Getting to know your food and its farmers
Simply put, Tokyo Local Restaurant pairs chefs in the capital with regional farms, offering diners a chance to sample seasonal, local delicacies in the close comfort of the city. Held at a different fashionable venue each month and with limited seating, the event takes the form of an exclusive, floating dinner party.
The organizers, however, have ulterior motives: “As you can see from the Michelin Guide, we [in Tokyo] take a great interest in the food on our plates, but that wasn’t extending to the production of the raw ingredients. I started Tokyo Local Restaurant as a means of raising awareness of the latter,” explains Yuichi Asa, who put together the first event in 2008.
While diners sip sparkling wine, the host for the meal describes not only the ingredients in the forthcoming dishes but also the natural environment and people responsible for them. It’s not as intrusive or out of place as it may sound, more an extended version of the dish-by-dish descriptions that typically come with omakase chefs' tasting courses in Japan.
Yet the accompanying photographs, projections of rural, agricultural Japan, appear in sharp relief to the immaculate, designer dining rooms. Though not, perhaps as much as they might -- Asa notes that the Tokyo Local Restaurant team includes seasoned photographers charged with remaking the image of farmers and country life into one “that has the ability to charm consumers.” The farmers are noteworthy themselves for using natural cultivation methods and working independently of large distribution channels; some peddle their goods directly to high-end ryokan.
Then there is the chef, whose role it is to make those traditional foodstuffs palatable to a generation of diners perhaps more versed in the minutiae of olive oils than mountain vegetables. The most recent Tokyo Local Restaurant, number 19, featured the northern prefecture of Akita, a mountainous region that counts pungent shitake mushrooms and kirintanpo (mashed rice skewered on chopsticks) among its specialties. This was no doubt an unusual challenge for the French chef Shinya Ogino who stepped up to the task.
Ogino, whose modern restaurant of the same name is a hot reservation, turned out an admirable six-course lunch with the above, and more. The mushrooms became a terrine; the kirintanpo part of a dish that included steamed char, another northern specialty. Diners in particular raved over the appetizer, a watercress mousse with ricotta cheese accompanied by a tomato and junsai jelly. Junsai is an aquatic edible water plant, associated in Akita with early summer and traditionally seasoned with an even blend of soy sauce, mirin, and vinegar. Even for the hardcore, conscientious foodies that Tokyo Local Restaurant attracts, this was, something altogether exotic.
This is exactly what Asa wants. “For the Japanese, Tokyo has a maximalist sort of charm -- diners can get whatever they want,” he explains. “On the other hand, the regional areas offer experiences you can’t have in Tokyo. For example, the sense of history you get from local cuisines, plus fresh vegetables and clean water.”