TAKAZAWA - Tokyo, Japan

Dinner - Friday, April 12, 2013

"I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree."

In mid-2012, after seven years of continuous operation, the studio restaurant formerly known as Aronia de Takazawa underwent a reinvention of sorts, reemerging as TAKAZAWA. This new stage strives for a greater emphasis on "Japanese ingredients, culture and tradition".

The heart and soul of the restaurant are Yoshiaki Takazawa and his wife, Akiko - they run the kitchen and the front-of-house, respectively (indeed, Akiko is the only front-of-house person). Takazawa is assisted by three cooks in the rear kitchen, while he finishes every dish personally at his polished silver dais - a fascinating custom counter with a built-in griddle, hibachi, recessed holders, plating area and spotlight lamp.

The restaurant itself is accessed via a nondescript door in an alley, which opens onto a brightly lit staircase - the handrail is inscribed with the poem at the beginning of this post (a paraphrased version of Trees by Joyce Kilmer). At the top of the staircase, one encounters three widely-spaced tables, and the raised platform where Takazawa holds court. The impression is of a clean, streamlined room - many things (including the bathroom) are hidden behind the wall paneling. Service is handled by Akiko and Takazawa himself - it was extremely good. On this night, we had pre-selected their top-of-the-line menu - the "Chef's Special Tasting Menu of the Day with upgraded ingredients".

Spherified green pea soup
Hotaru ika
Marinated in a light brine with just a touch of acid, these firefly squid were firm and clean-tasting, with innards that popped juicily when bitten into. Outstanding start.

Bonito, soy sauce
The bonito arrived at our table under a clear cover, initially obscured by rice straw smoke (the traditional smoking agent). They were dusted with a soy sauce powder, lending just enough umami and salt to complement the leaner (in the Spring, anyway) flesh. This was serious fish - tied with Sawada for the best bonito we had on this trip.

"Shirouo no Odorigui"
"Dancing icefish" in a light dashi - the tiny shirouo fish are apparently only at their peak for two weeks every year. These specimens were lively, thrashing about quite violently - we were instructed to down them in one shot. My impression was of a mild sweetness, with rather innocuous textures. Akiko seemed rather disappointed that (at a later time) the table next to ours did not make any effort to consume this course.

"Ratatouille (2005)"
The only mainstay on the menu - this signature dish has been served every night since the restaurant first opened. 15 vegetables, each cooked separately, assembled like a terrine and encased in a sheet of red cabbage, Next to the slice, a lone black bean topped with a large crystal of salt. We were instructed to take this in one bite - the diversity of flavours and textures was delightful, running the full gamut.

Carrot bread, Okinawan Agu rillettes 
Bread service was a buttery carrot bread, served with a pot of rillettes made from premium Agu pork - the meat of this heritage breed from Okinawa is purported to have lower cholesterol and significantly more glutamic acid than other pigs. It was amazingly good with the slightly sweet bread. I scarfed it down and had seconds.

"Vegetable parfait (2011)"
Tomato, basil, caviar, cabbage
Possibly the best course of the evening. The layers began at the bottom with intense tomato water, followed by a frothy gazpacho. Above this alluring band of red were generous squirts of parmesan cream and basil puree, topped with caviar, edible flowers and little chunks of cucumber. Finally, a crisp black cabbage chip finished off the parfait. We were given a long spoon and a straw to work with - mixing the layers together produced the most fantastic flavours. This may have been one of my favourite reworkings of gazpacho, ever.

"SPRING roll (New)"
Kuruma ebi, herbs, peanut sauce
Each plate arrived at our table with the bánh tráng wrapper unfurled, and various ingredients (kuruma ebi, cilantro, dill, pistachios, flowers, mayonnaise) laid out on it. Takazawa personally wrapped each one up, revealing the dipping sauce (puréed Japanese peanuts spiked with chili oil) beneath. The roll was very refreshing, and the sauce was excellent (not saccharine). The mild heat from the chili oil complemented the prawn's natural sweetness so well.

