An unforgettable dining experience at the 12th best restaurant in Asia.
For the last eight years, Tokyo has been the culinary capital of the world, boasting the most number of Michelin-starred restaurants of any city worldwide. Tokyo is currently home to 160 one-star restaurants, 52 two-star restaurants, and 12 three-star restaurants - not to mention the 324 restaurants with Michelin's Bib Gourmand tag, offering "exceptional food at moderate prices".
Spoilt for choice (if you're rolling in Yenjamins, that is).
So when the opportunity arose to visit Tokyo recently, I got into my 'you-only-live-once' frame of mind and decided it would be worth spending a week's pay on one exceptional meal. With so many restaurants, it was hard to know where to start. Should I aim for the three-star restaurants? Do I want a traditional kaiseki meal, or French, or a meal of just sushi or tempura?
A quick Google search returned a few well-known names like Ishikawa, Joel Robuchon, and Sukiyabashi Jiro Honten. As I pored over their menus and went to the pantry to get more Doritos, I realised that to some extent it didn't really matter which restaurant we went to - we would surely have a great experience.
From there I started shortlisting a handful of places, but I'd forgotten one thing - that Japanese restaurants are notoriously hard to make reservations at if you're a foreigner! Most restaurants only take reservations over the phone (in Japanese), while some allow you to reserve in advance through your hotel's concierge.
After a couple of failed attempts to book through our concierge (due to the restaurants being fully booked for the dates we were there - even though it was still 3 months away!), I came across the website for L'effervescence - which had two Michelin stars, an executive chef (Shinobu Namae) who had worked with Heston Blumenthal and Michel Bras, an interesting menu, the prestige of recently being ranked the 12th best restaurant in Asia, and most importantly - AN ONLINE BOOKING SYSTEM!
I quickly made a booking for the first suitable date I saw available, and sank back into my chair with a sigh of relief.
On a dimly-lit back street in a quiet area of central Tokyo - halfway between the Roppongi nightlife district and the tree-lined shopping streets of Omotesando, lies L'effervescence. The front of the restaurant is so minimal and nondescript that despite having access to Google Maps, I can only assume we're at the wrong place when we arrive. But sure enough, nestled in between a couple of older residences, sits a wall of wooden slats with a small unassuming sign that announces the restaurant. We enter around to the left and are greeted by a friendly team of staff, who ask us to wait in a small lounge area for a few minutes before leading us to our table.
As we settle in, I take a quick glance around the room, curious to see what the demographics of the clientele are. Most other diners appear to be locals (or at least Japanese), in their 40's and 50's, and quietly enjoying their meals without any sort of fuss. I begin to wonder what they'll think of the young tourists busily taking photos of every dish from multiple angles, when I see a couple of dishes being delivered to a nearby table. To my surprise, both diners immediately whip out their smartphones and start snapping away - while the waiter's still explaining the dish to them! Somewhat relieved that this experience is 'special' for everyone and not just us, I rest my camera on the table and pick up the menu.
There's only one dinner option at L'effervescence, and it's an 11-course menu poetically named 'The Prayer and the Light'. It'll set you back 16200 JPY per person (which is roughly AUD$170), with an additional 10% service charge. There's a real focus on seasonal Japanese ingredients here, most of which are foreign to me - so at this point I'm none the wiser on what some of these dishes are but I figure that's half the fun anyway!
After sorting out our wine selections with the knowledgeable sommelier (the wine list is dominated by European wines so once again I have no idea what I'm looking at or how to pronounce anything), our first course arrives. As you'd expect, the level of service and attention to detail from the wait staff is impeccable - and it takes a team of three to deliver dishes to your table. For each of our 11 courses, the pattern is the same: Waiter 1 brings up the meals from the downstairs kitchen on a large silver platter, holding the platter's two big handles. Arriving at the table, Waiter 1 is then joined by Waiters 2 and 3, who each take a dish off the platter and simultaneously place them down in front of you and your dining partner. Waiters 1 and 2 then turn and disappear, while Waiter 3 (usually the maitre d') remains to explain the dish and answer any questions. I can only imagine that this is how the top 0.1% eat every day.
The first course is a small shot glass of asparagus mousse, sakura (springtime) shrimp, almond foam and trough shells (clam). The bubbles in the foam, as well as on the side of the plate, are a clever link to the restaurant's name and bring the 'effervescent' theme to life. Hidden in the asparagus mousse are a few tiny sakura shrimp, which we're told are only available for a limited time each year. They're subtle in flavour and provide some texture against the mousse and foam, and we're off to a good start.
Next out is 'From an idea of Apple Pie #19', which contains taraba crab, sweet potato and yuzu (a Japanese citrus). It's presented in a small red box (clearly a homage to Ronald McDonald), and when the waiter asks whether it looks familiar, we look at him blankly and pretend we're too classy to have ever been to Maccas. Unperturbed, the waiter goes on to explain that Chef Namae-san wanted to toy with his diner's minds by creating an association with a McDonalds apple pie, but with a completely different filling inside. We're told that the chef is constantly changing the fillings in the 'apple' pie, and that this is the 19th version of the dish.
As we bite in, the fresh pastry is soft and buttery, and while the taste of the filling is thankfully nothing like that of its McInspiration, the soft cubes of sweet potato and slight tartness of the yuzu do provide some subtle reminders.
