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Thursday, Oct. 14, 1999

TOKYO FOOD FILE

A TES SOUHAITS

Food dilettantes need not apply


There are so many plants around the entrance of A Tes Souhaits you'd be forgiven for thinking this is one of those feminine restaurants where flowers and fancy frills take precedence over the food. The sight of the sous-chef squatting by the kitchen door plucking a wild fowl should disillusion you of that soon enough.

Apart from its name (it's the French equivalent of "gezundheit" or "bless you"), there is very little else that's flowery about A Tes Souhaits. The dining room has the plain polish of a country hostelry, perhaps somewhere in the mountains of central France: a dark wood floor, chunky wooden beams across the ceiling, upright chairs, upholstered banquettes running along two walls and absolutely no pictures, chandeliers or other curlicues.

This is a place for serious trenchermen, not for dilettantes or frivolous followers of food fashions. Apart from the bottle-lined window affording glimpses into the kitchen, the only visual focus is a fireplace -- unfortunately false -- the upper surface of which has been made into a miniature shrine to the art of French gastronomy: Laurent-Perrier bottles in three sizes, a restaurant guide and a series of recipe books by three-star chefs from Joel Robuchon to Michel Guerard and Pierre Gagnaire.

Owner-chef Hiroshi Nakajima is a man who likes to cook for people who like to eat -- especially those who appreciate the subtleties of orthodox French cuisine. After training in France and paying his dues as head chef of L'Oiseau Bleu in Roppongi, he set up on his own a couple of years back in upper Shibuya (near Aoyama Gakuin). Since then he has been quietly building a name and loyal following, but never quite managing to achieve that critical mass of critical acclaim that he really does deserve.

For dinner, there are three set-course menus. The standard three-course meal is 5,000 yen; Menu B (6,200 yen) includes two hors d'oeuvres, one cold, one hot, along with your choice of main course and dessert; with Menu C (6,800 yen) you get only one hors d'oeuvres, but both fish and meat courses. But if you really want to know what Nakajima is capable of, then you should go for the 8,000 yen omakase menu (menu degustation). This does not involve a greater number of courses, just the very finest ingredients that he has in the kitchen on that particular day -- many of which will not be listed on the regular menu.

It's a tough call. The basic course is quite adequate for most occasions, but there are so many tempting things on the menu, you will be pulled inevitably toward the more complicated options. The best compromise is to order (as we did) one of the lesser courses and one of the top courses, and to trade plates and tastes as you go along.

Everything is of premium quality. The vegetables are all organically grown. The bread rolls are homemade, either whole-wheat or with buckwheat flour, slightly heavier but with a nutty fragrance. You are given a choice of butter, including Echire fermented butter (for which you pay a supplement).

As an appetizer we were served morsels of anago (conger) escabeche in a fragrant oil-vinegar dressing. Our granite was flavored with star anise and topped with Pernod.

We sampled three items from the extensive list of entrees. A chilled salmon bavarois, a breast-shaped mound of creamy savory custard covered with pink salmon and a peak of red ikura (salmon roe) in a tomato consomme aspic that was as delicate as it was refreshing. Then a ballotine of turkey containing foie gras topped with a fragrant chicken consomme jelly, with tender steamed young vegetables. And lastly a terrine incorporating seven kinds of mushroom, crowned with a rich slice of foie gras that rates among the best we have ever tasted in Tokyo.

Perhaps Nakajima's most renowned fish dish is his unagi (eel) tenderly simmered down in red wine in the Bordeaux style. But instead we were served a preparation of far more rarified status: Abalone, lobster, eggplant and matsutake mushroom in beurre blanc sauce. Everything was perfectly tender, ineffably fragrant, delectable, memorable.

However, it is in his meat dishes that Nakajima truly excels (he hails from a family of butchers). His specialty (though we didn't try it) is quail farcie, stuffed with shrimp and scallop in a seafood-based gravy. However, we can vouch for the roast lamb, which was coated in a thin layer of ink-black wild fungus, and served with a rich Madeira sauce. Our other meat course (again not on the regular menu) was Hokkaido venison, cooked just perfectly, and presented on creamy mashed potato in a rich, satisfying, meaty gravy.

As a predessert we were given a sherbet of fresh persimmon. The main dessert menu boasts a good half a dozen options, including a remarkable green creme bru^lee made with matcha powdered tea.

Regrettably, there are a few dark spots which prevent unqualified enjoyment of an evening at A Tes Souhaits. The menu is only in Japanese, and no English or French is spoken. The main waitress is forthcoming, friendly and helpful, if overinclined to honorific politeness. But her young male sidekick suffers either from terminal gormlessness or a severe paralysis when dealing with members of the human race.

There's worse. The wine list, while adequate, doesn't really have the depth to do justice to Nakajima's cooking. They do have several half bottles, which allows flexibility with your courses. But they also stock some very spotty wines -- including a Pauillac (Ch. Gaudin) that was undrinkable. The cheese plate was equally disappointing. Perhaps because they have not been doing brisk business recently, the specimens that were offered to us all looked extremely tired (and in some cases ancient). For 1,200 yen you expect better than this.

And this is the problem. A Tes Souhaits may appeal to connoisseurs, but fails to win those feminine customers whose loose purse strings and newly awakened taste for wine are essential for keeping any restaurant viable these days. We ate so well it really didn't matter at all, but it would have been nice to have more company -- and a better cheese platter.

La Tour d'Argent is celebrating. It has been 15 years since that august establishment (it boasts of being the oldest restaurant in Paris) spawned its Tokyo offshoot inside the plush portals of the Hotel New Otani. To mark this auspicious occasion, it is offering a special anniversary banquet.

As always, the centerpiece of the menu is the caneton (roast duckling) and as always you will receive a souvenir card recording the number of your bird. Besides their two classic styles -- "Marco Polo" or "Mazarine" -- they are also offering a special "Caneton de l'An 2000." This has been developed not just to celebrate the millennium, but also to mark their achievement of the landmark of having served their 100,000th duckling since first starting to keep records over a century ago.

These all feature in their lavish 25,000 yen six-course "Louis XIV" dinner, which will be available here in Tokyo through Oct. 27. To make sure everything is as it should be, executive chef Bernard Guilhaudin has flown in specially from Ile St. Louis.

And while it's true that you could virtually fly to France for that much, many people -- three-star superchef Pierre Gagnaire, for example -- rate the Tokyo restaurant over its Parisian parent. So this does represent a good opportunity to taste the full creativity of the Paris restaurant augmented by the technical mastery of the Tokyo kitchen staff. It is a dinner to remember well into the next century.

For more details, contact La Tour d'Argent in the Hotel New Otani, 4-1 Kioi-chio, Chiyoda-ku, tel: (03) 3239-3111.


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