Fauchon, Pierre Hermé, Taillevent, Jean Paul Hévin, Hédiard, Alain Ducasse. This list of restaurants and patisseries may seem like a page from a Paris guide book, but it's not just the French who enjoy French cuisine. In fact, Tokyo is the city with the largest number of French restaurants outside of Paris. And if its hungry foie gras-craving citizens are any indication, the Japanese might even demand French food more than the French. It is no surprise then that Joël Robuchon has set up shop in Tokyo with over five different locations. And considering he has more restaurants there than France, Japan may even be considered his home base. Don't forget: this is where L'Atelier started. Surprised by that? I sure was. Imagine my curiousity (not to mention my appetite) when I learned of Chef Robuchon's "Château" in Tokyo. While I'm a huge admirer of chef Robuchon, unfortunately I've only had the opportunity to visit to his L'Atelier restaurants (granted, I have hit the New York, Paris, and Tokyo locations). Visions of the place that has been called the epitome of French cuisine and elegance in Tokyo began to fill my head. And it seemed like Le Château would be a nice place to take my mother, my guest for the evening, who was visiting me that week. We fasted that morning in anticipation of an evening full of French food and wine. It should be noted, however, that this fasting attempt lasted only until noon (I woke up at 11).
As the taxi pulled up to this "mansion" in the middle of Tokyo's Yebisu shopping district, I wondered why this building looked startlingly pristine. It actually felt a little out of place -- too new, too clean. Had we entered French-world at Epcot Center? It took me a little longer than it would probably take the average person to find the correct door to this palace. There were a lot of doors; but most were either locked or were not real doors. After finding the magic door, a young Japanese woman came running up to me: "Yes, hello, can I help you with something?" Um, yeah, where can I buy lottery tickets around here? What did she think I was here for? Kind of funny. But maybe I just need to learn how to say, "Hi, where is the foie gras, please?" in Japanese. Instead, I explained I had a reservation and we were graciously led up the white marble staircase to our table.
The dining room ranged between subtly tacky and blatantly tacky. The walls were lined with Swarovski crystal and flanked with sheets of champagne tinted glass, as if to protect the small crystals from the curious hands of diners. (They sure would look nice on my iPhone.) It was explained later that the walls represent a champagne glass, with the crystals being the bubbles. I didn't quite see that, but it was an interesting idea. The dining room was three-quarters full, with only Japanese diners. For those who come to Japan seeking an "authentic experience" take your pick: 5am sushi at Tsukiji market with foreigners, or haute French food with the locals. The atmosphere was as un-stuffy as a meal in Japan can be -- be polite and you'll fit right in. In fact, the over-the-top decor somehow made all the black suits and ties more approachable. It was like the designer had injected a bit of fun into the room by adding a modern twist to the stale eloquence of many traditional haute French restaurants. That said, when I started eating, I became a very serious man.
The iridescent menu quickly caught my attention. I saw many of my favorite L'Atelier dishes; but also some really appealing new ones. I quickly searched for my friend, the tasting menu, and asked if I could substitute some of the courses I'd already had with some new ones. No problem. My mother wasn't nearly as hungry as I was, which at first scared me because I wasn't sure if the restaurant would do the tasting menu for only one person. But they happily obliged, with my mother ordering à la carte and me ordering, well, everything else (literally).
The amuse bouche arrived -- L'Avocat dans une infusion prise aux herbes et une caillebotte a l'huile d'olive. For those who might have forgotten what they ordered, big letters beneath glass cup spelled out: L'AVOCAT. I looked for a trademark logo somewhere, a "Where's Waldo?" of culinary condescension. I couldn't find it... but maybe it was just blocked out by the chef's bold-faced signature. Marketing aside, the dish had the flavor, aroma, and creaminess of a mouthful of fresh avocado. The only thing it lacked was more salt, something to enhance the subtlety of the buttery fruit and the olive oil.
An impressive bread basket was wheeled over, probably the largest selection of breads I’ve ever seen in a French restaurant. The loaves came in all colors, shapes, and sizes making for a selection that could please any taste. Given the quantity of food I’d just ordered I decided to play it safe with only a piece or two of bread: a mini baguette, milk loaf, walnut raisin, oat, whole wheat, and country to start. My mini-baguette was placed on its own plate with a puddle of olive oil garnished with a single drop of balsamic vinegar.
The next course, Le Caviar Ossiètre, was beautiful. Three small tapas-sized plates each featured Ossetra caviar. The first preparation was a small cylinder of fine couscous topped with caviar and a gold leaf. The couscous provided a subtly flavored starchy vehicle for the salty caviar, much in the same way blinis often do. I would have preferred half the amount of couscous since the caviar's salting abilities can only go so far.
