Seeing as Cole has put us in a food mood and it’s late on a Saturday night, I hope, my dears, that you will forgive me a little indulgence. I know many of you like reading about food (and, not incidentally, eating good food), and I suspect you might not mind if I were to tell you about a meal that I enjoyed on my trip to Japan at the beginning of the year.
I have been lucky enough over the years to eat at many fine restaurants. I’ve been rouxed and ramsayed and blumenthaled. I’ve been sneered at by waiters in the finest establishments in France and New York. I’ve even eaten an omelet made by the very hands of Julia Child herself.*
However, my recent meal at Takazawa in Tokyo has eclipsed all of those.
Knowing that I was only going to be in Tokyo for a few brief nights, I was determined to sample the best that it had to offer and damn the expense.
On our first night, therefore, we ate at the (apparently) legendary Ten Ichi, a tempura restaurant in the Ginza. No bain-marie-cooled and lumpy batter here. Rather, as we sat at the bench around the cooking area, wearing our bibs and scoffing Asahi, the chef coolly mixed his batter, skimmed his wok of boiling oil, and proceeded to place before us a seemingly endless succession of deep fried treats. Two shrimp, a single glassy scallop, one flawless mushroom, a tiny fish (head, bones, tail and all) and more, each piping hot within their paper-thin shell of batter, each ready to be topped to taste with a sprinkle of salt or a dab of curry powder or a squeeze of lemon before being gobbled down. Afterwards we retired to a table where we sipped little cups of pea-green tea and I ate a slice of melon so perfect I suspect I can never eat melon again.
All this, however, was mere foreplay for the pleasures that awaited us the next evening.
At night, the Akasaka area seems almost to vibrate with the flash of neon, the welcoming shouts of the chefs at the teppanyaki restaurants and the roaring rattle of a million pachinko balls. We escaped finally into a dimly lit laneway, where a dozen identical black limousines, their engines idling, waited for the great and the powerful to finish work. Almost at the end of the lane we found the gently glowing door that leads to chef Yoshiaki Takazawa’s restaurant.
Climbing the stairs, with their poetry-inscribed banister (“I think that I shall never see, A poem lovely as a tree …”), I was giddy with anticipation and unaccountably nervous. We were warmly welcomed by Takazawa-san’s wife, Akiko, who manages the restaurant and, along with a single assistant, conducts the entire service. Akiko is truly charming and explains just enough about each dish.
The restaurant is a single, windowless yet warmly-lit room. At one end sits the raised, brushed-aluminum platform at which Takazawa performs, his assistant appearing from the kitchen behind with the partially completed dishes, ready for the chef to place the finishing touches. Each night, there are at most three tables, and this evening there were a mere seven guests.
After a calming glass of champagne, our dinner began with a selection of highly amused bouches.
First, a spoonful of glistening white spheres of potato soup that quivered beneath shavings of white truffle, and which burst in the mouth with a gentle pop and a rush of potatoey goodness. Next a crunchy film like a sheet of silk paper, golden brown and flecked with herbs, tasting intensely of scallop and, beside that, a fat slice of ibérico ham which had been allowed to reach room temperature, so it was wonderfully unctuous and meaty.
Having finished our champagne, we began our flight of Japanese wines with a crisp white from a vineyard near Mount Fuji. I would love to tell you about each wine, but I quickly lost track, not least because most of the grapes were varieties of which we had never heard. Suffice to say that each was exquisitely matched with the courses that followed and, although I would never before have thought of buying a Japanese wine, I am now a convert.
Our first course was, as is usual, Takazawa’s signature dish – his Ratatouille. This is a little terrine, painstakingly made from a dozen different vegetables, served with a single black bean and a flake of salt, and designed be eaten in a single bite. In the mouth, it breaks into a multitude of flavours, each piece with its own texture and crunch.
By this point, I had relaxed, knowing that we were in the safest of hands.
Only ten (or so) courses to go…
Next was the Vegetable Parfait – a towering parfait glass, filled with a coral pink and vibrantly flavoured tomato gazpacho, covered with a parmesan mousse, edible petals, caviar, and cubes of jelly and cucumber, all topped off with a plume of crispy deep fried cavolo nero and a straw. This dish was a joy to eat, scooping up the mousse with the kale chip between sips of soup and, finally, when it had been reduced to a sludgy mess, slurping up the remainder. It was like an adult bubble tea, with little pops of jelly and caviar, and I confess that I made a dreadful sucking noise with the straw like a kid trying to get the very last bit at the bottom of the glass.
Akiko (bless her heart) arrived with bread and more wine – this time a white from Nagano. No ordinary bread this. Rather, freshly baked individual loaves, warm and crusty and studded with chunks of sweet potato. It was served with a little jar of pale and creamy rillette made with Okinawa agu pork, which I slathered on with gay abandon. Only pigs that had lived and died happy could taste so good.
Now is perhaps the time to note that I will never succeed fully as a food blogger. I had intended to take photographs. Indeed, I had been ordered to do so by several envious friends. In the end, however, I decided (as usual) that I just didn’t care to spend my meal worrying about lighting and camera angles. As such, all of the photographs which accompany this article come from Takazawa’s website, with the kind permission of the lovely Akiko. There are innumerable bloggers who (like me) feel justifiably compelled to document their meal at Takazawa. Where I don’t have access to photos, I have linked below to one or another blog where you can find photographs of these dishes and, perhaps, enjoy the writing of some talented food writers.
