Casual fine dining takes off in Tokyo
Tokyo has more fine dining establishments than any other city in the world -- many have haute price tags to match the haute cuisine.
The average cost of the food alone at high-end restaurants is around 15,000 yen (US$158), and at a really high-end place, that figure can double.
Factor in wine (typically starting at 10,000 yen a bottle) and service charge (10 percent), and you can see why some visitors to the city are turned off.
But things are starting to change.
A handful of recently opened casual fine dining restaurants, helmed by talented young chefs, is serving creative cuisine in a relaxed atmosphere -- and you won’t wince when you get the check at the end of the meal.
L’As opened in February 2012 and quickly became one of the city’s hottest eateries.
Owner and chef Daisuke Kaneko, formerly of Quand L’appetit Va tout Va, has capitalized on the lack of Tokyo restaurants offering high-level food at an affordable price.
“A lot of restaurants are struggling right now, but I thought we'd be able to attract customers with good food at a reasonable price,” he says.
The simple decor mirrors the restaurant’s minimalist concept. Inside, there’s a wall of natural stone and a clutch of wooden tables surrounding the open kitchen.
As at Relae in Copenhagen, cutlery is hidden in a drawer beneath your right hand.
The chef takes an even simpler approach to service: everyone gets the same seven-course tasting menu for 5,250 yen/US$55 (a steal by Tokyo standards), which changes every two weeks.
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Kaneko’s cooking is a genre-blurring version of contemporary French that utilizes seasonal Japanese ingredients. In spring, the chef poaches fat spears of white asparagus in clear tomato concentrate and then garnishes the dish with locally grown herbs and flower petals.
Summer brings an earthy risotto dotted with whole hikaru-ika (firefly squid) the size of gumdrops, and slices of roasted lamb nestled against discs of pan-fried nagaimo (mountain yam).
Like all things at L’As, the food displays artful efficiency. A succulent pigeon pie, beside a puddle of jus enriched with the bird’s liver, is wrapped in printed butcher’s paper and eaten with the hands. A dish of fried scallops and baby corn fritters is crowned with a sweet tangle of raw corn silk..
The restaurant is typically booked two weeks in advance for dinner, but be prepared to wait even longer for weekend lunch reservations.
5-16-5 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; +81 (0)3 3406 0880; www.las-minamiaoyama.com
L’Alchimiste in Shirokane was one of the first restaurants to bring casual fine dining to Tokyo.
Owner and chef Kenichi Yamamoto was inspired by his experience working at Le Chateubriand -- a Parisian neo-bistro that enjoys cult-like devotion among fans around the world -- and opened his restaurant in July 2011.
His mission was to banish the stuffy atmosphere common at many of Japan’s fine dining restaurants without compromising high standards. Instead of dripping chandeliers and subdued shades of black and gray, L’Alchimiste features an open kitchen and playful lilac seats, lit by chic, single-bulb fixtures.
He points out that the concept behind L’Alchimiste, which he describes as “pop gastronomy,” has two meanings: “It refers to both ‘popular’ in the sense of ‘for the ordinary people’ as well as the fun, ‘pop’ image you get from the dishes and the whole restaurant."
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Yamamoto’s delicate presentations and refined cooking style reflect his classical French training. Plump langoustine tails, astride painterly stripes of blood orange emulsion, are accompanied by charred Brussels sprouts.
Beneath its crispy caramel surface, the melt-in-your-mouth mango crème brûlée conceals a rich foie gras mousse.
The chef doesn’t limit himself to dainty dishes on his 10-course tasting menu, priced at 7,875 yen (US$83). A juicy steak bavette, cooked rare and served with a sorrel sauce, is a hearty match for the restaurant’s excellent list of mostly natural and biodynamic wines.
Shirokane 1-25-26, Minato-ku; +81 3 5422 7358; www.alchimiste.jp
The newest addition to Tokyo’s casual fine dining scene, 81 opened in November 2012 in Ikebukuro -- an area more commonly associated with ramen shops and karaoke bars than haute cuisine.
The restaurant aims higher than its neighbors and offers modern international cuisine, prepared with a light touch by Chilean chef Francisco Araya.
The eight-seat 81 is the brainchild of Takeshi Nagashima, who started dreaming of opening his own restaurant after a stint at elBulli in Spain, where he met Araya and sommelier Julieta Piñon, who is in charge of wine service.
“I wanted to open a different kind of place with a more international view,” Nagashima says.
At 29, Araya is too young to remember the Chinese chicken salad and Teriyaki filet mignon that gave Asian fusion a bad name.
The food is a playful mix of Latin American, European and Asian influences, made with high-quality produce sourced mainly from Japan. Bite-sized empanadas, filled with beef broth and served with miso mayonnaise, pop in your mouth like xiao long bao soup dumplings.
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A simple plate of raw tuna cubes, lightly coated in sesame dressing and arranged around a starfish-shaped mousse of coconut cream, draws philosophical inspiration from chefs like Andoni Aduriz of Spain’s Mugaritz, where Araya apprenticed before elBulli.
Traditional dishes are given a new twist: fluffy gnocchi the size of mini-marshmallows are made with Parmesan cheese and kudzu root, then topped with fresh pesto and micro-tomatoes.
A dish of creamy, truffle-scented mashed potatoes and foie gras (a great match for the Dom Perignon that accompanies it) comes in a sealed jam jar to preserve the aroma.
The 12,000 yen (US$128) price tag for 81’s eight-course tasting menu includes a flight of five wines to go with each dish.
5-25-2 B1F Nishi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku; +81 (0) 3 6909 4850; www.81restaurant.com