Before the coronavirus put a virtual halt to dining out in Tokyo, we visited Narisawa in Tokyo’s chic Aoyama neighborhood on an unseasonably warm day in early March with a cloudless sky and a light spring breeze.
I had not been to chef Yoshihiro Narisawa’s innovative restaurant for several years, partly due to the frustrations of trying to get a table at this expensive yet highly popular establishment with its 2 Michelin stars and partly because I was not confident I could still manage the 15-course meal.
But when we heard it had become much easier to secure reservations at Tokyo’s hard-to-book restaurants amid the sharp drop in overseas tourists, and that Narisawa had introduced a lunchtime “half course,”we decided to try our chances. Sure enough we were able to get seats for the next day.
Inside the restaurant’s light-strewn dining room, the atmosphere was peaceful, even slightly cheerful, as the sharply-dressed waiting staff moved about attentively and the dozen or so guests quietly marveled at each immaculate dish placed before them. Surprisingly, given the circumstances, the room was full.
Our half course began with a small serving of sake in a bright red, flat lacquer cup known as a Hiki Sakazuki, which the 7-page course description helpfully explains is “used to drink sake during a formal tea ceremony. Using this plate signifies the start of an important meal.” Clearly, Chef Narisawa takes his cuisine very seriously.
The special red cup was placed on a sheet of white, hand-made Japanese washi paper to represent the Japanese flag. Even the size of the cup was in exact proportion to the white paper as the red circle of the Japanese flag is to its white background.
Narisawa calls his cooking “Innovative Satoyama Cuisine,” and the course we had ordered was named “Satoyama Scenery,” which can be roughly translated as the scenery of Japan’s native forests and mountains. Narisawa, however, also includes the seas in his definition of satoyama.
“The satoyama is beneficial to body and spirit and promotes a continuously sustainable environment, a culture beyond value, expressed on these plates as “Satoyama Scenery,” he writes.
I could certainly see the forest in the familiar arrangement of bread dough and butter that was placed on the table. This is a Narisawa specialty, which we had also enjoyed on our first visit almost six years ago.
The bread dough is left to ferment in a pot surrounded by conifer leaves and fruit. The butter looks like a mound of moss-covered soil, sprouting bright green leaves, but is actually whipped butter covered with powdered spinach and olive.
Once the sake was whisked away, our first course arrived – cod from Hokkaido on a slice of brioche with a generous topping of shaved black truffle. The cod was smooth, creamy, slightly sweet — and perfectly complimented by the aromatic truffle. Our lunch had taken off to a heavenly start.
Our friendly servers were extremely efficient and as soon as we had finished our first course, a clear glass plate of young sweetfish fritto arrived. The glass plate and the sauce, which was made of sake and ponzu, or citrus vinegar, created a shimmering pond in which delicately fried fish seemed to be swimming, with specks of cherry blossom petals scattered here and there. Another pastoral scene from Japan’s satoyama countryside.
Contrary to its name, young sweetfish tastes quite bitter and the combination of this bitterness with the acidity of the vinegar was surprisingly pleasant.
A smiling server brought the bread back in a sturdy stone bowl, showed us how it had fermented, and placed a thick wooden slab over it. The bread then baked in this bowl on our table, before our very eyes.
While we waited for the bread to bake we were served a gratin of sea urchin, oysters, slices of turnip and yuba, or tofu skin that had been boiled, topped with rapeseed blossoms and a blob of wasabi (Japanese horseradish). It was a rich combination of tastes and textures, and what could have been a very heavy dish was saved by the use of soy milk, white miso and sake lees for the gratin, instead of cream and butter.
I took a bite of the bread, which was slightly sweet and so soft it seemed to melt in my mouth with the butter.
We were now approaching mid point in our 8-course lunch and I was beginning to wonder how I ever managed to eat Narisawa’s full 15-course meal.
Chef Narisawa, who came out to greet his diners during the meal, spent eight years training under various chefs in France, Switzerland and Italy including Paul Bocuse, Frédy Girardet and Joel Robuchon. However, his cooking makes extensive use of Japanese ingredients and techniques and can hardly be described as European – or even French.
He has won several Michelin stars and other awards, including the International Academy of Gastronomy’s prestigious Grand Prix de l’Art de la Cuisine in 2018.
“I go to the fields, forests, mountains and sea, and get my inspiration and feeling from nature. First I imagine how these environments make me feel, and then I organize my thinking to create my dishes, he said in an interview on the S. Pellegrino Young Chef website.
How Chef Narisawa’s imagination took him from the countryside to the next course was a puzzle to me but the ball of colorful root vegetables wrapped around minced tiger prawn and scallops, which appeared in front of us, was certainly the visual highlight of the meal. Narisawa named it “temari,” after the vivid balls made of different colored threads wound in geometric patterns that children used to play with in Edo period Japan (1603-1868).
The dumpling of prawn and scallops was smooth and flavorsome, and the root vegetables, refreshing. But what made this dish special was the dashi broth of Rishiri kombu seaweed, aged for 3 years and soaked in water for 48 hours. The broth abounded with umami flavor, without being salty.
At this point, I decided I could only eat half of each dish and my dining partner gallantly agreed to eat what I couldn’t finish. So, it was fortunate that the next dish – smoked Spanish mackerel on a bed of red horseradish accompanied by rice crisps with a kinome (a minty flavored edible leaf) and sakura sauce- was an olfactory delight. The smokiness gave me just about as much pleasure as the taste of the actual fish.
Next came a plate of bright red langoustine with an extremely aromatic sauce made of fukinoto (edible flower bud of the fuki plant). The sweetness of the langoustine and the bitterness of the fukinoto created a wondrously delicious contrast.
Our main course was a surprisingly large and tender steak of Japanese deer on a bed of onion fondue with shredded truffles on small cubes of vegetables. The sauce, made of berries, was splashed across the plate to resemble blood, reminding us that “we live by taking other precious lives,” as Narisawa had written in the notes accompanying the meal.
We were finally at the end of the meal – a dessert of oven-baked fruit tomatoes, strawberries and vanilla ice cream covered in olive oil, which went surprisingly well with the baked fruit. Contrary to expectations, it was light and refreshing.
Finally, we were served a traditional Japanese treat – monaka – a sandwich of wafers filled not with the usual sweet bean paste but with small cubes of jellied tea and balls of rice cake.
Narisawa’s magic is to weave French and Japanese influences into concoctions that reflect the best of both worlds, and we left the restaurant completely under its spell and even more impressed, several years on.
2-6-15 Minami Aoyama
tel : 03-5785-0799
website : narisawa-yoshihiro-en.com
Half course lunch – Y22,000
Full course lunch – Y33,000
Dinner – Y38,500