Our next course was Powdery Dressing. The dressing was yuzu rind, frozen with liquid nitrogen and scattered on raw yellowtail fillets and wafer thin slices of radish – pink, white and green – rolled into cylinders that gleamed through the nitrogen steam like precious jewels. The scent of yuzu filled the air and glittered on the tastebuds between the crunch of the radish and the melting softness of the fish. The dish was burstingly fresh and, such were the poetic heights inspired, put me in mind of spring shoots climbing out from beneath the sun-dappled snow.
After the crispness of the first few courses, the meal moved on to more hearty fare. Takazawa takes a charming delight in making food look like other food, as evidenced when Akiko placed before us a bowl containing Bacon EGG? – a perfect poached egg, along with crisped ibérico and wilted spinach, over which she poured a silky jerusalem artichoke soup. Of course, the egg was nothing of the sort and was instead made of soy milk mousse with a golden melting yolk of kabocha (Japanese pumpkin). Pure breakfast comfort food, warm and soft and salty.
In Portugal, later in our trip, we ate quite a bit foie gras, which was generally served as if for dessert, the meatiness of the liver often heightened by the sweetness of candied apple, a port wine reduction or a dried mango snap. Takazawa’s next dish, EZO Venison Tar Tar did something very similar. Fresh handchopped venison from the far north of Japan was served with white truffle and a mound of orange sea urchin roe. The making of this dish, however, was the round, sugary galette (almost like a brandy snap) for scooping. Just like in the combination of fish and radish in Powdery Dressing, here the metallic coolness of the venison was brightened by crisps of caramel, with the creamy, briny uni and the musty truffle binding it all together. I was never a fan of tartare, but this is how it should be done.
I returned to scraping the last vestiges of pork from my little jar and trying to cadge some from my other guests. They were annoyingly unwilling to hand it over. Thankfully, I was distracted by the next plate, which was quickly followed by an offer (just as quickly accepted) of more bread.
Ankimo is the liver of a monkfish and is prized as the foie gras of the sea. Here it was served as a terrine – two generous slabs of smooth liver encased in mushroom and “wintry” jelly, surrounded with slices of pink-skinned, marinated leek, pine nuts, balsamic and still more white truffle shavings. Smeared on hot pumpkin bread, the terrine was exceptional and had a rich and almost floral flavor.
Time for something hot, and the Hot Blanc Mangier was just the right thing. A jar of creamy blancmange, made from fish milt (shirako or “white children”) and topped with an intense crab jelly, was served beside a piping hot, deep fried “truffle” with more milt inside. I don’t think eating cod sperm will become a daily occupation for me. However, the contrast between the earthy, crunchy truffle and the delicate, melting blancmange was superb.
Our next plates each arrived under an enormous belljar, filled with coils of smoke from burning cherrywood and which, when lifted, disclosed the scent of a mountain fire and an Early Spring of crisp-skinned white fish, surrounded by just picked beans and peas, more crispy jamon and a sprightly warm green vegetable soup.
In preparation for our last savory course, Akiko placed a little white disc before each of us and poured over hot water redolent of pine and sap. It immediately expanded directly upwards into a nice hot towel. I know now that these silly little expanding handtowels are in fancy restaurants everywhere, but I’d never seen one before this and it made me laugh like a drain, and made my hands smell like a forest, which was nice.
Clean hands means eating with your hands and, sure enough, Dinner in the forest arrived without cutlery. A thick slab of pine bark was scattered with pine fronds (the tips of one of them smouldering redly), chunks of finest chargrilled wagyu and of purple and sweet potatoes, bright green ginko nuts and deep fried pine mushrooms, all of it robustly meaty. Fine produce done simply.
With that it was time for dessert. First, a pair of tiny cumquats filled with campari jelly, tart and sweet and bitter, and then Takazawa’s special camembert – seemingly a round of cheese, but instead a smooth, densely creamy truffled cheesecake served with manuka honey icecream and pear jam. Heaven.
To finish, petit fours of a coconut crisp, a delicate green tea madeline, salt and pepper chocolate and a yuzu marsmallow – I saved the marshmallow to last – and pots of tea selected from a dozen varieties.
Despite eating an extraordinary amount of food, I was sated without feeling gluttonous. I’ve racked my brain trying to find fault and I just can’t. There was an assurance and balance to the food and the order in which it was served, to the harmonies of ingredients and the deft references back to previous dishes, that was almost musical.
Even better, the menu is designed afresh each day based on the tastes of that night’s guests, so I know that next time I visit there will be new creations to discover.
If you would like to experience Takazawa’s food (and his gorgeous mirrored bathroom with its lighted glass balls and fancy towels), you should email Akiko three months before you are due to arrive in Japan. She will be delighted to hear from you.
All photos used with the kind permission of Aronia de Takazawa.
* It wasn’t that good an omelet, although I have to say in Julia’s defence that the poor dear was a little upset that morning after my husband Keith and I had to bail her out of jail after she got rolling drunk on absinthe, stole a gendarme’s hat and then fell into the Seine.