The third dish of raw Japanese halfbeak & hamaguri clam, burdock mash, gomadashi emulsion and dekopon (mandarin) dressing looks like a piece of art - and art never tasted so good! I'm really impressed with the how the halfbeak (a small schooling fish) has been filleted, and it's soft yet springy to the bite, with a mild flavour of the sea. The dish is put together so thoughtfully and the flavours are so subtle that it makes you take your time eating this one.
We come to the part of the menu called 'A fixed point', which refers to the one signature dish that always has a place on the menu at L'effervescence. When you think 'signature dish', you might think extravagant ingredients and a show of flamboyance - but this is quite the opposite, with the feature ingredient being a humble turnip. The reason for this is that the flavour of the turnip changes throughout the year, and is therefore just as 'seasonal' as every other item on the menu. We're told that the turnips are relatively sweet in spring, while they can be more bitter or peppery at other times of the year.
The turnip is presented simply, sitting on a little bed of brioche and basque ham. It's been delicately roasted for 4 hours, and the flavour and juiciness of it are quite remarkable. It's definitely the best turnip I've ever had, although it may also be the only turnip I've ever had (seriously - when's the last time you ate a whole turnip).
The next dish takes us to the mountains, where ainame (another seasonal Japanese fish) is paired with a cherry blossom buerre blanc, fukinoto (butterbur sprout) puree, mountain udo (asparagus), taranome (shoots of the angelica tree), hassaku leaf oil, white miso emulsion and wild pepper. I always think it's impressive when wild, earthy flavours can be used in a refined way, and this dish is no exception.
The foie gras with mashed and baked carrot, St Maure & semi dried tomato, Shottsuru caramel and Japanese parsley is the second-last main dish on the menu. As with the turnip, this is the best foie gras I've ever tasted. Most of the foie gras I've had before has been seared or caramelised on the outside, presumably to add additional depth of flavour. But this foie gras is simply cooked in a bain marie with no additional flavouring or seasoning, and for me the natural flavour of the liver is a lot more intense this way, particularly with a little dab in the Shottsuru (fish sauce) caramel for added saltiness and sweetness.
After the richness of the foie gras, next up is a little palette cleanser in the form of Taiwanese tea. The waiter places the small cup in front of us, and with a wry smile, warns us that this is no regular tea. Eager to see what he means, I take a cautious sip - and all of a sudden my brain doesn't know which way is up. I may have had a few glasses of fine French wine by this point, but I swear that one side of the tea is warm and the other side is ice cold. Another sip of the tea confirms that this is the case, and this explains the reference to 'Right & Left' on the menu. It's a neat little mind trick, and pays respect to Chef Namae-san's years with Heston by reinventing The Fat Duck's 'hot and iced tea'.
Before the final main of char-grilled guinea fowl with ice-filtered bok choy drip, turban shell, bamboo shoot and mushroom sand is brought out, we're allowed to choose our own cutting implement. We're presented with a range of beautiful Laguiole steak knives, all with different coloured handles, contours (for pain-free ergonomic cutting, I imagine) and engravings. Being the one decision I can actually make for myself tonight, I pore over the options and eventually choose one with a lightly coloured wooden handle. The top 0.1% 'baller' experience continues!
There's actually two parts of the guinea fowl in this dish - some white breast meat with crispy skin, and the darker thigh meat. I prefer the white meat as it's actually more tender and juicy, and has a slightly cleaner taste.
Before dessert, we're given the option of either having a cheese plate, or a selection of vegetables. It seems like a trick question because the answer's so obvious, but we go with our gut (literally) and opt for the cheese. There are four types on offer - a fresh curd, goat's cheese, vintage cheddar, and blue - and they're served at room temperature without any accompaniments other than a small drop of quince for the blue. I'm surprised and impressed at how oily the cheeses look, and slide the cheddar around on the black plate just to make sure!
Moving on to dessert, we start with a black sesame wheat crepe with Japanese Tochiotome strawberry, white balsamic marshmallow, cherry leaf ice cream, and a hint of shochu. This one is kept fairly simple, with the fresh strawberries allowed to shine, but in my opinion a little bit of crunch somewhere would have made it a bit more interesting. The amazake sorbet with sweet potato rounds out the meal nicely, with the sorbet sitting underneath a soft crumb of sweet potato.
The last item on the menu is coffee or tea with nibbles, and to our surprise the 'nibbles' turn out to be a whole plate of petit fours! There's choux pastry with yuzu and matcha creme, DIY lemon meringue tartlets (with the lemon curd in the toothpaste tube!), and their own version of Chupa Chups.
With the 'formalities' of the night over, the maitre d' comes over and takes the time to chat with us for about 20 minutes. We discuss the history of the restaurant, the philosophy of Chef Namae-san (who is travelling through America doing some guest appearances at some culinary schools), and the vision for the restaurant's future. As a start, the building is set to undergo a complete refurbishment in mid-to-late 2015, with a new layout that features more natural elements and provides a better flow through the dining area. The chef is also looking to include more aspects of Japanese culture in the meal by including things like a traditional tea ceremony - but we feel that the structure of the evening is perfect as it is.
Standing up to leave, we realise we've been sitting there for four and a half hours. The meal and experience has been so immersing that we haven't felt the need to look at our watches or phones once. As a parting gift, we're presented with a couple of slices of pumpkin cake, which will make a great breakfast on the train the next morning. And of course, we're invited to come back during a different season to experience a completely different menu and become turnip experts. I hope we will!
2-26-4 Nishi-azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo, 106-0031
+81 3 5766 9500