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Friday, Jan. 11, 2008

Molecular morsels


Special to The Japan Times

Nothing turns a woman on more than a room full of excited men. No, this was not the Super Bowl, but the International Chefs Congress, a "show and tell" held last September in New York City by some of the world's most influential chefs. The display of techniques and trends was impressive, with a roster that included such stars as three-Michelin-star chef Joel Robuchon and Bruno Goussault, the pioneer of the sous-vide (under vacuum) technique, where food is wrapped in plastic and cooked at a low temperature, which is changing how food is cooked in many high-end kitchens around the world.

News photo
Nihonryori Ryugin has earned its two Michelin stars by applying new techniques to create outlandish cuisine, such as its ayu (sweetfish) dish and the Minus-196° Candy Apple (below)); the dishes are the brainchild of chef Seiji Yamamoto.
News photo
News photo

During chef Seiji Yamamoto's presentation you could hear a pin drop. The audience of chefs gasped as he silk-screened a QR bar-code onto a plate (the secret is squid ink). Behind me, men were awe-struck as he rolled video of a super-refrigerator that makes "liquid ice."

The titillation was too much to bear.

Back in Tokyo, Yamamoto's restaurant Nihonryori Ryugin is turning heads with its molecular cuisine, an almost space-age application of food-science techniques, and this caliber of creative Japanese cuisine can only be experienced here. In fact, Michelin's recent Tokyo restaurant guide awarded it two stars — prestigious acclaim indeed.

Yamamoto is trained in traditional Japanese cookery with 11 years at the renowned — and very traditional — Japanese restaurant Aoyagi, and a trained sommelier. He refers to his cuisine as "creative Japanese food" that is "technology-driven." He is humble when talking about himself, which is a surprise after witnessing the public displays of affection showered on him by revered chefs from around the world.

Nihonryori Ryugin is a culinary temple. A beet-red wall greets diners at an entrance adorned with a small pile of salt and freshly sprinkled water in Japanese style. The walk down the narrow hallway reveals glossy food-porn photos of signature dishes. Inside the intimate Western-style dining room, with only 18 seats, it's impossible to ignore the conversation at neighboring tables.

The evening begins with two bite-size courses presented on one spoon each — the TBS television show "One Spoon" has influenced many restaurants around the city with this quirky method of presentation. The first is a croquette of okra and truffle, a warm and earthy amuse bouche. The smoked shirako (fish sperm) and oyster is an ocean-full of flavor, as the citrus gelee cuts through the smokiness and the creamy texture.

A sweet and crunchy foie gras is presented with fresh fig, wasanbon sugar, cognac and a vintage port; the addition of myoga, in the ginger family, adds a contrasting heat to the sweetness that balances the dish. Other highlights for the evening include the owan (soup) course of hamo (sea eel), matsutake and cabbage in a hamo consomme.

The ever-curious Yamamoto has gone to great lengths to discover how best to tenderize hamo. The fish is infamous for its fine bones that are impossible to fully extricate, and Kyoto chefs have established a complex technique of cutting through these bones. Eschewing this received wisdom, Yamamoto and his team took a hamo to a research hospital, where scientists put it under a CT-scan so that they could get a microscopic look at this stubborn skeleton and determine for themselves how to deal with the bones. The resulting soup renders a tender hamo and is a delicate vehicle for the pine-scented matsutake.

The meal follows the traditional kaiseki course service, starting with a raw fish course and grilled, fried and simmered dishes of seasonal ingredients exquisitely presented. A favorite reinterpretation is the unagi-don (eel on rice). This is not the traditional delicate unagi; Ryugin's has a sweet, toffeelike crunch to it — unexpected but very welcome.

Dessert is a playground of dishes from the CO² Grape, which explodes in your mouth, to the Minus-196° Candy Apple, an outer shell of toffee filled with nitrogen-frozen ice cream. But by this point in the course meal, it really does seem like too much food.

The dishes are complex and pair well with wine, shochu or sake — and of course champagne. The Bruno Paillard is elegant and well-balanced with a hint of hazelnuts that stands up to the rich layers of the food.

The restaurant's service is attentive and any of the knowledgeable staff can answer questions regarding the composition of the dishes. Their pride in their establishment is obvious.

Innovation doesn't come cheap, and a visit to Nihonryori Ryugin will set you back ¥15,750 for the short course or ¥21,000/¥26,250 for the two "Gastronomy" courses. For those who aren't millionaires, an a-la-carte menu is presented after 8:30 p.m. — rare for this type of place.

Chefs and gourmands from around the world make pilgrimages to Nihonryori Ryugin to pay their respects to the shrine of molecular cuisine in Japan. Yamamoto is an integral member of a modern "Brat Pack," alongside international jet-setters such as Ferran Adria of El Bulli, a restaurant in the Catalan resort of Roses in Spain; Wylie Dufresne of WD50 in New York City; and Jose Andres of Cafe Atlantico in Washington D.C. Perhaps he's the samurai chef of these boys with toys.

Nihonryori Ryugin, 7-17-24 Roppongi Minato-ku, Tokyo; (03) 3423-8006; www.nihonryori-ryugin.com. Nearest station: Roppongi (Hibiya and Oedo lines). Open 6 p.m.-2 a.m.; closed Sundays and holidays


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