Last year, S. Pellegrino released their “50 Best Restaurants in Asia,” a spin off of the regular World’s 50 Best list. Narisawa in Tokyo, Japan, topped the 2013 list — and Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa has been awarded two Michelin stars on top of it. Everything I read indicated it was nearly impossible to get a reservation. We’ve had magical luck in the past with securing reservations at some hard to get into places (still never made it in French Laundry through, go figure), so why not give it a shot for my birthday?
If only I had as much luck picking winning lottery numbers, I’d be set!
So what’s the verdict? What’s the Best Restaurant in Asia like? Here’s a detailed look at our impressive lunch at Narisawa in Tokyo, Japan.
The menu at Narisawa is continually changing, and the day we dined was part of the “Spring Collection, 2013.” The theme for this collection was Evolve with the Forest.
Chef Narisawa is known for his mastery of French cooking techniques while showcasing Japanese ingredients, with a heavy emphasis on flora aesthetics. The wine list was quite impressive, featuring a number of local Japanese offerings as well. We opted to go with the suggested wine pairings for each course.
Wine: Champagne Vilmart et Cie
We started off with a glass of Champagne from one of the premier houses in France. The Premier Cru estate dates back to 1890 and is located in the Montagne de Reims region. Beautiful Brut fermented and aged in oak casks for 10 months and specifically labeled for Narisawa.
I knew we were in for a treat when we were told that the interesting concoction on the table was bread…which would be fermenting right before our eyes!
“Forest 2010″ Bread of the Forest and Moss Butter
Chef Narisawa is noted for his “Bread of the Forest” which rises with the use of candlelight. Several courses in, the bread has grown enough where it is popping over the sides and they bake it table side in a stone pot for 12 minutes. The stone pot has an oak tree lid, with the faint aroma of yuzu seeping through.
Accompanying the bread was a very interesting butter, resembling a pile of moss! The black is dehydrated black olive and we were told the green powder was parsley.
Essence of the Forest
Starting off lunch, we were served three small dishes at once. The first of the courses to arrive was called “Essence of the Forest” and it was meant to symbolize the Spring forest season. Definitely a lot going on with this course and we were told, “it’s ok to eat with your hands.”
Really? In a Michelin-starred restaurant with perfectly pressed white tablecloths? Needless to say, more of my forest ended up on the table cloth versus in my belly.
While intimidating to eat, Essence of the Forest was an impressive presentation. The cup was the key to the forest and contained its “essence”. The cup was Japanese cedar filled with oak-infused water. The forest was created with Japanese herb tempura, the “bark” is skin of the Jerusalem artichoke, while the orange is a kumquat. The forest floor scattered around the plate was made with Japanese soy pulp mixed with green tea powder and black tea powder mixed with bamboo powder.
Chiayu, Japanese Sweet Fish
Baby sweet fish in Japan are a delicacy, often called chiayu. We were told the livers were left in, which gives a very bitter contrast. The green dots are sansho pepper leaf sauce and the fish are topped with additional sansho leaves. Lightly tempura fried, the taste of the chiayu was surprisingly mild, however a definite contrast with the bitter livers.
Sumi means charcoal and this is an important element in chef Narisawa’s creations. In this instance, it was akin to a charcoal deep fried onion bread.
Wine Pairing — 2008 Toriivilla (Imamura) Blanc Cuvee Tradition
This pairing was for all three dishes — the “sumi charcoal”, chiayu and “Essence of the Forest.” It’s a local Japanese wine made in the Bourgogne style — very smooth with elegant honey-apple flavors. The mix of mountainous soil and wind coming down from Mt. Fuji makes for a complex minerality on the palate as well.
As the name suggests, the next course was not just paying homage to the soil of the forest — it was the soil of the forest. Now, before you go, “ewwww dirt soup”, it was a very calculated course with the terroir of Japan being recreated in a soup. Chef Narisawa created this recipe in 2001 and it comes from the Nagano region. The soup contains no salt or pepper, only burdock root seasoning. We were told the winter soil makes for a tastier soup.
So how was the soil soup? Surprisingly quite tasty. It was one of my favorite courses. And maybe I am just easily swayed once you throw the term “terroir” at me as I’m very aware of the role soil composition plays in the flavor profile of wine grapes.
Green asparagus cooked over broiled chicken to retain its flavor and texture — compared to a chicken butter vinaigrette. In the mix was snapper sashimi with a seaweed sandwich. Pan fried oysters and basil rounded out the dish, which was a wonderful blend of color, texture, flavors, and aromas.
Wine Pairing: Riesling Lion, Edel Wein, 2011
Japanese Riesling from the Iwate Prefecture. Very few vineyards make rieslings in Japan and this is a hybrid of Riesling and Koshu Sanshaku grapes. It is said this wine was once deemed “too delicate” to serve with food and was not that popular, however, this crisp and refreshing wine has been gaining notoriety in the past few years. Narisawa’s talented Sommelier, Yoshinobu Kimura, does a magnificent job at including this gem in the tasting menus.
“Ash 2009″ Scene of the Seashore
The presentation of “Ash 2009″ was rather impressive. The course started off with a beautiful piece of squid and then the ash was created table-side from a mix of olive oil, lemon juice and liquid nitrogen. The ash was spooned over the squid which released a stream of liquid nitrogen across the table. The red sauce was puree of paprika and salami. Very delicate flavors, nice grilled essence from complex paprika sauce, and the squid was perfectly cooked.
