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Sunday, July 15, 2007

WEEK 3

TAPAS MOLECULAR BAR

'Tasty science' puts mystery on the menu


Staff writer

Fed up with foie gras; tired of truffles; and simply sick of sturgeons' eggs? If you're one of those gourmets who's gagging for a new and taste-transporting experience, Tapas Molecular Bar at the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo hotel may be the eatery of your dreams.

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Jeff Ramsey (top) makes carrot caviar in the Molecular Tapas Bar, which uses the same sodium alginate as the miso soup (middle); while a customer (above) squeezes his own soba through a syringe, prior to tucking into the odd-looking apricot-and-coconut dessert (below) — then perhaps heading off to the picturesque mensroom (bottom). YUMI WIJERS-HASEGAWA PHOTOS; PHOTO COURTESY OF MADARIN ORIENTAL
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Created by Japanese-American chef Jeff Ramsey — winner of Eat-Japan's "Sushi of the Year" award in 2006 — the 25- to 28-course menu in the 38th-floor Oriental Lounge is nothing if not highly unusual — complete with breathtaking views. Eat-Japan is a UK-based organization dedicated to promoting Japanese food, drink and culture outside Japan.

Dubbed by some as "tasty science," the fantastic fare available there on a recent visit included, for starters, a dreamy, frothy, shaving cream-like cloud of near-vaporized olives, followed by a delicious soba that diners had to squeeze out themselves through a syringe and, to top it all off, an apricot-and-coconut dessert that looked just like bacon and eggs.

All the dishes in this mouthwatering magic show, priced at 12,000 yen per head, are prepared and presented by two chefs at the counter and at least one in the kitchen. The menu changes every three or four months to ensure no palate will ever become jaded. And indeed, customers come from around Asia and as far afield as Paris just to partake of their dishes.

Ramsey, 31, developed his ideas for this unique cuisine when he worked at Minibar/Cafe Atlantico in Washington D.C. under Jose Ramon Andres, who himself had worked under Ferran Adria of el Bulli outside Barcelona — the original "molecular cuisine restaurant," which is Michelin 3-star rated.

Hard-to-please customers

But as an acknowledged sushi expert, Ramsey was able to bring to the basic concept his own specialized Japanese culinary skills and knowledge of ingredients, allowing him to continuously evolve his menu to attract more hard-to-please customers.

"A lot of people who come here go to restaurants all the time. They know food," he said. "But when they are here, they are delighted because they don't have this kind of experience, even in 3-star restaurants. They may even be bored with the same old stuff."

Tapas Molecular Bar opened in December 2005 at the same time as the hotel, which was last year rated the only 6-star hotel in the world by the prestigious American Academy of Hospitality Science. Adding to the exclusivity, the bar seats just seven, and has only two sessions daily, at 6 and 8.30 p.m. (And that's not to mention the mensroom with a view that's been described as "like taking a leak all over Tokyo.")

Looking back, though, Ramsey explained how the project began. "At the same time as working in a restaurant in Washington, I was doing a kind of mock Iron Chef thing with other restaurants and chefs," he said. "Hidemasa Yamamoto, the hotel's executive chef, came to one of these events." Then, after visiting the restaurant where he worked, Yamamoto asked Ramsey to join the Mandarin team in Tokyo.

But for someone who had been a sushi chef in both the U.S. and Japan since he was 19, Ramsey said it was a bit difficult at first to dedicate himself to experimental tapas.

"I do miss being a sushi chef. But if you look down the streets from here and see Ginza, where there's lots of sushi bars, it's kind of boring if we don't do something more. What we do is something much more; it's intriguing, exciting — and sexy."

He said he has been greatly assisted in acquiring the basis of Japanese cuisine by having a Japanese mother who was herself a chef. "Every chef is most inspired by their home experience, which makes them who they are," he declared. "Growing up eating Japanese food all the time really helped me develop the Japanese tongue," he added, recalling with particular fondness his mother making such Japanese children's favorites as yakisoba (fried noodles), nikujaga (meat-and-potato stew) and ketchup-pasta.

However, having lived in Japan since 2005, Ramsey said he has been inspired by some new favorites of his such as kakigori (shaved ice) and miso soup, which he has incorporated into the bar's menu in completely different forms.

His Blue Hawaii, for instance, is inspired by shaved ice — but in true "tasty science" style it uses liquid nitrogen for instant refrigeration. With lots of air in it, the ice melts in a split second leaving a unique sensation in the mouth. Meanwhile, his miso soup looks just like a brownish egg yolk with marbles of tofu on a wide Chinese spoon. Swallowed in one gulp, it tastes exactly like the real stuff.

With each serving, Ramsey explains to his guests like a chemistry teacher exactly how its effects are achieved. "The miso soup uses sodium alginate, which reacts with calcium chloride in water and causes iron transfer, which forms a long-chain polymer that surrounds the liquid so that just the outside is solid," was a typical example of this.

That may have washed over me as effortlessly as Ramsey's delights went down, but our host said my husband's rapt fascination was typical of his gender. To many men, he observed, his dishes are like science experiments that seem to "bring out the young boy in them" when they liked to blow up things and take TVs apart.

Canny Japanese ladies

Of course canny Japanese ladies haven't been slow to turn this to their advantage, and mature women's magazines have raved about the bar as "a great place to have your scientific beau fall for you."

All this is music to Ramsey's ears. "I've worked all my career at a counter so that I get instant gratification," he said. "For me, it's all about the reaction from the guests. When they eat Blue Hawaii, no one can hide their smiles. And when chefs come here to eat, they just have to laugh in the middle of a dish as they think it's really cool."

But Ramsey is not easily satisfied as he strives to perfect all aspects of his culinary art — "like making every grain of salt fall perfectly in place," he said.

"There still hasn't been a perfect seating, where every dish and all the movements we make are perfect. I'm still trying every day to make that perfect seating," he confessed with surely misplaced chagrin.

But the goal of perfection isn't Ramsey's only driving force. Before long his customers may find themselves playing a high-level and rather sensual-sounding game of the palate he has in mind after studying the relationship between touch, sound and the taste buds. For example, he said, in a menu he offered in America, he had diners smell a piece of tissue soaked with white truffle as they ate a beef-and-potato dish.

"The texture that your finger feels affects the way your teeth or tongue feel when eating," he explained. "If you use silk or sandpaper, it's again a different experience — with silk, the texture of a potato suddenly becomes much more silky." The same applies to sound, he said, adding that if you hear the sound of breaking glass while eating, it's very enervating and affects the taste. All this and more, Ramsey says he hopes to introduce to complement the experimental dishes in his bar.

Meanwhile, he plans to keep his sushi side going along with tapas. In fact, both he and the hotel will defend their titles this year — his "Sushi of the Year" award and the Mandarin Oriental's 6-star status.

Altogether, this gifted gastronomic maverick is one man with a lot on his plate to keep him busy.



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