Noma Japan has opened! We went for lunch on Day 3 (January 12) and it was stupendous. What a setting, what a meal. And what a chef!
But this blog post represents the definitive blow-by-blow, course-by-course run-down of our meal. I'll be adding/fine-tuning the dish descriptions a bit more over the next few days, but here we go…
Please realize, this is not a definitive account of Noma Japan. That's because chef René Redzepi is already changing and adapting, evolving and swapping in new dishes.
I find that even a week later, I'm still thinking – still dreaming – of that exeptional banquet. For those unable to make it over here, please enjoy vicariously!
You can’t help but be wowed by that setting. From the 37th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, you look out toward the distant hills and the unmistakable snow-capped, sunset-silhouetted cone of Mt. Fuji. It is hard to think of a more auspicious backdrop as you settle in for the three-hour, 16-course banquet.
That view is immediately forgotten, though, as soon as the floor staff start serving the food…
Course 1: The magic kicks in from the very first dish, jumbo shrimp served atop a platter of ice. They are superb, premium sashimi quality and so fresh they’re still dancing their final quivers.
But it is the seasoning – "flavors of the Nagano forest" the menu calls it – that defines this dish. A dozen tiny wild black ants are carefully arranged on the shrimp, their little pinpricks of sharp acidity acting as a perfect accent for the sweet, pink flesh.
"None of the other courses are as provocative, although ants are used so routinely at Noma, their presence should come as no surprise…"
Although the shrimp served on the day we were there were shima-ebi – a brace of them each – other varieties are also being used, depending on whatever is available on the day.
Course 2: Four varieties of citrus – bampeiyu (pomelo); mikan (mandarin orange); and two types of buntan (from Kochi) – adorned with pine salt, kinome (sansho leaf), slices of piquant Okinawan long peppers pickled in apple vinegar, dressed with an oil made from roasted Rishiri kombu seaweed.
Course 3: Monkfish liver that has been smoked, frozen and shaved onto crisp bread – from baguettes baked by the folks at Sucre Coeur in Osaka. You've never seen an-kimo like this before: outrageously good.
We didn't get the wine pairing, but by this time we were ready for a glass or two. Starting with this one…
Course 4: Cuttlefish "noodles" in the style of zaru soba. Served chilled – "We just can't do that in Europe", says René, "people demand their food hot!" – they came with an iced broth of rose petals from Ishigaki (Okinawa).
Koika cuttlefish "Soba", with rose petal dip
Course 5: Clam pie. Premium shijimi (freshwater clams) shucked individually by hand and painstakingly arranged on a tart crust infused with kombu seaweed and seasoned with a sharply, deeply acidic paste derived from wild kiwi fruit (one of the chefs also mentioned grated wasabi in this, but it wasn't there for us).
Unbelievably intricate work... René told us that there are 45 to 50 of the clams per portion. And it takes 6-8 chefs over 4 hours to shuck and clean 7 kgs of the suckers, starting early in the morning. "We only do it because we think it's worth it" he told us...
Course 6: Even René's take on tofu is a revelation. Freshly ground from organic beans, the soy milk is set with a special coagulant, steamed for 20 minutes and topped with dainty white morsels of walnut collected last fall from wild trees. There was a layer of miso and parsley sauce at the very bottom.
Tofu, just steamed with wild walnuts
Tofu will always taste like tofu. But this is some of the sweetest in all Japan.
Time for some sake: This was an amazing unfiltered, naturally feremented brew from Terada Honke, in Chiba.
Course 7: At this point sous-chef Thomas Frebel comes out and tells us he has a dish for us that they're still working on. No complaints whatsoever about being guineapigs for this experiment – especially since it involves uni (sea urchin)...
Inside the cabbage leaf, a generous serving of Hokkaido bafun uni, seasoned with a rich sauce made from maitake mushrooms and miso. Superb. A great contrast of textures, even if the central spine of the cabbage was a bit too fibrous.
Course 8: Probably the least spectacular of the dishes to look at (and the hardest to get a good image of). But it was undoubtedly one of the highlights.
Scallops dried for two days are made into a thick fudge, with beeswax "and a little bit of butter" (as served in CPH). But the Japan version gets an exta treatment: it gets aerated into a light, spongey texture. Underneath this there were crunchy little beech nuts (foraged in the autumn) and kombu seaweed oil, this one darker and richer than the kombu oil served with the citrus earlier. What a dish. This one blew us all away!
Course 9: Slivers of Hokkori pumpkin, a delectable variety of winter squash that was simmered with kelp and arranged on the plate with fronds of kombu seaweed and salted-dried cherry blossoms. This was served with a milky koji-based sauce accented with cherry tree wood oil. Definitely one of the prettiest of all the dishes. And one of the tastiest.
