This post is part 2 of my series: Tribute to Japan which will explore Japanese culture through my trip there back in November 2010.
It's not everyday you get to feel like you are sitting atop the clouds, staring down at the city below you. Here, on the 38th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Tokyo, floor-to-ceiling windows display unparalleled views of the city's shimmering lights.
Better yet, each night seven seats open up at the bar (once at 6pm, once at 8:30pm) for one of the most unique molecular gastronomy experiences in Tokyo. Instead of just an extended tasting menu of twenty or so courses, think of this as a show - an evening of entertainment and delight both for the eyes as well as the palate.
Welcome to Tapas Molecular Bar, a one-star Michelin restaurant that really takes "Tasting Menu" to a new level. Here, you'll experience familiar flavors delivered in unconventional ways. It's both a lesson in science as well as food. Be prepared to be surprised, delighted, and entertained the entire evening. I came here on my birthday and enjoyed a night that was full of surprises and loads of fun.
We started out with a sparkling muscat jelly, which was light, fruity, and a wonderfully bright way to begin the meal.
Bryan got a fun fruit (maybe lychee?) flavored cocktail.
This dried out rice "cracker" reminded me of a pork rind, except that it was made out of rice and Matsutake, a kind of Japanese mushroom. I loved the earthy flavors.
Next up was aerated cheese between two slices of pear (shown on left).
A super thin slice of dehydrated apple was wrapped around Manchego cheese sorbet.
A frozen Romaine lettuce hemisphere was topped with shaved Parmesan "snow." This was a unique gustatory experience, as the flavors were very reminiscence of Caesar Salad (something I've had hundreds of times), yet the vehicle of delivery was so whimsical and different that it was still surprising.
Next, the chef took out a rack of syringes and began pressing out black liquid into a clear bath. If you're familiar with molecular gastronomy, you'll recognize this as spherification, the process of using calcium chloride and sodium alginate to make tiny little balls filled with any liquid you desire. They short of remind me of salmon roe.
Here's a close up of the chef making the deep black spheres.
These spheres were then used in this "Amaebi" dish filled with seaweed, rock shrimp, and tiny little grape tomatoes.
Thick slices of Porcini mushroom wrapped in a gelatin shell.
Tilefish, Powdered Aromas
This dish was subtle. You dip the raw fish slice into the warm foamy broth and also into one of the three powders (I believe they were different types of spices). To be honest, I had a hard time tasting the nuances of the broth. I also used so little of it (we didn't drink it), that I sort of felt bad wasting it all.
Duck Panna Cotta
Next we had super tender (I'm guessing sous vide) duck breast alongside kabocha panna cotta and a lime and cumin foam.
Emperor's New Mojito
The next course was a funny play on the diners. The bartender put on this whole convincing act of pouring nothing into these empty mojito glasses. The chefs then handed each of us the empty glass, which had a metal straw inside. Perplexed and confused, we sipped at the straw. BAM! A tart, minty, and rum-like concentrated shot exploded from inside the straw.
That was it - a surprise that made some gasp, others giggle . . .
I was totally expecting to see some sort of dumpling when I saw the name of this item on the menu. Imagine my surprise when I saw a lamb rib! It turns out, the lamb is actually filled with hot soup! Thankfully, they strongly advised us to eat the entire thing in one bite, so most people did not have any squirt incidents. The experience was fun and not too messy! This was paired with a very young peach on the side.
We then had a super tender sous vide cut of Wagyu alongside a strip of parsnip.
This next course was quite unique. Essentially, you have this HUGE spherified miso-soup flavored ball. It totally reminded me of an egg yolk. Once you bite into it, miso soup oozes out. It's surrounded by scallion oil and tiny spherified tofu. It was an odd juxtaposition of very familiar flavors delivered in such an innovative way.
Music by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons "Attribution 3.0".
Next up we had a really funny and interesting dessert. It was a meringue of sorts frozen in liquid nitrogen. You have to watch this really short video (16 seconds!) of Bryan trying it - it's sooooo funny!
As I had mentioned before, it was my birthday. They gave me an intact but super light egg shell (no holes!), which they told me to break, revealing a paper crane (with the words Happy Birthday Jennifer!) inside. I have no idea how they got the crane inside of the egg. They must have either used molecular gastronomy techniques to create an egg shell or somehow re-fused it together.
Our last dessert was a plate of citrus fruits. First they told us to taste the lemon, the lime, and the orange. Nothing that spectacular. If anything, they were pretty sour and not that enjoyable. Next, they told us to bite into the little red nut and roll it around our tongues for 30 second.
We then tried the fruit again. Whoa!!! Miracle berry! Everything tasted like it had been infused with lots of sugar! I felt like I was slurping lemonade and limeade. Surreal and weird, everything tasted like a sweet cousin of itself.
Miracle Berry is a fruit that temporarily suspends your ability to taste sour for about an hour. This berry has a glycoprotein called miraculin that binds to your taste receptors, altering the way you perceive acids. It's great fun to get one and then try all sorts of acidic foods, like vinegars, various fruits, sodas, coffee . . . you name it!
We had a great time enjoying this crazy interesting meal. I wouldn't say that any of the flavors were mind-blowingly sophisticated. Instead, the experience is more about the way the food is presented and less about the uniqueness of the actual flavors. For example, the "miso soup" tasted just like a normal miso soup you would get at any Japanese restaurant. It just happened to be served in a really unusual way. Coming to Tapas is really about enjoying the crazy science behind novel and unusual ways of presenting familiar tastes.
It was quite helpful that at least one of the chefs spoke English. Two chefs entertained us the whole night. One who spoke Japanese (and served 3 of the Japanese guests), and one who spoke English (who served the 4 foreign guests). Having the meal presented in English enhanced the experience greatly, as we could ask questions and learn much more about each dish.
A few negatives - you are in a bar, so there will be smoking. Everything from my coat to my sweater smelled like stale cigarette smoke the next day. Also, the ambiance is a bit more casual than you might expect for such a nice and expensive meal. There's live music in the background plus the low roar of lively conversation from the hotel bar area. Some may prefer the casual environment while others may wish for a more quiet atmosphere.
All in all though, a meal at Tapas will be undoubtedly fun, interesting, and entertaining.
*Accordingly to Bryan and many others, the view from the urinals in the men's restroom is incredible. Imagine the sinks in the picture above (which is of the womens' restroom) replaced by urinals.
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