Japanese restaurants are a hard nut to crack for the international traveller. Booking policies are as you’d expect from a nation that forbade any communication with the outside world for centuries. Signage is often non-existent, windows are screened and (apart from the national obsession for plastic food displays) there is little to dispel the impression that restauranteurs aren’t particularly interested in attracting anything other than local trade. If there’s any doubt then reference the fact that a number of the most respected chefs have rejected the Michelin awards system -anxious to avoid an influx of gaijin trophy hunters. So the related fact that Japan’s total of Michelin stars awarded exceeds those of the US, UK and Spain PUT TOGETHER is even more remarkable.
As part of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, Tapas Molecular Bar is one of the few notable dining spots that makes it easy to reserve from overseas without the help of a concierge. We book it for early on in our stay, trusting that over the following days we’ll find our Tokyo feet and root out some other good’uns amongst the 160 000 restaurants in town.
A breathtaking trip to the 38th floor of the hotel, a vertiginous pre dinner cocktail, and we’re sat with 7 other guests at the counter, unpacking our own personal toolbox ready to start chipping away at the fifteen course menu.
First on the pass (literally under our nose) is a nitrogen poached potato mousse encasing a spoonful of caviar. Smash the crunchy carpace to get to the yummy eggs inside. The chef talks us through the dish as he prepares it and then answers our questions as we navigate each course. This is a recurring theme throughout our meals in Japan, but never as entertainingly as this one.
Also in the earthy/delicate vein, a little ‘mushroom’ of fried potato, veiled in truffle slices and porcini powder and sitting on a sweet pea and iberico puree. A dewdrops from a pipette of argan oil gives a musky edge to the dish. Ras al hanout gives the flavours a fragrant buzz.
As we’re finishing off, the activity behind the counter focuses on filling potato tuiles with a mix of sous vide iberico pork, apple and cucumber with a little hoi sin. A little wad of sesame oil/maltosec ‘ash’ completes the cigar before smoking. Cue cigar-smoking selfies and the already relaxed atmosphere around the bar hits a new level of bonhomie.
Tuna smoked for three seconds over wakame and bonito flakes on hot stones with a little seawater added for steam is added to a subtle salad of yuzu-marinated abalone, ice lettuce, dried seaweed and popping sea grapes (umbiro) from Okinawa.
Seared king crab in a hot cauliflower mousse covered with a blitzed frozen parmesan ‘snow’ is a stark reminder of how little cheese figures in the Japanese palate, and how powerfully parmesan can cloak the flavours of ultra fresh seafood.
More smoke (subtle chamomile this time) fills a kilner jar of truffley mushroom veloute to pour over little leaf-shaped mushroom leaves and mushroom leather.
A ‘BBQ’ of foie gras glazed with sake must floats over dry ice. Green grape infused with muscat wine and finished with a lick of truffle honey adds delicious sweetness.
After those rich Western-influenced flavours, a palate cleanser of spherified pickled plum juice flecked with shisu prepares us for the next act…
…which calls for a good rummage in the toolbox. Tweezers to eat delicious nuggets of lobster poached in miso butter with poached onion and uni (sea urchin roe -its the stand out Japanese ingredient for me.The whole nation’s obsession with freshness, provenance and purity concentrated in the delicate, seawater flavours). Then the matches for lighting a little oil lamp to arm a test tube of somen noodles in jellied dashi soup.
If the lobster dish puts the diner in the driving seat, the next course is all about the skill of the chef. A incredible confection of charcoal-black taro batter layered with lard and the deep fried: lard melts, wisps of batter crisp to form a honeycomb shell encasing black pepper beef with truffle honey. Wisps of black truffle add to the unctuousness.
Guinea fowl comes as two courses. A sous vide breast (62degC/45 minutes) is followed by an incredible looking bun of charcoal colours bread dough baked with a filling of guinea leg and chestnut wrapped in sesame leaf. The flesh is a little dried out by the process which is a shame as the initial effect is impressive.
Dessert is served. Trifle of yoghurt, granola and berries is pleasant, if unexciting. The ‘eggs Benedict’ is a corker though: a disc of brioche french toast with sugar crust blowtorched like a perfect bread pudding. On top is a mango and papaya ‘yolk’ surrounded by spherified almond cream. A spoonful of mango mascarpone completes the look.Great flavours and a fitting end to an engaging, light hearted romp through molecular techniques with a uniquely Japanese sensibility. Not every dish hit the spot but the whole was a great introduction to Tokyo dining: tiny counter, conversation with the chefs and other diners, cooking under your nose, dedication to the joy of eating out. We leave ready to discover what else the Japanese food scene has to offer.
Breakfast Trifle: yoghurt/berries/cereal & Eggs Benedict: papaya/almond cream/mascarpone