The second plate was a miniature version of a favorite dish from L'Atelier NY, un petit oeuf mollet et friand. This was the same dish I'd enjoyed before, resized to 30%. At first I suspected that a smaller egg would yield less of the golden yolk, essential to prevent the fried phyllo dough from being too dry. This was not the case. In a quail egg that seemed to contain more yolk than white, the egg and fried dough were in perfect balance. The smoked salmon, something I usually don't like to see anywhere but on a hot H&H bagel with cream cheese, was more prominent in this dish, but at least it accentuated the brininess of the caviar.
Last was a green asparagus flan topped with a generous dollop of caviar and milk foam. This dish threw me back to the first time I had asparagus and caviar at Taillevent ten years ago. But unlike the first time, this dish was served cold. In this combination of land and sea, the oceanic pearls contrasted against the buttery asparagus custard leaving a rich taste with no greasy mouthfeel. I think this dish would have been a little more interesting with the added dimension of a temperature contrast, but it definitely did not disappoint.
Each of these small plates could have easily stood on its own. The fact that they were all served together on a tray of bread-plate sized dishes reminded me that this was indeed a single course. And a well conceived course as well. The first plate was slightly sweet and chewy, the second crispy and salty, and the third an earthy custard, all tied together with Ossetra caviar. Each dish brought out different flavors of the fish roe, and being that the dishes were one bite three to four bites in size, I kept wanting more. What a fabulous way to begin a meal. It gave me great pleasure, and slight fear, to realize that this was the first of fifteen courses.
The next course can be summarized in two words: Oh god. In a similar trio fashion to the previous course, I was presented with three takes of one common theme: Les Crustacès. The first plate was a lightly cooked lobster tail roasted with lemongrass and served over a vegetable crème. I generally dislike lemongrass outside of Thai cuisine; but because it was roasted as well, it left behind only a subtle fragrance that breathed life into the vegetable crème. The lobster was so well cooked that when sliced it seemed to fade into the green abyss rather than stand out like a rock. The taste of butter was pronounced; but that's exactly what a lobster tail needs. Delicious.
Even more impressive was the next plate, which for me was the highlight of the night. Before reading the description, be warned: this dish involves coffee. Coffee has a bad rap when it comes outside Colombia a coffee mug. That's because it's a terrible ingredient that should be kept outside the kitchen and left in espresso machines. But in this dish the chef used coarsely ground very lightly toasted coffee beans that had a spicing effect more like nutmeg and pepper. I couldn't believe I was enjoying this. But what's not to enjoy with generous firm slabs of fresh Hokkaido sea urchin sitting atop a bed of Joël Robuchon mashed potatoes, sprinkled with the aforementioned coffee? The urchin was so fresh that it actually contrasted against the texture of the mashed potatoes. Another spectacular combination of earth and sea.
The third part of this dish was a miniature version of la langoustine truffée a l'étuvée de chou vert that I had in both Tokyo and Paris. It was my favorite dish from the Paris L'Atelier, and to see this as an auxiliary part of a larger dish was even more incredible. The ultra thin pasta shell melted into the succulent langoustine with a single cut of my knife. The fragrance of the truffles brought out the scent of the cabbage. Too bad there was only one.
Again, this was all part of a single dish, all small plates served on one tray. For each component of a single dish to be so successful says a lot about chef Robuchon's uncanny ability to match textures, flavors, colors, and temperatures together in such interesting ways. By the end of the second course, I knew this was going to be one of the best meals I'd ever had.
La Châtaigne en fin Velouté sur une Royale de Foie Gras avec un Lait Fumé was a slightly modified version of a similar dish from New York. And like this dish, it was satisfying. The nutty warmth of the chestnut velouté combined with the refreshing yet smokey crème fraîche was strong enough of a combination to stand on its own. So the slab of foie gras with shaved black truffle was simply gratuitous, yet much appreciated. The first bite into the lightly cooked duck liver sent a chill down my spine as contrasting elements of temperature, texture, and savoriness swirled together into a harmony of flavor. I opened my eyes and the plate was somehow spotless. Who could've done such a thing? Guess the hunger monster struck again.
While not part of the menu tasting, I was given an opportunity to try La Daurade servie avec une crème et huile de citronelle et des poireaux étuvées. The lemongrass oil brought an almost floral flavor to a creamy dish. But, like a basket of potpourri, I thought this would be better smelled than eaten. The flavors were dull, and the strength and fragrance of the lemongrass overpowered the sweet butter and the subtle flavor of the leeks. Aaron may have liked this dish more than I, as he enjoyed it in New York; but this was just not for me.
