This is part 6 of my latest travel series: Post Quake Japan. Other posts in this series: Kago, Daisan Harumi, Tempura Kondo, Sushi Mitani, and Butagumi.
It's like going to an intimate dinner party where the chef personally designs your meal, shops for the ingredients, and personally executes the elements, course after course after course.
Welcome to Aronia de Takazawa, a culinary playground for Chef Takazawa right in Akasaka in Tokyo. Here, every night, a small, privileged group of guests get to enjoy Takazawa at his best, sampling his playful interpretations on numerous dishes using both French and Japanese techniques.
There weren't always three tables.
I had read a lot about this place and had tried unsuccessfully to book a table there the last time I was in Japan. Bryan and I were shocked when we were able to land a reservation this time only one week before flying to Japan. As I have mentioned before in a previous post, the earthquake had all but shattered Japan's tourism industry, and many restaurants had more open seats than ever before.
For us, it was an incredible opportunity to experience a food adventure that Chef Takazawa personally designs for his diners - a food journey that aims to surprise and delight all who take its path.
At the center of the dining room, an exterior "kitchen" is the stage where diners can watch Takazawa perform his magic. Our server, a lovely woman named Akiko, is Takazawa's wife and speaks impeccable English. She's warm, friendly, and converses very naturally with us as a gracious and humble host.
Takazawa, on the other hand, is shy.
As we settle into our seats at one of the three tables in the restaurant, Akiko begins,
"Now, about photographs . . ."
We internally freeze, afraid of the dreaded statement to come.
"It is fine to take pictures of the food. However, the chef is very shy and requests that you do not take any pictures of him."
So, out of respect of Chef Takazawa's wishes, I do not take any pictures of him (which is too bad, because it was really cool watching him prepare the dishes on"kitchen stage." Nevertheless, please enjoy the many, many photos of his incredible creations!).
We begin with a playful interpretation on Sardines and Vegetable Tempura. The "sardines" are actually marinated saba (mackerel), and are flavorful and delicious. A deep fried mushroom cap and leafy green is presented dramatically next to circles of salt. Interestingly, we had just enjoyed really really amazing tempura at 2-star Michelin Tempura Kondo the day before, so we note that the fried vegetables here are not quite as well executed as the tempura at Kondo. Nevertheless, the overall dish is still gorgeous and very delicious.
This is Chef Takazawa's signature dish and has been on the menu since the restaurant opened in 2005. Each individual vegetable (there are around fifteen) is prepared in its own special way and combined together to form the unique, colorful mosaic. A tiny dab of volcanic salt and black bean sit precariously on the edge of the big, flat spoon.
"Although it's sort of big, the chef definitely wants you to enjoy the entire spoonful in one bite."
The bite is full of various textures, each piece giving off its own distinct flavor.
After the first few amuses, Akiko gives us "bread and butter." The bread is actually corn toast, which is perfectly grilled and full of rich, corn flavor. The best part, however, is the accompanying rillettes de pork made from Okinawan Agu pork. Rillettes de pork is a spread made of slow cooked, shredded pork in lots of pork fat. It's rich, flavorful, and absolutely astounding.
The next course is a playful interpretation on the classic Italian flavors of tomato, basil, and mozzarella served in a slightly unusual way. Layers of tomato water and tomato gazpacho are topped with mozzarella mousse, caviar, baby tomatoes, and a fried basil leaf. We are given a straw, which we use to slurp up the chilled soup at the bottom. It is a gorgeous and creative dish, though the flavors are reasonably familiar (just delivered in a different form!)
This next playful interpretation of "spaghetti" is absolutely decadent and filled with incredible flavors. I've raved before about the gorgeous aromas and flavors of Matsutake mushrooms, which also happen to be terribly expensive. In this dish, you get to eat whole slices of Matsutake mushrooms, which, when lifted up, reveal uni (sea urchin) and a Hokkaido hairy crab sauce underneath. The flavors for this dish come together beautifully, with the rich, creamy uni and crab sauce perfectly balancing out the earthy, woody mushrooms. We both love this course.
This next dish is a playful trick. What looks like an egg is actually a soy-milk gelee with a mashed kabocha squash "yolk." The "bacon" is actually jamon iberico, the famous acorn-fed ham from Spain (something I had also just enjoyed as tonkatsu a few days ago!). The course is finished off with a beautiful creamy corn soup, which is absolutely delicious. Fresh corn kernels and popcorn accentuate and round out this dish.
Colorful and playful, the spirals you see in this next course are actually made out of daikon and carrots. The vegetables are dyed, compressed, and then extruded into fusilli-like shapes. Beet juice gives the daikon that vibrant color. The spirals sit on top of an intense, nori (black seaweed) paste. On the right are slices of seared bonito (skipjack tuna), topped with bonito flakes, ginger, and herbs.
Bonito is one of my favorite seared fish in Japan. I had just enjoyed an incredible seared bonito at Daisan Harumi a few days earlier. This preparation wasn't as good from a pure taste perspective. However, the presentation is stunning, the ingredients are super fresh, and the overall dish is still very good.