"SAKURA carpaccio (New)"
Horse, daikon, leek, sakura salt
We were shocked to discover that this well-marbled flesh was from a horse! Upon further research, it appears that raw horse meat is indeed called sakura in Japan, because of its pink colour - a perfect seasonal confluence. The meat (from Kumamoto prefecture) was served with drops of sweet soy sauce, chili oil, and leek oil. Daikon was marinated in ginger and cut to resemble cherry blossom petals, further reinforcing the play on words. Dragging the carpaccio through the sauces produced an amazingly balanced bite, hitting all the tastebuds. Really, really good.

"Harvest from TAKAZAWA's farm (New)"
Asparagus, black truffle mayonnaise, breadcrumb soil
"Reborn TAKENOKO (New)"
Kinome, cheese, shiro miso, bacon
Asian countries have a peculiar way of Westernizing their ingredients (e.g. omurice, Hainanese chicken chop) in a manner I can't seem to resist. This dish was in that vein - bamboo steamed with cheese, set on a purée of white miso and brown butter. A brillianty bastardized take on comfort food that was ridiculously delicious. The addition of fragrant kinome (young sansho leaves) were a nice seasonal touch that helped significantly in moderating the richness of the dish.

"Spring SEA (New)"
Kansai oysters, clam, dill, lemon, natane abura
For this course, a glove was first set in front of us. Then, covered glass casserole dishes were brought to the table, the insides filled with steam and the lids dangerously burbling. Lifting the lids revealed giant oysters (from Osaka Bay) and a very hot log of binchotan. Natane abura (rapeseed oil) had been poured over the log before they were brought to our table - the live oysters had steamed in their own liquor while being perfumed by the smoking oil. They were plump and meaty, with considerable salinity. Excellent oysters - my first time having this variety, and hopefully not my last.

"REDS (New)"
Tai, smoked tomato, radicchio, amaranth, ume-beet sauce
"NEW Sukiyaki (New)"
Beef, egg, traditional vegetables
The colour of that egg yolk almost telegraphs how good the dish is going to be. The wagyu was very beefy tasting and meltingly soft, topped by the egg poached in red wine and soy sauce. These were accompanied by verdant shungiku (garland chrysanthemum), both fresh and as a thick sauce. There were also mushrooms, cabbage and a delicate tofu quenelle - all logical pairings in the dish, and all sublime tasting.

"Wind-dried citrus (New)"
Kinkan, dekopon, yuzu marshmallow
To cleanse our palates, a living bonsai tree was brought out and set in the middle of the table. Skewered on its trimmed branches were slices of dried citrus. There were skin-on kinkan (a type of kumquat), dekopon segments (now easily available stateside) and a yuzu marshmallow rolled in green kinako powder. As one might imagine, the slow air-drying (and concomitant aging) has the effect of concentrating and transmuting once-familiar flavours - these citrus were awesome, almost crackly on the surface with a small reservoir of juice still hidden within.

"Strawberry shortcake (2008)"
Compressed strawberries, vanilla ice cream, liquid nitrogen whipped cream
I'm generally a fan of very cold desserts, and this was no exception - the frozen whipped cream providing a satisfactory crunch that complemented the soft vanilla ice cream and sweet strawberries.

Yuzu sencha
We finished with glasses of yuzu sencha and a collection of mignardises - black sesame cookie cats, sakura white chocolate cat paws, genmaicha meringues, and matcha cakes. The toasted rice notes in the genmaicha meringues were especially good, grounding a treat I usually find too sweet.

As usual, Michelin in Japan is a head-scratcher - our meal tonight was 2-star level (TAKAZAWA is not recognized in the guide). Where lesser hands may have made some of these dishes kitschy (and I'm no stranger to apathy or cynicism), at TAKAZAWA they were fun and delicious. Ingredient quality was second to none, and execution was flawless. Furthermore, the Takazawas were exceedingly gracious hosts, going to great pains to explain history, inspiration, sourcing and much more - I will be digesting all this information for a long while. A most memorable dinner - I just hope that we'll be able to secure another reservation when the time comes for a (definite) return.

Sanyo Akasaka Building, 2F
3-5-2 Akasaka
Minato-ku, Tokyo 107-0052
Phone: (+81) 03-3505-5052