November 26, 2009: Tokyo Travel Day #2 – Aronia de Takazawa, Chikuyo-tei Honten, and more strolls and sweets.
So, what better way to include a day of eating than eating some more? After a memorable lunch at Chez Matsuo, a late afternoon snack at Pierre Herme, and a pre-dinner appetizer at the Pierre Marcolini Cafe, we headed off to Akasaka and dinner at Aronia de Takazawa.
According to the direction I got from the hotel, the restaurant is located “on the backside of the building next to an oyster bar. Look for the white door with two large potted plants on either side.” We stopped to ask for directions and still nearly missed it. The entrance to the place is thoroughly non-descript, hidden away in a back alley. Fortunately, the guy we asked for directions was kind enough to walk us over –
Ah, how could I have missed it?
The door opened onto a stairwell leading up to…parts unknown…
Abandon all hope ye who enter here?
The stairwell brought us up to the dining area, a gorgeous little room looking into the chef’s station, a sleek metallic cooking island decked out with multi-colored rock salt and an enormous leg of dry-aged venison prosciutto.
The stage-like setting is no accident – the chef’s station sparse and brightly lit, the dining room softly illuminated and surrounded by wood paneling.
As we took our seats, we watched as one of our servers pressed her hand to one of the wall panels. It sprang back to reveal a hidden compartment. This, I immediately realized, was a magic show. From the hidden entrance to the set-up to the concealed access points, it all hinted at illusion, sleight of hand, and surprises.
Our appetizer, a hardboiled egg? No, actually, it's a decorative stone.
Set it aside. The meal/show is about to begin.
We settled in and chatted with our two servers, both of whom spoke flawless English, both of whom sported hands-free ear pieces that had them synced with the man in the back. As for the magician himself, I was amazed to discover that Takazawa is only thirty-three – and he looks even younger.
Takazwa-san carves the prosciutto.
On the one hand, it’s surprising given how accomplished many of his dishes are, with their subtle balances of flavors and textures. On the other hand, leave it to a young chef to come up with such audaciously imaginative creations. According to our server, Chef Takazawa changes his menu regularly, heading down to the Tsukiji Fish Market every morning and building the night’s menu on the inspiration provided by the freshest offerings.
Moving on to the meal…
We started with the shaved, two year aged Hokkaido venison house made prosciutto, unagi (eel) in aspic, and ceramic saradine cans containing tiny, marinated morsels of fish atop sliced daikon. Small bites but intensely-flavored.
The menu said "Ratatouille" but, when it arrived, it was nothing like any ratatouille I'd ever seen. Comprised of fifteen different vegetables and accompanied by a black bean capped with Spanish salt, we were instructed to pop the whole thing in our mouths. And...wow.
We were served homemade bread, piping hot. On the left, bamboo-charcoal. On the right, pumpkin. In the jar - nothing quite so mundane as butter. Instead, pork buttery smooth pork rillettes.
Next up was the "Crab" House Sandwich which, like the ratatouille, WAS and WASN'T. Fresh crab meat is about the only thing you'll readily identify from sight alone. The layerings, dark and light brown, are two different kinds of crab roe. The bread? Not bread at all but a clear tomato broth set to a slightly firmer than foam consistency.
The menu referred to this dish as "Powdery Dressing". I call it "Insanely Good". Two year old venison served rare with crispy mushrooms, pine nuts, and shaved white truffle topped with...
That "powdery dressing" served smoking from a deep frost-crusted pot. "Liquid nitrogen,"I marveled, causing Chef Takazawa to throw me a surprised look. Yeah, I don't often see it when I go out to eat but when I do, it's unmistakable.
My dinner date, Moro, was really looking forward to this dish and she was thoroughly blown away by Chef Takazawa's take on Oyster Gratin - the plump oysters sitting at the bottom of the bowl and topped with a surprisingly subtle gorgonzola foam.
Next up, Chef Takazawa reinterprets a Japanese classic only, in his version of Carrot Tempura, he crisps carrot greens and sets them atop a bowl of - not the traditional tempura dipping sauce but vegetable broth. We were instructed to break up the tempura and take the pieces for a swim.
Vegetables with SOIL - Tasty root vegetables and earthy shaved truffles. And the soil component? Minced venison.