Course 10: Then another jaw-dropper. Mysteriously beautiful, metallic shiny black leaves, which René just described to us as "origami garlic flowers". Of all the dishes, this was the one that brought it home just how much work had gone into this meal.
They were made from black (fermented) garlic, were flecked with salt, and had a texture somewhere between liquorice and fruit leather. We just picked them up and nibbled… and nibbled… trying to pin down the flavour. It wasn't "garlicky" at all, but it did have hints of that rich allium sweetness you get when you cook down garlic low and slow. Intriguing. And so good!
Course 11: Preserved egg with root vegetables. Slices of lotus root; kuwai (a.k.a. three-leaf arrowroot); mukago (propagules of yama-imo yams); chorogi (Chinese artichoke). The egg yolk is "cured in beef" (now you know)…
Technically this was one of the best courses. In practice, it turned out to be a bit too substantial, sapping our appetite ahead of the main course. But each of these starchy corms added a bit too much heft to the meal, at a stage where we were just about to embark on the "main" dish. Nice gari-style ginger pickles with them, though, to perk up the palate.
Sake part 2: Inemankai, from the community of Ine on the Tango Peninsula in northern Kyoto Prefecture. Sweetish, but with a nice clear acidity too. And a beautiful reddish tinge that comes from the akamai (red rice) they use to ferment it.
Course 12: Wild duck, caught by the traditional way, in nets. Then hung and dry-aged for three weeks, roasted and served whole – though already carved. Superb!
… and with our second wine of the meal.
Course 13: Turnip. "Cooked in yeast" was the initial explanation. But it went a lot deeper than that, involving the mycellium of cultivated shiitake. And a beautiful green broth made with parsley.
Course 14: Rice and sake lees. The first of the dessert courses was also a standout. Crisp rice starch wafers, on a gelato of sake-kasu (lees), on a base of cooked mochi rice (sweet rice) – with a sauce prepared from foraged wood sorrel (oxalis), which is one of the wild herbs that were from the start a signature of Noma in CPH.
Course 15: Dessert part 2: yaki-imo sweet potato. Cooked down "just about all day" in raw sugar until amazingly caramelized. Best sweet potato ever.
Sweet potato simmered in raw sugar all day
It was served with a beautiful green dip, also from the wild kiwis (but sweeter and less acidic than the paste with the clam pie).
Course 16: The very final offering was a treat to the eyes as well as the taste buds. Fermented mushrooms, enrobed in chocolate. Served with little twigs of wild cinnamon to chew on with our Tim Wendelboe coffee. Minds and palates well and truly blown.
This is more than a labour of love by René and his team. It's an insane, madcap project that is really pushing the envelope on what can be done with Japanese ingredients – and what the Noma team can achieve.
We were there on Day Three, and the effort and intensity that has gone into the project was clear on René's face as he worked alongside the wait staff, bringing us dishes, explaining the ingredients and the processes.
As I wrote in my review:
"Less than two weeks in and the menu is already evolving, as Redzepi adjusts and swaps in new dishes. By the time Noma Japan comes to a close (on Feb. 14), everything is likely to be even more finely honed.
"Even after that, the ripples from this bold, imaginative experiment will continue to spread. Redzepi sees this as a step to take Noma in Copenhagen to the next level. Meanwhile, here in Japan, a generation of chefs and customers have had their eyes and palates opened wide, beyond the confines of Japanese tradition.
"A magnificent success."
And this was our menu:
PS: For another take on Noma Japan in a very different style, check out this fantastic review in emoji by Tejal Rao, who is the restaurant critic for Bloomberg.
There was a special noren hanging across the entrance to Jimbocho Den this past weekend. That's because there was a very special event going on.
Two evenings of collaboration dinners to mark the fifth anniversary of Florilège, the brilliant little French restaurant in Aoyama that is – along with Den, of course – one of my personal favourites in the city.
Tokyo French meets creative Japanese. Nothing strange about that, seeing as the two chefs – Hiroyasu Kawate of Florilège and Zaiyu Hasegawa of Den – are not just among the most inventive and dynamic in the city, they're also great friends and frequent collaborators (in fact, when Den turned 5 last year, they put together an amazing joint-dinner at Florilège).
So this weekend was a heady, exciting prospect. And it more than lived up to expectations. A grand banquet, comprising a dozen courses of delectable inventiveness – and plenty of fun too – put together in front of our eyes by the two teams of chefs, somehow working together in Den's compact open kitchen.