All of a sudden, Akiko puts down some colorful, cartoon placemats and cloth gloves in front of us.
She smiles and says, "now it's time for a picnic. You will put on your gloves and 'forage' through the forest for truffles."
A large plate appears in front of us, filled with autumn leaves,"dirt," and "rocks."
Well, what could we do? Bryan and I put on our gloves and start "foraging."
I find some "truffles", which turn out to be boiled spherical taros and potatoes covered with breadcrumbs, seeds, and spices. A dehydrated, paper-thin mushroom risotto sheet resembles autumn leaves, but is totally edible. The whole experience is whimsical, playful, and fun.
Coffee Jelly and Cream
Takazawa is a big fan of teasing and tricking your eyes into believing one thing while tasting another. Coffee jelly and cream is a popular dessert in Asia. Here, Chef Takazawa has made a mushroom flavored jelly and serves it with fois gras cream. The fois gras cream, which is both sweet and savory, is very rich and full of flavor. Together with the rich, umami-filled mushroom jelly, the spoonfuls are addictive.
As we peer over at the kitchen "stage", we see Chef Takazawa and his assistants preparing this next dish. He is stir frying all sorts of mushrooms in a skillet with cream sauce. Moments later, he pours portions of the mushroom cream mixture into plastic bags, which his assistant seals with a red plastic tie.
After a few minutes, the bag begins puffing up, not unlike a balloon. Once filled with air, Akiko carries over the bags, cuts them open, and serves us the final product.
I actually do not enjoy this dish that much. It is extremely rich, so full of cream that I feel like the mushrooms are drowning in it. I try my best to pick out the mushrooms, but at this point I am already getting quite full and not so much in the mood for such a heavy dish.
Takazawa's take on the traditional Japanese hand towel is really funny. Akiko gingerly places a white disc on my plate. I look quizzically at her. She then brings over a tea kettle and fills the dish with boiling water. Within moments, the little tablet starts growing and growing until it becomes a full fledged hand towel.
We wipe our hands in preparation for the next course, which undoubtedly requires our hands to be clean.
Dinner in the Forest
Bryan hates getting his hands dirty. He eats chicken wings with chopsticks and refuses to peel oranges. In the previous "foraging" course, he was saved by those cloth gloves.
No such luck this time!
This next course arrives on a huge cork bark. Akiko briefly lights a pine tree branch on fire, causing the immediate vicinity to smell like a pine forest! With our hands, we enjoy our "dinner in the forest" of roasted chestnuts, Wagyu beef, and Gingko nuts. Everything is executed flawlessly, though the flavors are familiar and actually pretty simple.
Finally, it's time to cleanse the palate before we move onto dessert! The two green grapes look ordinary from the outside, but surprise us with their interior fizzy-ness, just as if they were filled with champagne!
Takazawa's Special Blue Cheese
Surprise! What looks like blue cheese (though it's actually green), is in reality cheesecake. It is served alongside a fruit granita, which is light and refreshing after such a huge meal!
Akiko then brings out a box full of tea leaves and asks us each to choose one. Bryan chooses one that is associated with "hard working" while I pick one that is associated with "happiness." The teas are fragrant and a perfect way to finish off the meal.
We end with a cute assortment of sweets: matcha (green tea powder) mini-muffin, coconut meringue, yuzu marshmallow, and salt & pepper chocolate. I loved the savory and spicy take on the chocolate, which was probably my favorite of the four (though I still love yuzu!)
Wine is a big part of Aronia de Takazawa. As a former sommelier (the youngest ever senior sommelier in Japanese history), Chef Takazawa knows a lot about Japanese wines and has relationships with many winemakers in Japan. Aronia de Takazawa probably has one of the best Japanese wine selections in Tokyo.
Although the Japanese wines are interesting, Bryan still misses the complexity and depth of flavor associated with European or California wines, especially for the reds.
Because the entire restaurant only has three tables, reservations are notorious difficult to get (rumor has it that you may have to book up to three months in advance). I had no trouble booking a dinner reservation just a week before back in October 2011, but that is most likely due to the earthquake.
You choose between three menus: A seven course for 16,000 yen, a 9-course for 20,000 yen, or an 11-course for 24,000 yen. They have a pretty steep cancellation policy because the chef actually orders the ingredients for your meal a few days before your arrival.
The chef's wife, Akiko, speaks excellent English and is a wonderful host for the entire evening. She is super easy to work with via email (while we were finalizing the reservation and our menu) as well as in person.
The dinner is truly an experience that tries to touch all five senses. Chef Takazawa is fanatical about how he sources his ingredients, and the food quality is top notch. Certain courses (like Matzutake Spaghetti and Coffee + Cream) were stand outs, while others were flawlessly executed yet did not necessarily blow me away with their flavors.
Overall, it's quite clear that Takazawa is obsessed with executing high quality, impeccable, yet whimsical dishes that are meant to whisk you away to "Enjoy Your Imagination", a term he uses to describe the entire meal. A meal here is much more than just a dinner. It's an experience you will likely never forget, full of discovery, a little bit of magic, and lots of fun.
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