We were then presented with mini cast iron pots. Inside...
Another nuanced but gorgeously textured creation. Fear not, squeamish eaters. That's not brain nestled alongside the delectable fish. It's cod sperm.
The main course: Wagyu Japaneseque with gingko, wine-marinated mushrooms, pickled ginger, red daikon, and wasabi.
The beef was "red cow" from southern Kyushu, not as marbled as Kobe beef but still rich, fork-friendly, and full of flavor. The best steak I've had in years.
We were then served something called FANTA GRAPE. I'm sure many of you are familiar with Grape Fanta? Well, this dish approximates the sensation of sipping the drink with three enormous grapes bursting with effervescence. I'm not sure how the effects was achieved (I want to guess nitrous oxide?) but suffice it to say it was damn impressive.
And finally, Apple Pie. Or, as Takazawa put it: "Apple pie without the pie." Sliced apples, apple skin, cinammon sticks, and raisins are cooked in the specially designed bag.
The bag is cut open and a dollop of luxurious homemade caramel ice cream is added to the dish. And, yes, it tasted exactly like apple pie.
We finished the meal with tea.
To be honest, the photos don’t do justice to the meal, or the experience. It was a night full of surprises and laughter, an utterly delightful dinner through and through.
A photo op with the masterful Chef Takazawa. I'm the one on the right.
After we were done, Chef Takazawa and one of the servers actually escorted us downstairs. Moro and I thanked them profusely for a truly wonderful time and then headed off. As we walked back down the alleyway, we reflected on the meal’s many highlights. And, just as we were about to take a corner, we happened to glance back and there stood Chef Takazawa and the server, still at the entrance, waving goodbye.
Next time I’m in town, I am coming back.
They say the first day is the hardest and I’ll vouch for that. My jet lag started to catch up with me halfway through our meal. At one point, I asked Moro what time it was, imagining it was about 11:00 p.m. Turns out it was a little after 8:00 p.m.
I got back to the hotel at around ten, then spent the next two hours or so uploading pics and posting my blog entry. By the time I crawled into bed, it was 1:00 a.m.
I intended to sleep in this morning but, for some reason, I can’t sleep past 8:00 a.m. Could be because eight a.m. Tokyo time is one p.m. Vancouver time. Damn, am I going to feel it tonight.
I uploaded more pics, had the foie gras and truffle macarons I bought at Pierre Herme, then headed out. Today’s lunch was a little more traditional. I went to Chikuyo-tei, an unagi (eel) restaurant that has been in business since Japan’s Edo Period, over a hundred and fifty years ago. My dining companion on this occasion was the salsa-rific Sachi who took the one hour subway ride into town to have lunch with me. And a lovely lunch it was…
There's something about the clean simplicity of sashimi - in this case tai, hirame (?), and mouth-meltingly good tuna.
Succulent grilled eel, the way the samurai used to eat it centuries ago.
I fished two of these out of the lovely soup that came with unagi. While Sachi couldn't quite explain what part of the eel it came from, she did assure me that eating it is purported to make the diner smarter. Upon closer scrutiny however - Hey, did't this thing's mother crawl out of Chloe in Time?
Following our meal, I spoke with one of the owners of the family-run restaurant, an older woman who smoke excellent English. She informed me that the establishment has been in her family for seven generations. Might damn impressive.
After our chat, she spotted my camera and offered to take a picture of us in the restaurant’s garden…
Satchi and I, post-unagi.
From there, we headed to Roppogni where we strolled through Midtown and snacked on some ice cream –
I got a trio of flavors: peanut, pumpkin, and - Carl's favorite - sweet potato. The ice cream was very good but the flavors were quite subtle and, after a while, it was hard to differentiate between them. Next time, I go only sweet potato.
We then took a stroll and checked out some of the sights –
At which point it was over to the Ritz Carlton for some much-needed sustenance…
Chestnut desserts have been all the rage in Tokyo for as long as I can remember. I'm surprised they're not as popular over on my side of the world.
I went with the choux a la creme matcha, counting on green tea's fat-burning properties to counter the calores packed into this enormous cream puff.
Some more walking through Roppongi Hills to close out the day and I was finally ready for bed.
Unfortunately for me, it was only 5:00 p.m. and I had dinner reservations in two and a half hours.