With molecular gastronomy taking the world by storm it was only a matter of time before it crossed the pacific. Located in the sky lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo, the Tapas Molecular Bar is Japan’s introduction to this innovative and creative cuisine. The interactivity that makes molecular gastronomy so much fun is heightened by the restaurant’s sushi counter seating which holds at most seven guests at a time. The entire evening is filled with conversation between not only dining companions, but with the chefs as well. It is interactive in every respect.
Japan is known for its mix of tradition and technology. I can't tell you how many pictures I've seen of a bullet train passing Mount Fuji with cherry blossoms blooming in the background. This mix of new and old is, what I believe, made the molecular bar so appealing.
I’ve been to the bar several times now and each meal has been a similarly fun experience. Most of the dishes have been more entertaining, creative, and clever, rather than delicious. I've just accepted that as a caveat for molecular gastronomy: edible art. However, several of the courses were downright spectacular, one of them possibly being the most memorable single dish I’ve ever tasted.
My most recent menu read:
Opening Aperitif Cabrales Cuttlefish Crispy Beets Scallop with Pumpkin Sorbet Red Tommy Thai Strawberry and Pesto Spaghetti Warm Sizzling Beef Carrot Caviar Secreto de Cerdo Unagi, Pineapple, Miso Lemon Nitro Manchego and Apple Juicy Lamb Monkfish, Cocoa Butter, Parsnip Miso Soup Blue Hawaii Blueberries and Laurel Fruit Course
Our opening apéritif (食前酒) came first to the table: japanese beer topped with yakult, a milk product made from fermented skimmed milk. The faux-foam had a sweet texture like an airy yogurt which made the beer taste even sweeter. This was served ice cold.
Accompanying the beer was a little plastic bag of dried cabrales cuttlefish (カブラレスとさきいか) chips whose combination touched nearly every flavor receptor on my tongue: sweet, salty, sour, bitter. The bite-sized portion made this a nice way to start the meal. A big oriental fan reminded us that we were indeed eating inside a Mandarin Oriental.
Last of the amuses bouches were crispy beets (カリカリビーツ), a ball of entangled strips of deep-fried and salted beet. I didn't particularly like this by itself; but I thought its saltiness paired really nicely with champagne. And it looked pretty.
If I had to trust an entire country to cook shellfish perfectly, it would be Japan. I'm convinced their penchant for raw fish has swayed their palattes to preferring fish on the raw side. This was the case with the next course, scallop with pumpkin sorbet (帆立貝). A lightly seared scallop served with pumpkin sorbet, asparagus, and pistachio crumbs. This was fantastic.
Red (赤), a giant leg of deep fried king crab with uni. The crab tasted dull; however, was very moist. The uni was firm and sweet. I didn't understand the grouping of ingredients in this dish, other than everything being red, except it wasn't.
Tommy Thai (トミくん), a de-constructed version of the thai soup. This was fun to eat and quite creative; but its flavors muted.
Mojito (味噌汁), our waitress came around the sushi counter and began to pour, convincingly, an invisible mojito into seven highball glasses. The mojito was suspended inside the straw held in place by a thin layer of gelatin. One sip on the straw and I tasted the mojito's strong flavors of mint and rum.
Strawberry and pesto spaghetti (いちごのスパゲッティ), sounds crazy until you taste it. These over-ripe strawberries were lightly stewed with salt to taste like really sweet tomatoes. The similarity was remarkable. This was also very tasty. I just didn't like how the dish got cold so quickly; I can't think of anything so unappetizing as a bowl of cold spaghetti with tomato sauce.
Sizzling Beef (熱いビーフ), medallions of tender filet that had been sitting in a compression canister of nitrous oxide for twelve hours. Air was still coming out of the beef as it sat on the plate, creating the sounds and visuals of beef sizzling on a grill. The meat was extremely moist.
Carrot Caviar (にんじんのキャビア), spherified balls of carrot juice. These were spherified in front of us with a matrix of syringes filled with a mix of carrot juice and the seaweed derivative alginate forming droplets into calcium chloride. Immediately upon impact with the alginate solution the carrot juice hardened into bright orange balls of what convincingly like ikura.
Secreto de cerdo (イベリコの秘密), or "pork secret,"smoked iberico pork hidden in a cloud of smoke. The clear cup is used to contain the smoke, as well as conceal its contents, until lifted. Smelled wonderful, like freshly smoked ham. The texture of the meat was dry, unfortunately.
Unagi and Pineapple Miso (うなぎ、パイナップル), thick slices of grilled freshwater eel and a pineapple miso sauce. This was incredible. Each slice was crispy and sweet. The pineapple miso's light acidity highlighted the natural sweetness of the unagi.
About halfway through the main courses, we took a break from savory and had two small bite-sized dishes of what could have been served for dessert. The idea was to completely reset the palate before continuing.
Lemon Nitro (レモンシャーベット), a yellow balloon is filled with lemonade and soaked in liquid nitrogen. The balloon is then peeled off, and a light sorbet made with shochu injected inside. The flavor is bright, sweet, and cold.
Manchego and Apple (マンチェゴとりんご), an apple tuile wrapped with manchego cheese. Had a flavor profile similar to mixing cream cheese and preserves, a mixture of sweet and salty. I really liked this.
