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.
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.
Madara cod and shimeji mushrooms, bathed in a warm consommé of clear tomato and lemongrass
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 Jean-Georges famous Egg Toast
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.
Lemon Gelée and Caviar with Crème Fraiche
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)
Warm shrimp and Sea Urchin, Green Chili
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