The scene of the seashore concept is to represent the typical Japanese fishermen returning with their catch, the misty ocean at night and the smell of charcoal as they cook the day’s bounty.
Want to attempt this at home? Chef Narisawa shared his grilled squid recipe on Fine Dining Lovers.
Wine Pairing: Domaine Andre Vatan 2010 Sancerre Les Charmes
Hailing from the Loire region of France, this is a 100% Sauvignon Blanc. Some vines are planted in limestone, so look for a zesty minerality with some smokiness on the palate. This was the perfect wine to cut the richness of the squid.
Fugu, Blowfish, Hagi, Yamaguchi
Deep fried fugu or blowfish. This was the first time I’ve had fugu outside of a dedicated blowfish restaurant in Osaka. Despite the hype of the dangers surrounding eating fugu, it’s a relatively uninteresting flavored fish (at least how I’ve experienced it). Chef Narisawa managed to make it interesting, give it texture through deep-frying it and a tart finish from the Japanese sudachi. Sudachi is a small round citrus that is primarily used for flavoring rather than eaten. Served on butcher paper, we were told to eat with our hands again.
Wine Pairing: Beblenheim Riesling, Domaine Trapet, Alsace
Alsace is definitely the spot in France for quality Riesling, but add the name Trapet, and it’s guaranteed to be a hit. Jean Louis Trapet is a very well-known name in Burgundy, especially among the great estates of Gevrey-Chambertin. His wife’s family has the property in Alsace and both estates produce biodynamically-farmed wines.
“Luxury Essence 2007″ Ise Ebi, Lobster
This complex dish showcases Narisawa’s talent for creatively combining flavors and textures. The lobster was lightly deep-fried and served in a broth made with chicken, pork, ham, and water cooked in a convection oven for eight hours. Add Japanese radish, Brussels sprouts, carrot and more for a unique dish.
On sensory overload at this point, I accidentally missed snapping a separate photo of the glass drop bulbs suspended on a hanging rack that held the steaming broth for “Luxury Essence.” You can get the general idea with this overall table photo I took when they first brought the dish out.
Wine Pairing: Domaine de L’Hortus Grand Cuvee 2010
This beauty is from the Languedoc-Roussillon region. Nice oaky nose with fruity notes on the palate.
Rockfish, Odawara Bay
The next course was Rockfish from Odawara Bay, served with Japanese nanohana greens.
Wine Pairing: Chateua De La Velle Meursault 1er Cru 2005
This premier cru (1er cru) from Meursault is made from Chardonnay grapes and comes from Côte de Beaune in the Côte-d’Or region. It’s balances nicely with dishes like the rockfish.
“Sumi 2009″ Hilda Beef
The last savory course is where the sumi made an appearance again. The beef was covered in charcoal, made with carbonized leek powder. It was presented whole on the small grill and removed for carving. The meat undergoes a slow cook with heated olive oil continually poured over it for 30 minutes.
We were given a cup with sake granita to eat in between bites to cut the richness. Served on a plate that also included Japanese white bamboo shoots, onion, and more sansho pepper flowers, which only bloom about two weeks out of the year. The sansho flowers were also the basis for the green sauce swirled on the plate.
Wine Pairing: Lynsolence St.-Emilion 2001
This Grand Cru is produced with 100% Merlot grapes and hails from Bordeaux’s famed Right Bank area of St.-Emilion. Small production (around 625 cases) and only 20 cases of those were brought to Japan. The wine still exhibits rich color, fruity notes and lots of spice on the finish. The 2001 Lynsolence stood up nicely with the rich taste and fatty texture of the Hilga beef.
The first “dessert” to arrive was not truly a dessert at all, but rather a cocktail to cleanse the palate. Salty Dog is made with grapefruit juice and vodka, served in a salt-rimmed glass. Chef Narisawa’s version included Japanese grapefruit with pulp, confit grapefruit skin, and a rim that was a bit sweet and salty.
Kuzumochi – Sakekasu – Strawberry
Let the sweets begin! The base was a strawberry sorbet, handmade mochi cakes made with kuzu starch, and sake lees jelly. A fresh milk /cream sauce is then poured over the dessert table side.
Wine Pairing: Jacques Selosse Ratafia de Champagne il etait une fois
This unique wine was more of a fortified wine that had lots of raisin and orange flavors, with a nutty finish. Selosse utilizes a small number of Chardonnay barrels that he leaves outside around six years. He added leftover grape juice from Champagne making and many call it France’s version of Greek retsina. It is called Ratafia and hails from the Champagne region.
This was pretty much the equivalent of a dessert buffet. They wheeled over a rather large table filled with an impressive array of sweets. It was overwhelming to choose just a couple, but I did try to refrain some — and then I spotted the tray of mini-macarons. No way was I skipping those!
After the meal, chef Narisawa came out and took the time to say hello to each table in the restaurant. He is extremely down to earth and quite humble. What a pleasure it was to meet him after experiencing one of the best meals we’ve had during our travels.
Minami Ayoyama 2-6-15
Minato-ku, Tokyo 107-0062
Opening Hours: Lunch 12:00 – 13:00 (last order) Close 15:00; Dinner 18:30 – 21:00 (last order); Closed Sunday