By this point in the meal, given everything prior had been relatively light and my senses reset, I was feeling surprisingly good and ready to continue. Next came Juicy Lamb (ジューシーラム), a faux lamb chop filled with a demiglace. The lamb completely encased the demiglace so, when sliced, it leaked out all over the plate completely saucing the lamb. This was a really creative idea that made the meat extremely appetizing.
Monkfish (アンコウ), a cocoa butter battered filet of monkfish accompanied with a parsnip pureé. I didn't dislike anything about this dish; but I can't say I'd rush to order it again. This was the least creative dish of the night and seemed out of place with the other plates.
Miso Soup (味噌スープ), deconstructed miso soup on a spoon. The miso soup was spherified to about the size of a large egg yolk. This was served with small white balls of tofu jelly and dashed with powdered wakame. The "soup" exploded in my mouth making the texture playful. It actually tasted like miso soup. I didn't like that the dish was served room temperature; because I'm used to eating miso soup hot. Other than that minor gripe, the flavor was identical.
Blue Hawaii (くうき氷), a mixture of rum, pineapple juice, blue Curaçao, and sweet and sour mix was flash frozen in liquid nitrogen brining the temperature to −321 °F. The chef warned us to eat this within 15 seconds before it began to warm, so naturally I photographed this as fast as humanly possible. He also warned us to be careful not to burn our tongues; except he didn't exactly say how. This is an example of "fun" aspect of molecular gastronomy that can make it exciting and adventurous. As soon as the frozen snow touched my mouth it instantly sublimed into a puff of smoke. The volume also increased with the phase change, a lot, so the smoke puffed out my nose. In the process changing the flavor from being perceived on my tongue to in my nose. It was a really cool experience.
Last of the desserts was Blueberries and Laurel (ブルーベリーとローリエ), a blueberry spongecake topped with laurel ice cream. The spongecake was dry and the flavors muted.
Fruit Plate (フルーツの版), a small plate holding wedges of citrus fruits and berries. This seemed normal until another small plate with a red berry was brought out. We tasted the sour lemon; frankly, I was confused why I was brought a plate of sour fruits. Without any explanation, we were told to suck on the red fruit for thirty seconds, then to continue with the sour and acidic citrus fruits. It's hard to explain the shock that followed; as if everything I had known was wrong. The lemon and grapefruit wedges were now as sweet as the most delicious orange I have ever tasted. There was no sourness or bitterness whatsoever. The strawberry no longer tasted so astringent as before; it was like pure sugar. We were stunned, and could not stop laughing.
The chef explained what the red berry was: miracle fruit, a small berry from Africa that binds to the sour receptors on the tongue, preventing their flavor from being detected. The sensation lasts up to two hours.
The chefs reached under the counter and pulled out guns. Still confused from the miracle fruit, we didn't budge. Our bills were shot at us.
The menu reads about twenty courses and only changes minimally between seasons. It seems that about 75% of the menu has stayed the same with each visit. Before I share my most recent experience, I want to share my absolute favorite dish from this restaurant. It's one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted.
Foie Gras Chaud Froid (熱く、冷たいフォアグラ), a small cup of warm fois gras soup topped with a chilled foie gras and corn mousse and garnished with dehydrated corn and chive. The magic of this dish is how the swirls of warm and cool foie gras of thin and airy texture mix together at exactly the point that they hit your mouth. This allows you to simultaneously taste both hot and cold at the same time. Aside from being fun to drink, this was incredibly delicious. The small crisps of corn added texture to an otherwise smooth dish. The mouse was also notiably sweeter than the salty soup, showcasing two different angles of flavor for the same ingredient. Wow. (I've been told that this dish is similar, if not identical, to one at Minibar; I hope one day to be able to try the original version.)
Three of my other favorite dishes from previous experiences are below.
Langoustine and Mushroom (エビおよびきのこ), a large langoustine cooked for just an instant leaving it mostly raw. This was topped with small chanterelles and served with a rich butter sauce. While this dish is not particularly molecular in nature, it was delicious. The langoustine developed a flavor of sweet butter and a slightly pasty texture from having been only slightly cooked.
Soba Noodles (蕎麦のヌードル), a syringe filled with noodle paste was to be injected into a hot dashi broth, instantly solidifying the noodles. I had this same dish at WD-50 in New York, so I will take this as a tribute to chef Wiley Dufresne. This dish was a lot of fun to make, and tasted identical to the real thing. The noodles were not pasty in the least.
Bacon and Eggs (ベーコンとエッグ), ironically this is a dessert. Looks can be deceiving. The sunny side up "egg" was actually white yogurt topped with a mango purée. The crispy bacon strips, sweet ham flavored tuiles with a light hit of smoke. The bacon actually tasted like bacon, and it was delicious; I'd never tasted ham sweet before. The flavors of this dish were just as interesting as its creativity.
Marking the end of the meal was a small plate of petits fours (サフランとチョコレートのカプセル - カプチーノのわたあめ) presented in circular contraption with lots of little compartments.
I've read several reports of a lack of originality for chef Ramsey's dishes, the most significant being on eGullet. I think it is important to mention this as being a common criticism. In my case, creativity did not affect my experience or tasting of the dishes so I am less concerned about these claims. I have also never been to Minibar Washington D.C., or El Bullí in Roses, so I cannot comment directly.
As such, I would recommend a visit to the Tapas Molecular Bar. My experiences there have been fun and exciting. I think one visit is probably enough, as the menu does not change frequently. Though one visit can quickly turn into many more.