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Friday, May 29, 2009
Forget Michelin, it's a Pellegrino
Les Creations de Narisawa is the only restaurant from Japan in the top 50 of the influential list
By MELINDA JOE
Special to The Japan Times
This year's string of accolades hasn't affected the modesty of chef Yoshihiro Narisawa. After earning a star in the 2009 Michelin Guide, Les Creations de Narisawa debuted at no. 20 on San Pellegrino's list of best restaurants in the world. Selected by fellow chefs as well as food critics and other experts, Les Creations was the only restaurant from Japan to rank among the top 50.
After a recent meal at Les Creations, Narisawa appeared suddenly beside our table, having approached in catlike silence. Standing with his hands clasped behind his back, he had close-cut auburn hair and wore an immaculate white chef's jacket over his black pants.
"Did you enjoy?" he asked.
Our answer was a resounding yes. Narisawa smiled demurely, bowed, thanked us in Japanese, and then retreated as quietly as he'd arrived.
Forty years old, Narisawa has been cooking for more than half his life. At just 19, he left for Europe to train in the kitchens of chefs Paul Bocuse and Joel Robuchon. After seven years, he returned to Japan and launched his first venture, La Napule, in Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, before relocating to Aoyama to open Les Creations de Narisawa with his wife in 2003. The restaurant, which bills itself as contemporary French, takes in the influence of his early days in France, Switzerland, and Italy — classical French techniques with a nod to molecular gastronomy — together with a Japanese aesthetic and an adherence to shun (the philosophy of capturing ingredients at their peak season). Narisawa buys his meat, fish, and certified organic produce directly from a handful of trusted farms.
Entering Les Creations, we were whisked through a sliding wooden door that opened noiselessly. The dining room was an elegant haven of light and dark; black leather chairs surrounded tables with white cloths and glass place settings engraved with the restaurant's name. Devoid of music, the space seemed a bit formal at first, but the friendly, attentive service quickly put us at ease.
The 10-course tasting menu (¥21,000) changes monthly, and each dish is based on a nature-oriented theme. The Prologue, a single red radish flecked with toasted-mustard-seed faux soil, hinted right away at the chef's penchant for witty presentation.
The second course, Sakura, consisted of two deep-fried chi-ayu (baby sweetfish) with scattered sugar-coated cherry blossom petals. It was a study in simplicity. The fish were addictively crispy, their bitterness tempered by the delicate sweetness of the blossoms. Each arranged differently on specially designed glass plates, they looked as though they were swimming.
The third dish offered another surprise. Spring Mist, a slice of raw, buttery salmon draped over a melange of diced red peppers, zucchini and chestnuts, came enveloped in a puff of smoke trapped under a glass dome. As the server lifted the dome, the smoke dissipated, revealing the fish's pink flesh and leaving behind the faint aroma of charred wood. This kind of dramatic presentation runs the risk of appearing gimmicky, but Narisawa's execution deftly combined inventiveness and attention to detail. The flavors and textures were in formidable balance.
Next came a rich course of langoustine and morel mushrooms in a Marsala cream sauce, fat spears of white asparagus concealed beneath a biomorphic sabayon souffle, and a dish of halibut, clams, and rape blossoms bathed in a concentrated, viscous clam broth. Our waiter then presented us with one of Narisawa's signatures, Mountain and the Sea. The chef looked to the ocean landscape for inspiration to create the dish. Like many of his multilayered compositions, Mountain and the Sea works on the principle of discovery. Narisawa piled boiled sansai (mountain vegetables) atop succulent slices of abalone and veiled the assemblage in a transparent gelee of jamon iberico. The texture of the abalone was flawless, and the flavors of each element sang out with pitch-perfect clarity through the depth of the jamon reduction.
The eighth course was one of the evening's highlights. Flower was a stunning canvas of rosy pork medallions, caramelized onions, a puddle of intense, anise-accented jus, and artfully rendered dots of onion puree. Narisawa had used his famous arosser technique, a laborious process that involves basting the meat in oil heated to 60 degrees Celsius. The object is to crisp the skin while maintaining the texture of the meat. The result was marvelous. The pork was supple and infused with flavor, the skin light and airy.
The fact that everything was delicious became a challenge toward the end of the meal. Few of us could appreciate the multiple dessert courses, although the strawberries steeped in strawberry juice in a dish called Fairy Tale did catch our attention.
We had opted for the wine-pairing course (an additional ¥15,000 per person) and were not disappointed. Among the selections were some very interesting wines from the Loire, such as the 2002 Coulee de Serrant from biodynamic wine pioneer Nicolas Joly. Bone dry, but resonating with deep, sherrylike notes, it paired wonderfully with our langoustines. Another stellar choice was the 2003 Condrieu from Rhone winemaker Andre Perret. This idiosyncratic Viognier was rich and complex, with hints of dried fruit on the palate, and it matched well with our pork.
Nariisawa says that many of his guests return every month. It's a rare circumstance for haute cuisine, but understandable at Les Creations — we were certainly impressed by his interpretation of spring, and would love to experience all of the seasons through his eyes.
2-6-15 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; (03) 5785-0799; open noon-1:30 p.m. and 6:30-9 p.m. (closed Sun. and the third Mon. of every month)