smooth and creamy asparagus mousse decorated with stalks of bright green asparagus and colorful edible plants. The freshness and flavor of the crab were beautifully balanced with the verdant aroma of the asparagus.
The day’s fish was Char, a freshwater fish closely related to trout, which is often served salted and grilled. At Honda that evening, the char was served in thick slabs, which had been simmered for hours in a balsamic vinegar sauce, giving the light-fleshed fish a delightfully sweet and sour pungency that is more usually associated with salads than cooked fish.
We were now ready for chef Honda’s specialty pasta, which only makes an appearance in the summer – cold capellini with tomato sauce topped with bocconcini and pepper. Tomatoes are a quintessential summer food and here their tart sweetness was beautifully complimented by the mild and milky bocconcini.
As we savored this much-loved dish, along came our second pasta dish, which was ravioli stuffed with a paste of ayu, or sweetfish, and accompanied by fritto of baby sweetfish, tara-no-me (fatsia sprouts) and kogomi (ostrich fern). The sweetfish paste gave the ravioli an unusual twist of tasty bitterness but it was the light and crisp fritto that really stood out in this dish.
The main course was Kinka pork from Shizuoka, Kinka being a high quality brand. The soft pink flesh of the pork, shining under the marsala sauce, was highlighted by accompanying spears of wild asparagus. Although I was initially wary of the generous amount of fat sandwiched between the meat, the pork was very succulent and not as heavy as I had feared.
To refresh our palates, we were then served a dessert featuring slices of grapefruit and blood orange from Uwajima on the island of Shikoku, topped with a granita of chartreuse and saffron.
This was followed by fresh mango, mango pudding and mango gelato to satisfy any sweet cravings. The mango dessert brought a happy whiff of the tropics but I was further transported when I took a bite of Chef Honda’s hazelnut financier, which followed. I may have imagined it but the cake tasted just a bit warm, with the crispy crust and crunchy small grains of hazelnuts accentuating the moist and soft interior.
After our excellent meal, Chef Honda joined us for a chat and we exchanged notes about how we had been coping with the changes to everyday life and the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Like many of his peers, Chef Honda has started take-out and delivery services to supplement the reduced income from a restaurant that he can only half-fill to maintain social distancing.
Much to our surprise, he took on a new recruit amid the pandemic, even though he believes it will take a few years for business to return to pre-coronavirus days.
We certainly didn’t need it but that extra bit of information gave us another reason to want to come back and support one of Tokyo’s finest culinary establishments.
Website : http://ristorantehonda.jp/en_top.html
Lunch Courses : Y5,000 and Y8,000
Dinner : Y8,500, Y11,000, Y18,000