In a very colorful assortment of poached pear and gorgonzola cheese, Le Gorgonzola en royale avec une vierge de poire et de tomate à la sauge was certainly the most colorful dish of the night. Displayed in a rainbow tinted cocktail glass, the dish certainly caught my eye. And my nose. Despite being burried beneath layers of pear and citrus fruit, the smell of warm gorgonzola cheese percolated through. The slight acidity of the fruit helped to cut through the heavy mouthfeel of the warm cheese. This dish was beautiful both to the eye and the palate.
Unfortunately, I was struck down from cloud nine with the next course. The weakest of the night, L'Avoine startled my palate into defense with what could have been a terrible sign of things to come. Thankfully, this dish was an exception. The cream of oatmeal took on a sticky consistency much like okra seeds, without the flavor of oat coming through. This mire of grain would string down into the bowl with each scoop like a watery goo. Nestled in the oatmeal were cubes of cured ham which added an element of smokiness; but unfortunately, the off-putting texture of the oatmeal distracted me from this and the other subtle flavors of other ingredients coming through. The dish was also particularly thin which made the oatmeal cool off very quickly. I decided to cut my losses. This was the only course where the returned plate had evidence of use.
Wild Salmon in a lightly smoked flower and ginger broth made up the next course, Le saumon Sauvage d'Ecosse. The salmon was very lightly cooked revealing the raw firmness of the lean slice of fish. Salmon can be very fatty. But perhaps in the wild, when swimming up waterfalls to escape big-appetite hunters like myself bears, they develop a few muscles. The lean cut, while cooked, still had a slightly buttery mouthfeel while balanced out the slight acidity of the ginger broth. I'm not sure if Robuchon would have served this dish outside of Japan, as the flavors were reminiscent of dobin mushi, a traditional Japanese broth served in Kaiseki meals.
Le Bar cuit sur le peau aux épices avec une sauce venutée was a filet of sea bass crowned with its crispy skin, locking in both flavor and moisture. Again, one of the few cooked fish I'd had this trip. But while this was cooked, the Japanese affinity for raw fish certainly came through: the fish was so soft and slightly undercooked. The only purpose of my knife was to guide more fish through the fruity sauce onto my fork. The sauce sweetened the fish but thankfully the sea salt prevented it from getting too sweet. The result was a complex yin-yang of sweet and savory. This meaty fish served as a delightful segue into the heavier courses to come.
The only meat course of the night was next, Le Bœuf grillé, cristalline au poivre, matsutake en tempura et raifort à la moutarde. Looking at this plate demonstrates how chef Robuchon deftly inspires the imagination of diners by connecting the plate not only to the garden; but to imagination. This perfectly rectangular slice of sirloin is flurried with autumn leaves, fragrant thyme, and colorful flowers. My father, a steak-lover, would have certainly felt emasculated: no baked potato and hunting rifle here. The beautiful pepper-flavored crystal leaning against this ultra-lean slice of meat broke off into crispy, slightly spicy pieces with each bite. Very creative and tasty, indeed.
My mother's food finally arrived. I taste-tested it (twice) to make sure it contained no harmful ingredients. Safety first, I say. Pumpkin gnocchi with mimolette cheese, a slab of foie gras à la plancha, and shaved black alba truffles. Mimolette is usually recognizable on the cheese cart by its deep orange color. I was surprised to see that the gnocchi here was not that color. But how could something with pumpkin, truffle, and foie gras not be delicious, right? I spoke too soon. The smell was dominated by the cheese and the truffles, aside from the texture, were indetectable. They sure looked pretty, though. These caterpillar-shaped pastas sat in a small pool of what appeared to be pure oil. Definitely not the best course of the night, and I felt guilty that my mother's single course had been so lackluster.
Living with my host family in Paris, I learned that the French tend to enjoy salads after the main course to ease the transition into the finality of dessert. This was confirmed with the next course, Les Racines Maraîchères mitonnées à l'huile d'Aragan. This light salad of root vegetables helped to cut through any remnants of the flavor of the previous course.
It turns out that my mother was not the only one visiting me from New York this week as Le Yuzu Vert, an old L'Atelier NY standby, came next. This is essentially small shot glass of green yuzu granité with a lemon verbena gelée and a thin layer of cachaça, the national drink of Brazil. It was light, clean, and refreshing -- a nearly perfect decrescendo from salty to sweet. This dish was served ice cold which further strengthened its refreshing power. I was now recharged and ready for more.
Still quite hungry I asked to look at the regular dessert menu for possible additions. I'm glad I did, because there it was: Le Sucre. I'd heard that the pastry chef from New York's L'Atelier had recently moved back to Tokyo. Looks like he moved to Le Château. Once my favorite dessert in New York, Le Sucre was something special, but unfortunately fleeting as it had been unavailable for the past year. What a perfect opportunity to relive the memories. At this point my mother could only shake her head in disapproval of my gluttony. But then it came. It was like seeing an old friend with a new haircut. Le Sucre, despite the repositioning of garnishings, was still clearly identifiable by it's perfectly symmetrical, shiny little sphere of happiness.
