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Friday, Oct. 14, 2005
Mediterranean magic in Aoyama
By KRISTA KIM-PICKARD
Special to The Japan Times
Alain Ducasse is proving to be more than a master chef and successful entrepreneur; he is an envoy of French bien-vivre, importing the finest cuisine, wine and design to Tokyo. Earlier last month, Ducasse opened Benoit, his second restaurant in Tokyo since the opening of Beige in Ginza last year.
Benoit of Paris, established in 1912, is one of the original French bistros, and the only one to have received a Michelin star. Overseen by the Petit family for three generations, the venerated restaurant passed its legacy to the Alain Ducasse Group this past spring. Whereas the original Benoit serves traditional French, Benoit Tokyo is all Mediterranean bistro-chic, offering modern fare from France, Italy, Spain, Greece and North Africa. Collaborating with the finest European designers and artists, Ducasse creates magic within a sprawling two-story space in Aoyama's La Porte building.
To enter Benoit, located on the 10th floor, and be greeted by the lovely bar a la francaise, is to be transported to the Riviera. The bar is inspired by designs from the beginning of the 20th century and was built by master cabinetmaker Raymond Solomas from French walnut and pewter. An oak parquet staircase with wrought-iron railings leads up to the dining room.
This is the stage of interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon, the "it" designer of high-end hotels and restaurants, such as The Four Seasons George V in Paris and the St. James Hotel in London; it's easy to forget that you are in Tokyo. The dining room is a spacious sun lounge where windows span three sides of the room, providing stunning views of Tokyo's skyline. Cozy banquettes line one wall, and oak furniture covered in French table linens fill the room. At the far end (known as the "winter garden"), mandarin-orange taffeta curtains draped in front of large windows and citrus plants encased in glass create an enchanting atmosphere.
The setting is a perfect place to enjoy a creative and enticing menu that offers a mix of a la carte items or set menus (three courses for 11,000 yen or four courses for 13,500 yen). Benoit's head chef is Massimo Pasquarelli, who worked with Ducasse in top gourmet capitals of the world for five years, from the Louis XV in Monaco to L'Andana New York. He is obviously familiar with the exacting standards of his boss, and managed to meet our culinary expectations.
The appetizer course is similar to Japanese bento, as diners choose a theme of vegetable, seafood, meat or a combination of all three. The mixtura (3,700 yen), served on four square Alessi brand dishes, proved to be a scrumptious sampler: foie gras in a glass jar topped with sweet blueberry and onion marmalade and toasted fingers of wheat bread; Riviera salad enhanced by a tangy sherry vinaigrette; beef carpaccio, with flakes of Pecorino cheese from Pienza; and a brilliant, fluffy puree of cod, garlic, potato and milk, served with a sauce of parsley juice, garlic and olive oil.
The main courses run the gamut of Mediterranean cuisine, all refined by the Ducasse touch. The tajine (2,400 yen) was a smooth combination of seasonal vegetables, simmered in an exotic sauce of five spices. The perfect fish dish -- gently cooked on the inside, yet tender and flaky -- is ever a challenge, but Benoit's bonito fish (4,300 yen) made the grade. Basted with a pepper coating, it was served over aromatic, faintly sweet shallot marmalade, carrots marinated in chermoula and sticks of moist and savory corn bread covered in a paper-thin crust.
Chief sommelier Shigenobu Tsuruoka transformed the difficult task of ordering wine into playtime. He recommended a smooth, full-bodied 2003 Gigondas Domaine Cros de la Mure (7,100 yen) for a table of vegetable, seafood and tajine orders; and he selected a light 2004 Cotes du Rhone Domaine Cros de la Mure (5,800 yen) for a variety of duck, beef and fish. Judging from his superb guidance, Tsuruoka is the right man for the job. Benoit's impressive wine list is directly imported from France, Italy, Spain and Greece.
For dessert, the cheese plate (1,750 yen) -- three varieties from Italy, France and Spain, which are served with individual condiments -- was a marvelous denouement to the meal. However, the original creation, "Paris-Tokyo with strawberries, and creme de la rose" (2,000 yen), has a delectable reputation.
Reservations are a must, with the banquettes at the far end of the room being the most desired spots. Judging from the successful launch of two top restaurants in Tokyo, Alain Ducasse's magic has made his brand of fine dining an art form beyond borders.
The modern chef
Massimo Pasquarelli, a native of Abruzzo, Italy, worked with master chef Alain Ducasse for over five years before taking on his new post as head chef at Benoit Tokyo, with a world-class repertoire from the Plaza Athenee in Paris, the Louis XV in Monte Carlo and the L'Andana in New York. In an interview with The Japan Times, Pasquarelli explained the new roles of a modern chef, the keys to running a successful restaurant, and his take on Japan.
What does it take to be a modern chef?
Now, being a chef is totally different than it was 10 years ago. It's not only about knowing how to prepare good food; you have to know costs, computers, languages, and you must be open-minded about everything. When I open my fridge here in Tokyo, I have products from the U.S., Europe, Japan, Mexico -- and there can be as much as 50 different nationalities in our restaurant each night. Chefs must travel a lot to discover new ideas. Alain Ducasse is this kind of genius, who is able to absorb new ideas and translate them onto the plate, but when you talk with him, he is so human. I've worked with him in many of his restaurants, from Tokyo to Monte Carlo, and everyone in his restaurants respects him as a man. They are also very happy to receive him, because he brings new inspiration and new ideas.
What are the keys to a successful restaurant?
You need to create a place to enjoy, thus making a real impression. When you walk into an Alain Ducasse restaurant, you have real expectations because of his fame around the world, but it's his philosophy that makes each of his restaurants special.
For a successful restaurant, you need an atmosphere of harmony in the kitchen. The staff arrives at 8 a.m., and if they aren't happy for the rest of the day, then you won't have good food. It doesn't matter if you are in Italy, France or Japan. That is how we create good food, to allow everyone to be creative.
Why are the Japanese so passionate about food?
The Japanese are close to Europeans, in that they know about food because it is part of their culture. I've worked in New York, and the chefs there are trained at expensive culinary schools, because it is not automatically a part of their daily lives. In Tokyo, I can hire a person with no experience, but this individual will automatically know which vegetables are in season. Respect for food exists here in general.