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.
Change comes in subtle increments in the ramen world, rarely in sudden leaps. That is why it was exciting to stagger – literally, we'd been drinking at the nearby Awajicho Craft Beer Market – into Gonokami Suisan (as profiled in my Japan Times column) earlier this year, not too long after it opened.
Located in the back streets to the north of Kanda station, this is the third Tokyo branch of the innovative Gonokami group. So we knew to expect some interesting new noodle ideas. But even so, we were profoundly impressed by some of the bowls we were served there…
These days you won't have to wait long to get in. But last December, after it opened, lines formed around the block to sample the trademark seafood ramen. Unlike the light, clear Kyushu-style agodashi broths, the soups at Gonokami suisan are thick and comforting, in the manner of a Southern French bisque.
The basic bowl is gindara (sablefish) ramen — the one above. The noodles, all made in-house, are served in a rich broth, topped with chunks of the fried fish. Chashu pork and ajitama eggs are optional extras. There is also a tsukemen version…
Sometimes, Gonokami Suisan also offers a thin, flat pappardelle-style noodle. That’s the one that goes best with the store’s major innovation — the uni-kake (sea urchin) ramen.
This uni ramen is the one that has generated the biggest buzz. It looks simple, topped with just nori seaweed and chopped negi, but the infusion of sea urchin – about one urchin per bowl, they say – gives it a powerful, addictive richness.
Recently, a miso ramen with salmon was added to the lineup, so it pays to keep an eye on the shop’s Facebook page. That’s how you get to know about their limited-edition noodles, such as the eye-popping ebi (shrimp) tsukemen, featuring a mandala of sashimi-grade ama-ebi shrimps on top.
Ramen is too often a pursuit for otaku, but Gonokami attracts a varied clientele. For that we can thank the easygoing staff, who may look like out-and-out hipsters but are welcoming, friendly and fiercely proud of the noodles they serve.
Unlike the other branches, Gonokami Suisan also takes it to the next level with the ticket machine. All the options are penned in using an ink brush in traditional Japanese style. Which makes it hard to read, but definitely gives an extra cachet to the operation.
And if you can't figure it out, just ask: they're all very eager to help!
PS: Gonokami means "Five Gods", and it refers to the name of the shrine (Gonokami Jinja) in Hamura, where the very first branch of this group was set up.
My review of the new (March 2014) Jean-Georges Tokyo is up now in the JT. Here is the original text before it somehow got a bit lost in editorial transition…
French-born, New-York-based superchef Jean-Georges Vongerichten has some two dozen restaurants to his formidable name, spread over six countries on three continents. Now he’s added Japan to that impressive list.
J-G Tokyo opened in March in the compact premises formerly occupied by Le Chocolat d’H on Keiyaki-dori, Roppongi Hills. It’s as sleek as you’d expect for the location, with plush designer-casual tables upstairs and counter seats on the ground floor.
The man in charge of the open kitchen is Fumio Yonezawa. He spent several years at the New York main restaurant and executes the Jean-Georges signature dishes and their light Asian accents with considerable aplomb.
The classic amuse-bouche appetizer is the Egg Toast: a whole golden yolk, still warm and runny, served between thin slices of crisped bread, generously topped with truffle shavings.
The other trademark J-G starter is Egg Caviar. For the summer, though, this is replaced by a lighter, zestier dish: Lemon Gelée topped with a generous scoop of caviar. Refreshingly decadent.
These are the opening gambits in the impressive five-course ¥13,000 dinner menu. For this ‘hood and this level of cooking, that’s good value. (There are also menus at ¥18,000 and ¥24,000; and a la carte)
Especially as it culminates with a sizeable slab of teppan-fried Hida beef and a suitably rich, satisfying chocolate dessert.
Wine is called for, plus a snifter of Armagnac to round things off.
Jean-Georges Tokyo, Roppongi Hills Keyaki-dori, 6-12-4 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-5412-7115; www.jean-georges.com/; open daily 11 a.m.-2 p.m. (LO) & 5:30-10 p.m.(LO); nearest station Roppongi; no smoking; lunch from ¥4,800, dinner from ¥13,000; major cards; Japanese/English menu; English spoken
That was the culmination of the mori-awase mixed sashimi platter at Ajisen in Tsukishima.
Premium seafood. Great sake. So downhome-shitamachi local. And so excellent. Especially in such good company!
Here are a few more images. Starting with another take on that wonderful uni…
A mound of nama-shirasu (fresh-caught sardine fry) simply served with ginger and fine-chopped negi scallions. In the back, the otoshi (obligatory opening nibble): home-made shiokara, so rich with umami on the tastebuds it propelled us straight to ordering lots of good sake.
Anago no shirayaki – a filleted conger eel, grilled without being basted with sauce. Served with sudachi citron and wasabi to go in a shoyu dip. Simple and excellent.
It's not all seafood at Ajisen: the tempura is always worth ordering, especially if it features morokko-ingen ("Moroccan" green beans) and maitake mushrooms.
Ebi-imo (a kind of taro yam) korokke (aka deep-fried breaded croquettes)
Here's a map link to Ajisen.
UPDATE (March 19, 2014): I featured Ajisen in my Japan Times column today, here….
And some more uni goodness to drool over here…
Food writer and restaurant reviewer for the Japan Times contact: foodfile (at) me (dot) com