The flawless skin of this jewel was begging to be touched. Mistake. I was also very curious how heavy this sphere was. An even worse mistake. After lifting it about two inches above the plate, plop. The extremely thin shell gave way and the pressure of my fingers started a chain-reaction of fractures which, in less than a second, shattered this beautiful creation into a multicolored rasberry and vanilla pudding. Like a little kid who had an accident, I looked around the room to make sure nobody saw. No such luck. The two waiters and their French-Japanese translator ran into the kitchen to prevent an outburst of laughter. My mother, however, was not so courteous. Oh well.
The pleasant sound of the cheese cart wheeling over could be heard from tables away. At least by me. The cart featured nearly all imported French cheeses. My mother selected a few that appealed to her palate: bleu d'auvergne, comté, and a fresh goat cheese whose name escapes me now.
Then came my dessert, La Châtaigne en soupe parfumée au chum brun avec des billes de chocolat fondant et une glace au lait. I really love chesnut. Just not with chocolate. In fact, I would say that I generally do not enjoy chocolate for dessert unless it comes with peanut butter and crystals of sea salt. After brushing the chocolate to the side, I was very happy. The whole chestnut was topped with a nicely balanced ball of milk ice cream, hands down the best part of this dessert when combined with the chestnut. Slightly salty, texturally diverse, and both hot and cold, this course was wonderfully balanced.
Next came my mother's dessert, Le Kaki frais avec une glace et une gelée au citron et une feuille de melisse cristallisée. This was perhaps the most interesting of the desserts, a simple case of east meets west. The thick wedge of persimmon dominated this plate keeping the flavor light and fruity. Each bite left behind the trademark of persimmon, a thin film-like residue on the roof of the mouth. The lemon helped to sharpen the acidity of the fruit brightening its flavor and freshening my mouth at the same time. The crystallized lemon balm "leaf" added a textural contrast as little chips of wafer mixed with the lemon foam and made their way into my mouth.
After this epic meal with my mother, I was subjected to maternal interrogation psychoanalysis pertaining to the quantity of food I'd just eaten. "I don't understand how anybody can eat this much." "What kind of a person are you?" "Is this how you eat in Paris?" Although the last question prompted a response, thankfully a staff member saved the evening by bringing a rather large tray of macarons and a collection of petits fours. The staff member placed the tray of macarons on the table, which I thought meant that they were all destined for my mother and me. Perhaps this was a cultural understanding, as the woman waited for me to select one or two. I feigned confusion, and the tray was kindly left on the table. Besides, it was getting late and we were the last people in the restaurant. Who else wanted macarons? (Aaron doesn't count.)
There were eight different colors. I could not let such a diverse selection go to waste. Too full to even inhale the delicious scent of the macarons, my mother glared at me disapprovingly and finished her glass of wine. The highlight among these after-dinner treats was concord grape and mascarpone macaron. Absolute freshness, a slightly crispy ultra-thin shell, soft interior, and a not-too-sweet grape filling meant this cookie was destined for success. We were also given a parting gift of fresh brioche and raisin bread to inhale right then and there save for tomorrow morning's breakfast. A nice way to end a fantastic meal, if you ask me.
With French food of this quality to bolster the already great Japanese cuisine in the city, it begs the question: why leave Tokyo? Fact is, many Japanese don't. I was disheartend a few days ago to hear from a Japanese friend that his biggest complaint about New York was the food. While I strongly disagreed with that statement, I could see where he was coming from. Tokyo can reproduce the finest food in the world, even when it is thousands of miles away from the source. So why leave the country when you can go down the street? But therein lies the problem: reproduction. Like a photocopy taken out of context this food, while delicious, lacked the soul and emotion of its source. Its execution was so flawless and streamlined, at times, it appeared robotic. And perhaps that's Joël Robuchon's finest talent: perfecting dishes to a level that they can be reproduced at such a high level, at any corner of the globe. That's certainly no easy task.
In some ways, as Aaron interestingly points out, this menu was like "L'Atelier's greatest hits," containing the best dishes from those various locations. This is the commercialized uniqueness that one can find in L'Atelier and now, as I've learned, at Le Château. But just because many of these dishes are available elsewhere does not take away from their objective flavor: most of these dishes are still jaw-dropping. It's a guaranteed meal of consummate skill and flavor. Just be aware that there after having gone to other Joël Robuchon restaurants, there will be noticable similarities. But then again, that isn't such a bad thing.