Arriving at erba da nakahigashi, you might think you’d stumbled into a plush, exclusive Japanese restaurant, rather than one serving Italian cuisine. The walls down to the basement premises are finished in lacquer and the dining room has no tables at all, just a compact open kitchen with a wooden counter. There are only eight seats, each set with chopsticks.
The style is classic kappo, a restaurant where customers sit and watch as the chef prepares course after elaborate course of exquisite washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine). That is, apart from one reassuring element: a large, handsome Italian bacon slicer in bright Ferrari red that stands in the center of the counter.
This intersection of influences is fitting. Chef Toshifumi Nakahigashi, the man who operates that equipment, carving slivers of the finest San Daniele prosciutto, hails from Kyoto, where his father runs one of the most highly respected restaurants.
Despite his family specializing in Japanese cuisine, the younger Nakahigashi chose a different path. At the age of 18, as soon as he graduated high school, he set off for Tuscany, spending a year at the renowned Ristorante Arnolfo, before moving to Paris to hone his skills at French superchef Alain Ducasse’s flagship restaurant.
Back in Japan, he worked at Italian restaurants in Kyoto and Osaka. But when he finally took the plunge to open his own place, he moved away from his roots again, opening instead in Tokyo’s Nishi-Azabu district. His cooking is undeniably Italian in flavor and inspiration, but his 14-course omakase (“leave it up to the chef”) tasting menu is presented with more than a trace of Japanese precision.
The name — erba is Italian for “grass” — is also a homage to his father’s restaurant, Sojiki Nakahigashi (sojiki literally means “grass eating” but reflects the role that wild plants play in the meals). The younger Nakahigashi has an equal focus on the vegetable kingdom, using up to 60 different kinds of plants, herbs and flowers in each meal. Many of these are sent up to Tokyo fresh daily by friends who are farmers outside Kyoto.
The hunters who supply the venison, wild boar and fowl that form the centerpiece of his meals are also longstanding connections. They forage in the hills outside of Kyoto for wild plants in spring and for mushrooms in autumn. And the elegant ceramics that he serves the food on are made by a long-time friend in the Kiyomizu pottery district.
For one of his signature dishes, Nakahigashi pulls out a retro coffee siphon. In the top chamber, he places dried vegetable peel, roots and offcuts that would usually be discarded. Underneath he heats up a minestrone broth made from ham and Parmesan scraps until it bubbles up and is imbued with the vegetables. He serves this flavorful soup with lightly steamed vegetables or pours it over delicate hand-made ravioli
As in any Japanese meal, the final main dish is rice. Here, that means a delicate risotto, which Nakahigashi masterfully adorns with premium uni (sea urchin) or other seafood. It is the perfect summation of this meeting of very fine food cultures.
"Would you like to see the kitchen?" Chef Olivier Chaignon asks me. What he really means is, "You have to come and see the kitchen they've created for me!" When you get there you understand his excitement.
It's huge, and feels even more so because it's so gleaming and spotless. The pastry kitchen is at the back, all part of the same space instead of being banished to a separate floor, as it was in the old building.
Chaignon introduces me to Head Chef Izumi Yamashita. He's a veteran not just from the previous team, under Bruno Menard, but from the time of the legendary Jacques Borie, who took over at L'Osier in 1986 and established its heavyweight credentials.
But Chaignon is in charge now. And he's keen to give us all a taste of his cuisine. It turns out to be a 7-course meal in miniature: perfect with all that bubbly...
Starting with a simple little number involving tuna wrapped in blanched lettuce leaf, topped on a bed of bouillon gelée and topped with a generous blob of sturgeon roe.
So good it demands a close-up.
Then a smooth, warm mousse that is rich with the woodsy aroma of cep.
Followed by a wonderful risotto with scallops and Alba white truffles…
Sea bass served with a sauce of oursin (uni), concealing a wheat grain "risotto".
Then duck (from Challans, bien sûr) with poireau leek, on creamed potato…
And finally a cube of Hokkaido wagyu filet with classic sauce Bordelaise.
Time to explore the desserts: dark chocolate with a delicate shred of gold leaf…
…concealing a core of pistachio and butterscotch creams.
And finally, just in case we had not been sweetened up enough, there were nice little trays of mignardises and macarons…
L'Osier officially reopened from today (Friday). But if all the above has whetted your appetite, I'm sorry: L'Osier is already fully booked through the end of the year.
But if it's this popular now, imagine what it will be like after the Michelin inspectors have paid their visits and awarded their stars. At least that won't happen until next year.