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Friday, Dec. 1, 2006
TOKYO FOOD FILE
High-end dining: two of our best
Change and entropy, as the philosophers might say, are the only constants. Nowhere is that more evident than in this mighty metropolis and its ever-evolving restaurant scene. New places open, others fade away, but the very best understand how to keep moving with the times.
The New York Grill has been one of our constants since it opened in 1995. From the very start, it's been a symbol of high-end Tokyo dining -- quite literally, given its rarefied location atop the Shinjuku Park Tower. But even cutting-edge sophistication can start to look frayed around the edges. Worse still, complacency can creep into the most illustrious of kitchens. Now the entire floor (including the adjoining New York Bar) has been given a face-lift. Better still, there's a new chef at the helm. That was all the excuse we needed to pay another visit . . .
What's different? At first glance, very little. There is that same breathtaking view of the horizon as you step out of the elevator, that soaring ceiling and those massive murals evoking the age of jazz. Best of all, there is that same sense of having arrived somewhere very special and romantic.
In the evening, with the lights dimmed, the new furnishings and dark trim may be less than obvious -- unless you manage to reserve one of the semiprivate alcoves at each end of the dining room, which have the added luxury of plush banquettes. Instead, it is the gleaming place settings that catch your eye; or perhaps the glass-fronted wine cellar that fills one entire wall -- still one of the most extensive collections of U.S. (mainly Californian) wine in the Far East; or the spectacular cityscape of lights glimpsed far beneath you through the massive picture windows.
It's stylish, impeccable, one of a kind. There's nowhere in the city to match this setting. And that is why the forthright flavors of New World cuisine work so well here. There's no need for fancy frills or elaboration. From the start, the New York Grill has been all about premium ingredients prepared with precision not pretension. Clearly that is one of the strong suits of new head chef Andrew McKee.
A native of Australia, his watchword, he told us, is getting "back to basics." That is always the best strategy with a menu that revolves, as ever, around grilled meats (Japanese wagyu steaks, as well as beef from down under), rotisserie fowl (duck and shamo gamecock) and seafood (lobster and salmon). But McKee is not afraid to imbue his food with forthright flavors.
Our appetizer of delectable taraba crabmeat was given a sharply citrus-inflected mayonnaise. And the Fire Roasted Jumbo Shrimp are paired with Moroccan-style merguez sausage and given a ballsy sauce that has more than a hint of smoked paprika -- an insistent aroma that cries out for a glass or two of fine Ribera del Duero (sadly not available) or a hefty Zinfandel, of which there is a splendid choice.
We loved the juicy breast of Wisconsin duck, which McKee grills to perfection, then serves up with a couple of baby Brussels sprouts and some whole chestnuts, anointed with a rich foie gras sauce. But best of all was his wonderful braised beef short rib, which he marries with a puree of celeriac and a big, bold red-wine reduction sauce. So simple, so perfect.
One final treat was in store. At last we have a chef who understands that pudding does not have to mean egg custard or creme bru^lee. His warm chestnut pudding is a beautifully light steamed sponge confection, topped with crushed chestnuts and a caramel sauce that lingered long in the memory. It's safe to say, in McKee's capable hands, the New York Grill is back on top of its game.
Les Saisons offers dining of a very different caliber. This bastion of heavyweight haute cuisine, ensconced deep within the imposing portals of the Imperial Hotel, has also been through a significant evolution in the last year. It too can boast a revamped interior, along with a talented new chef de cuisine. If anything, the results are even more significant.
It is hard to think of a setting less akin to the NYG. Instead of glamorous night views, jazz vocals echoing through the rafters and vigorous North American ambience, Les Saisons transports you to the Old World, cosseted in a hushed luxury, with an understated decor that remains true to the classic conservative traditions of France.
Rather than squeezing in more tables, Les Saisons has reduced the number, making the experience even more exclusive. Here you are hardly more aware of your fellow diners than of the impeccably professional floor staff. Everything is focused on your dining partners and the food that is placed in front of you.
And what superlative cuisine it is, courtesy of Thierry Voisin, the brilliant new French chef who is now in charge at Les Saisons. His arrival last year -- from Les Crayeres, a Michelin three-starred chateau in Reims -- was eclipsed by the media glare focused last year on the big names: Ducasse, Robuchon and Gagnaire. But whereas those celebrity chefs merely drop in from time to time to supervise the Tokyo outposts of their empires, Voisin is here full time -- and he is producing arguably the finest haute cuisine in Tokyo.
The other day we sat down to his seasonal "Menu Chasse" ("Hunting Menu"), a multicourse banquet featuring a variety of fowl and game caught from the wild, and we were absolutely wowed.
From the first amuse bouche -- a couple of appetizers, diminutive but intense -- through to the final round of desserts, every dish (save perhaps for just one overambitious dessert -- the green peppers in his mango sushi were a flavor too far) was nothing less than superb.
The first highlight was his hu^re de sanglier -- an aromatic terrine of wild-boar meat with black truffles, topped with a layer of tomato jelly, balanced with a vibrant confiture (chutney) of onion, grape and verjus, and offset by a colorful little salad that Voisin terms "ikebana."
Then came a veloute de faisanne, a creamy dual-level soup of remarkable complexity. The thick chestnut puree covering the bottom of the bowl hides morsels of pheasant meat; this is covered by a layer of rich pheasant broth, garnished with fresh slivers of wild chestnut. Outstanding.
Langoustines sauteed in their shells were served piping hot straight from the cast-iron casserole along with pitch-black trompettes de mort mushrooms. Then wild quail, stuffed with foie gras and pine nuts, encased in a pastry crou^te, baked tender and juicy. Beware of gunshot in the flesh, we were warned -- and indeed we did find evidence of the hunters' calling card.
Our last main dish was venison, hunted in Hokkaido -- most of the other ingredients are brought in from France. Sauteed tender and rare, and perfectly matched with a velvet-dark reduction sauce with a hint of powdered cacao, it was served with salsify root (cooked three ways: pureed, braised and as a crisp curlicue) and a dab of piquant kumquat chutney on the side. This is food that seduces, inspires and elevates the senses. Even before the cheese trolley arrived (not to mention dessert), we were satiated, our spirits soaring.
Voisin is a chef who obviously loves his metier and his new kitchen. From time to time, he emerges from the kitchen to greet his customers, eager to talk about ingredients, cooking techniques and the pleasure he is deriving from being here in Japan.
But the enjoyment was all ours. We are fortunate indeed to have a chef of such talent here in Tokyo. His is a cuisine for special occasions, of course, for those times when we want to splash out. This is the proper way to celebrate -- not just a birthday, anniversary or the passage of the year, but the act of dining itself.