There were numerous highlights, but here are a few of the most memorable moments. Starting with…
• "Aka to kuro" (Red and Black): "petals" of beet and beet-infused kabu turnip, and truffles. Topped with actual rose petals…
…and served with an equally beautiful and rich, earthy consommé:
• "Bitterness": wind-dried ayu sweetfish, grilled lightly, just to lightly brown; accompanied by a pâté of sharply bitter ayu liver that had been salted and aged for a year, served on slices of bread containing tade herb (the herb that is usually in the vinegared dip served with ayu); and on the side, a crumble of matcha, with its own resonant bitterness.
• "Umi no milk" (milk of the sea"): Oyster shinjo (light dumplings) served in a soup of delicately smoked milk.
• Roast guinea-fowl and early summer vegetables, daikon, seri and mitsuba, looking so gorgeous in those striking gold bowls that are such a feature of any meal at Florilège...
…onto which a mix of katsuo dashi and consommé was poured, with a generous scoop of rice, to make a delectable ochazuke.
Here's Kawate-san in action…
And here's Hasegawa-san showing off the the rice in its donabe pot: 9 different grains and seeds cooked in with the rice, plus a generous mound of chopped truffle added in at the very end (that's the black bullseye in the center of the pot).
Lots more images to share: I'll try and put up a longer post some time. But maybe it would be unfair to both restaurants to give the game away, when some of these dishes are likely to show up on future menus in more fully evolved forms.
Both chefs are developing their cuisine so fast, sharing ideas and techniques, moving sometimes in parallel, sometimes even closer. It's going to be a fantastic next 5 years at both Den and Florilège!
Part 3 of a three-part post on the "Kome: The Art of Rice" exhibition.
In a traditional farming society, no part of the rice would go to waste. The chaff from the hulls was mixed with mud and used as a building material for walls, or burned to make a nutrient-rich charcoal which was made a traditional fertilizer. And the bran polished off the grain (to produce white rice) would go – and still does – into the nuka-zuke bran-pickle crock.
As for the rice straw, that was/is woven in a remarkable range of designs, some visible in the photo above. Many have purely ritual uses, such as the braided straw ropes hung over the entrances of Shinto shrines. Others are more decorative, though they have always been made in celebration of the harvest.
And then there are the items for daily use: rainwear (known as mino); footwear (waraji sandals or fukagutsu boots); backpacks; carrying cases for charcoal and fireworks; and even the bales (kome-dawara) in which the rice was stored and transported. Apparently (according to the sign), this single bale below contains 2,608,695 grains of rice:
Rice straw was (and still is, here and there) plaited and twisted into twine that found myriad uses, especially as food packaging:
Above (L-R): shimi-dofu (aka koya-dofu: freeze-dried tofu); eggs; persimmons. Below (L-R): dried salmon; shishamo (small dried fish).
Shizengo (below left) has been sold this way, in a protective cover made from the straw of the organic rice it is brewed from, for decades. And the packaging for the Inaho (below right) is even more elaborate:
Rice straw is also, of course, the medium for preparing that ultimate farmhouse food, natto. Not just as the wrapping, but the original source of the microbes that convert cooked soybeans into aromatic, nutrient- and mucilage-rich fermented delicacy.
image on right taken from: http://pingmag.jp/2008/02/18/japanese-packaging-design-6-imitating-nature/
Two final images: an elegant woven spiral. And a wrapping for yubeshi, one of the most delectable Japanese preserves, made from yuzu stuffed either with sweet mochi as a confection or with miso as a pickle. Either way, it always tastes best when unwrapped from a rice-straw covering.
Simple but intricate, utilitarian but beautiful in their craftsmanship, these packages represent mingei folk art at its purest and most transient, since they are designed to biodegrade perfectly back into the soil.
They make up an essential section of the excellent "Kome: The Art of Rice" show now running at 21_21 Design Sight.
Part 2 of a three-part post on the "Kome: The Art of Rice" exhibition
One of the aspects of "Kome: The Art of Rice" that makes it so rewarding – as a non-native speaker/reader of Japanese – is the extensive use of English in the signage for the exhibition.
This is such a profound subject, which goes to the core of Japanese agri/culture. Thankfully non-Japanese are not excluded.
To give you an idea, here are a few of the signs I snapped while I was going round the show before writing it up (for The Japan Times here…). The quality of the photos is poor; but they do illustrate the depth and scope of the show. As I said before: it's highly recommended.
From one grain, a thousand grains:
Rice culture has moulded the landscape of Japan:
Rice is not all (or always) white:
Rice and sakura, a profound connection:
Rice culture and the agricultural environment, a symbiotic network:
Rice as optimal slow food; rice balls as concentration of spiritual power:
Needess to say, all these signs are © 21_21 Design Sight, and are only reproduced here as examples of the level of attention that has gone into producing this show. The booklet you get as you enter has lots more information that helps to enhance your appreciation of this exhibition.
Food writer and restaurant reviewer for the Japan Times contact: foodfile (at) me (dot) com