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Friday, Dec. 2, 2005
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Haute cuisine with altitude
Aside from some road-laying and cosmetic work, the bristling high-rises of the Shiodome complex are complete. It's a brutal, soulless landscape on an inhuman scale. There's only one thing that can tempt us along those sterile walkways and mazelike underpasses: the promise of fine dining. And no one does "fine dining" -- this being the vogue British term for haute cuisine in its modern form -- like Gordon Ramsay.
He may not be a household name in Japan yet, but in London Ramsay is the hottest chef in a restaurant scene that remains overheated to the point of hyperventilation. For his first restaurant in the Far East, he has installed himself 28 floors above ground, inside the sleek, soaring hallways of the Conrad Hotel, which opened in July. It's a suitably grandiose setting for a chef who has a reputation for doing things on a larger-than-life scale.
If Ramsay is the celebrity chef of the moment, he deserves to be. He remains best known to the great British public for his TV shows, newspaper columns and feisty (some say perfectionist) personality, but he has a fistful of Michelin stars and a growing stable of restaurants to his hugely talented name.
Ramsay studied his art in the kitchens of Albert Roux, Guy Savoie and Joel Robuchon. And while he cleaves to the modern orthodoxy of lighter cooking (he holds back on the use of cream and dairy products), you can tell he is a true heir to the haute cuisine tradition from the amount of foie gras on his menus.
It starts with the nibbles that are placed on the starched white cloth that covers your sizable dining table. Along with the bread sticks and dainty round rusks comes a pot of dark, rich foie gras mousse. Don't load up on this too much; there is plenty more to come.
Mosaique of foie gras. It's one of Ramsay's signature starters (that's British for hors d'oeuvres), delicate to behold, heavenly to taste. The generous tranche of pale pink is layered with smoked duck breast cut as fine as threads, imparting a welcome depth of flavor that helps to ground this super-rich pate. It comes with wholewheat toast, homemade pear chutney and a small, refreshing, side salad. It's a wicked combination that should bring a smile to your lips and a song to your taste buds.
Not indulgent enough for you? Then order a glass of Sauternes or perhaps the Late Harvest Oremus, a golden-sweet Hungarian Tokay with just enough acidity to tingle the tongue.
For our main course, we did not regret having the braised pork, even though it too comes topped with foie gras -- sauteed golden brown this time. The pork belly is exquisite, soft, and melts on the tongue. Add to that the richness of the goose liver and a layer of caviar d'aubergine (eggplant flesh cooked down with the faintest hint of curry salt). Thankfully, it was anchored by a reassuring bed of greens, along with baby white onions and dabs of onion puree.
Do not expect to see Ramsay himself in the kitchen. The man in charge here in Tokyo is Andy Cook, another talented (and most aptly named) young British chef who was previously sous chef at Ramsay's restaurant at Claridges, one of London's old-school hotels of legendary status.
Cook shares his mentor's love of fine ingredients, the importance of having fun with the food and, above all considerations of technique and aesthetics, the primacy of flavor -- virtues evident in most of the dishes we tried.
It's hard to go wrong with premium scallops at their peak of freshness. Cook simply roasts them till they're just perfect, and presents them on twin purees of white cauliflower and brown capers and raisins.
Lobster ravioli. Forget dainty squares of pasta encasing morsels of minced meat: Ramsay's take on the concept is a single, oversized creation the size of a cup cake, containing ample chunks of juicy lobster meat, topped with a small blob of black olive tapenade and served on a bright-green spiral of basil puree. It's inspired, but if it had only reached us while it was still hot, instead of tepid, it would have been outstanding.
Of the other main courses, the cannon (boneless loin) of lamb was faultless. The slices of rare meat were matched with confit of lamb shoulder, some white bean puree, a small bed of cooked greens and a heavenly jus. But our favorite of all was the braised beef and foie gras (there it was again!) cooked with Madeira and brandy, and covered with a "pie" of mash potato spiked with just a hint of horseradish. Ramsay and Cook have reinvented that great British staple, shepherd's pie -- sheer brilliance.
The best way to sample the above is to work your way through the a la carte menu -- either two courses for 8,000 yen; or three courses for 10,500 yen, the latter being the better option if you also want the delectable basil-infused creme bru^lee, or one of the other desserts. There are also set meals at 14,000 yen or the seven-course (plus extras) Menu Prestige at 19,500 yen.
The truly adventurous, though, will want to reserve the exclusive, crescent-moon-shaped Chef's Table that sits stage-center in front of the kitchen and its glowing ovens. Gather a group of six to eight people and discuss the details with Cook. For 25,000 yen per head, not including wine (of which there is a suitably heavyweight selection), it will be a banquet to remember.
Apart from a few tweaks to portion size and ingredients, this is the Gordon Ramsay experience, much as you would get in London (or Dubai, now). After four months now, Cook and the rest of the crew are pretty much up to speed, although the occasional hesitancy in the serving staff would forfeit them any Michelin stars.
If we have concentrated on the food, rather than atmosphere, that is because there is little in the plainly decorated dining room to distract your attention from your repast. The ceilings and windows are cathedral high, but unfortunately the view is mostly blocked by the neighboring buildings, with only the barest glimpses of Ginza neon in between.
Once you have finished, though, you can always adjourn to the spacious bar on the other side of the hotel. There you can settle in, cradle a brandy or smoke a Cohiba, listen to the bossa trio and gaze out over the trees of the Hamarikyu Garden at the lights of the bayside and the Rainbow Bridge beyond.
Cook and his crew are also in charge of the food for the adjoining brasserie, Cerise by Gordon Ramsay. With its comfortable ambience and more conventional menu (not to mention more affordable prices), this is a good place to get a taste for the main restaurant.
Until Dec. 24, GR@CT will serve a 14,000 yen Christmas menu; on Dec. 24, 25 & 31, it will offer special dinners (20,000 yen); it will also serve a Christmas Day lunch (7,500 yen or 11,500 yen).