(3-6-34 Motoazabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo. Telephone: 03-5786-0150)
We were in a side street off a succession of side streets that could only claim vague proximity to the very swish Roppongi Hills precinct, but to all intents and purposes we were parked outside a nondescript apartment block. One might not unreasonably have doubted the presence of any kind of commercial establishment at all. A discreet sign (which we couldn’t read) was the only clue. I had a flashback to a visit to Celler de can Rocca (a two-star restaurant in Girona) in 2006. On that occasion there was very little about the exterior of the building (or even the neighbourhood, for that matter) that would suggest it housed one of Spain’s best restaurants.
As if on cue, the maitre‘d appeared at the front door: “Oscar-san?”
The moment had shades of Dr Livingstone, but we were most likely the only Westerners with a reservation for 7.30pm, and it was now exactly that time. We were led through a narrow passage, with ceiling so low I had to stoop, and found ourselves in a room that couldn’t have been much more than about four metres by seven. A counter divided the room lengthways. Six diners were already seated, two open spaces remained for us, and two chefs were behind the counter. Shelves on the wall behind them had shelves holding an assortment of crockery and glassware. Through curtained doorways behind the chefs we could see a very small kitchen. Minimalism, with warmth, was the feel.
We felt as if we had stepped into Aladdin’s Cave.
To insiders, the restaurant belonging to chef Kanda was known as kakureiga – a hidden place – because of the excellence of the cuisine, its tiny capacity, and its air of invisibility (well, maybe more than just an air of invisibility).
That all changed when the Michelin Guide expanded its Asian coverage, and Kanda ended up getting awarded three stars. I’m no expert at all on three-star restaurants, nor could I – by any stretch of the imagination – be called a ‘three-star groupie’, but on a pleasure safari of Tokyo I needed to find a place that wasn’t a regular neighbourhood restaurant. If it was good enough for the Michelin men, it was good enough for me.
We opened with a glass of champagne each, while studying the wine list. The format was an A5-sized hardcover notebook into which the labels of the wines had been pasted (one to a page). Below this was hand-written the vintages and prices. The selection of ‘trophy’ French wines was extraordinary, made even more so by the manner of presentation. I think Kanda-san possibly produced the list himself, and it certainly was handed to me with pride. The list comprised so many vintages of Petrus, Bordeaux first growths, Romanée-Conti, as well as numerous other Burgundies and Champagnes that he could probably operate his eight-seater for several months without depleting his wine cellar.
Sake had been given the same treatment in the reverse section of the book, and we asked to be served the house recommendation. It wasn’t just a case of “when in Rome”; I have grown to love sake, and I was keen to drink the good stuff.
We were, however, still sipping champagne when the first course arrived – a little cup with steamed prawn meat, cucumber slices and yuzu blossoms in a jelly of bonito flakes and kelp. It was delicate, flavourful, and an appetite-inducing way to start the meal.
When we were ready to move on to sake, we were presented with a tray of cups – each of them different – ranging in size from small egg-cup to demi-tasse. The waitress poured some sake into a handle-less jug (about the size of a gravy boat), and then poured me a tasting. The sake was elegant, refined and quite delicious. The sake jug was then placed before us in a bowl of crushed ice.
Course number two was sashimi of sea bream (I should mention that the placemats were sheets of handmade paper, onto which I proceeded to spill a drop of soy sauce). Sea bream – this time cured with lime – featured again in course number four. The flavour may have been delicate, but it is one of the most sensational morsels that have ever passed my lips.
Course number three was a clear soup (the hint of smokiness suggested the use of bonito flakes) with a variety of vegetables.
Japanese sea eel was grilled before us on a special portable barbecue, and wrapped all the way around some rice, and presented to us wrapped in a lotus leaf.
Jelly, this time a product of potato starch, accompanied tempura prawn and sesame seeds for the fifth course. We were getting through our little cups of sake quite rapidly (the inevitable consequence of us being used to gulping wine between mouthfuls of food).
For course number six we were served fried Spanish mackerel, with some angelica tempura. On its own, the angelica was bitter, but the bitterness was absent when eaten with the fish. By the same token, the richness of the fish needed the foil of that bitter herb to show to its best advantage.
Finally, when we thought that were about to explode, we had the first of two desserts – strawberry mousse topped with cherry blossom jelly. Having eaten fresh strawberries the day before (without question the most delicious strawberries we’d ever encountered) we totally trusted the authenticity of the flavours in the dessert.
The second dessert took me right back to my childhood, when my grandmother used to include molasses in the feed for her cattle. We used to stick our fingers into the black, gooey sludge and slowly lick it off, but as sweet as it was, the flavour was just too strong for a four-year-old. Chef Kanda’s ice cream, on the other hand, had a gorgeously creamy texture, with just the right amount of molasses flavour to bring back the memories.
From beginning to end, in every dimension of the experience, it was an extraordinary meal. There was no foie gras, no truffles, no caviar. Nothing had been cooked sous-vide, there were no foams, weird ice creams or sound effects to accompany the meal; in fact, nothing that would traditionally have been associated with a three-star dining experience. And, having eaten all these courses (and consumed champagne, a bottle of sake, followed by two glasses of red wine each), our bodies felt remarkably light. It was a good state in which to be.
I had been tempted by several wines on the list (in particular, the 2005 Lynch-Bages didn’t appear totally outrageously priced at $250), and having experienced the food was pleased we’d decided to go with the sake instead. It complemented the meal perfectly.
I suggested to Kanda-san that, given the subtlety of his food, perhaps sake would usually be better suited than all those amazing wines. “No,” he said, “then we change the food.”
I was amazed; here’s a chef producing phenomenal food, and he’s willing to adjust his dishes to compensate for the beverages chosen by his guests.
We have grown accustomed to flavours that shout in progressively louder and louder tones. Restaurateurs resort to all manner of theatrics to stimulate their guests to excitement. In this milieu the restaurant of chef Kanda is a revelation.
The man himself gives no impression of having been affected by three-star status. His restaurant is still the same size. It’s no easier to find, but perhaps the quiet passion with which his food speaks is sounding a clarion call for the next wave in cuisine.