Bar (Part I), Tokyo, Japan,
tasted on December 13, 2005 — There is a rap on the latest
wave of experimental cutting edge food. It's more about
technological wizardry than flavor. It's not based in any culinary
tradition. It's more chemistry than cooking. It's not timeless. It's
about being cute and clever instead of delicious. And if that's not
damning enough, the critic will finally add: "and it's not even
original. They're just copying Ferran Adria of El Bulli." I have
varied opinions on each of these criticisms. I've spent plenty of
time writing about the state of innovation in cooking before.
Really... take a minute to
check it out. At least the first four paragraphs. I'll wait.
OK, now that you know where I'm coming from, what I
ultimately care about is whether the food tastes great. Flavor,
temperature, and texture are king in my world. I didn't really know what
to expect in this regard of the Tapas Molecular Bar at the Mandarin
Oriental Hotel. But it was recommended by the same concierge at the
Landmark Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong who recommended Shui Hu Ju.
Given my deep and abiding love for Shui Hu Ju I had major trust and
confidence in his recommendations. I wasn't sure what tapas molecules
were but I meant to get me several helpings (said with
I could go on for hours describing my love for Tokyo.
It's not just the food. Though that's certainly a huge component.
How cool are amazingly beautifully designed hotels with their lobby on
the 38th floor of a 60 floor skyscraper? Very very cool. And yes, I am
in the habit of answering rhetorical questions. My destination wasn't
even a restaurant per se, it was the bar in the lounge. Eight seats, two
servings a night. A set menu. That's it. I was lucky to get a place. And
did I mention it's a 25 course meal? Granted they are 25 small courses.
And unlike other restaurants who typically count multiple items on one
plate as one course, in this meal each was counted as a separate course.
I honestly don't care about the accounting either way. It was definitely
25 different tastes, and that sounds like a good thing to me.
We had a heads up as to what was coming when we saw the
metallic menus at each of our places at the bar. Very cool menus. The
bar was pretty nice too. Think sushi bar (which is what it originally
was going to be before Jeff Ramsey got involved). Chef Ramsey is an
American who has many years experience as a chef under his belt. When he
tells you of his experience, including the years spent as a sushi chef,
it's in stark contrast to his youthful appearance. But his experience is
evident throughout the meal.
Personally I wonder if significant experience as a sushi
chef isn't something every chef should have to go through. The attention
to detail, focus on freshness, and minimalist discipline are
things that most chefs could learn to appreciate even more.
The meal was so extensive that we're going to have to
cover it in two entries. This of course is the first. Overall the
courses were divided into three sections: Snacks and Cocktails,
Degustation, and Desserts and Petits Fours. We'll make it most of the
way through Degustation in this post, and then continue with our next
post to the end of hte meal.
The first item up in Snacks and Cocktails was a drink. A
to be specific. I've never had a sidecar before, but it was quite
delicious. And the pineapple froth on the surface was quite yummy,
sweet, and sour. This was followed by an
If there's one thing about today's cutting edge cooking that you could
giggle at, it's the need for Roget's Thesaurus to come up with all the
synonyms for foams and other ephemeral flavor containers that seem to
dot the landscape of this cuisine.
Speaking of flavor containers, the
Salmon Roe and
Passion Fruit Slurp came in a sort of bottomless test tube.
Again, par for the course in this genre of food. That said I was
less concerned about the shape of the container than I was about the
flavor was. You basically sucked the whole layered item down out of
the test tube. First you tasted the fruit. Then you got salmon roe
on the finish. It was a delicious fresh clean fruit sour salt sea
Bar snacks were next.
and Nori Risotto to be specific. The crispy sour beet was
bursting with sour flavor and ultra crispy. The nori was like a
funyun. If these snacks were offered at the convenience store in
bags they would both be my immediate new favorites. I could eat a
billion of these.
Enough snacks at this point, we were moving on to the
main section of the meal - Degustation. We started off with
Pineapple and Salmon Ravioli.
This was another riff on the fruit and sea theme but even better. It was
topped with a scallion avocado sauce. Excellent. The next dish was
Glass of Wine.
White wine to be specific. This was like a yummy jello treat in a petri
dish with a puzzle. Each little item resting on the surace of the gelee
represented some aspect of a deconstructed glass of white wine. I
couldn't identify all the components, though there was definitely some
vanilla, cinnamon, lemon zest and a floral melon. I know some people
dismiss these kinds of dishes as novelties. It was definitely cute.
Likely not something I might order again unless perhaps there was more
This next dish is really emblematic to me of what
separates insecure chefs from the ones with courage -
It takes courage to serve a piece of melon as the anchor for a dish.
In its center there was some almond mousse. And on the edges there
was a micro green salad. But essentially the melon had to make or
break the dish. And this dish had the same depth you would expect
from ordering a steak. The main ingredient featured, naked almost
without a lot of messing around and trying to dress it up. The warm
melon and solid almond flavor were a really new and enjoyable
combination for me.
Back to clever for a bit, imagine a
Linguine with White Sauce
that includes no pasta. It was parmesan linguini. Basically a pasta
made from cheeze. Damn sam! I'm not entirely well-versed on the
process but basically through some combination of melting the
parmesan into water that contained agar agar and gelatin he was able
to produce these strips of linguine that had the identical texture
to a semolina-based pasta, were translucent yellow, and had a deep
parmesan essence. No flour. No eggs. Just very good. I could eat
this again and again.
Chef Ramsey definitely has a thing for beets and I
have to say that even though I realized their inherent greatness
late in life, I am deeply appreciative of them now. This instance
Frozen Beet Soup with Scallops.
The sour beet sorbet had a clean and bright flavor profile with a
looooooooooooooong finish. It served as a foundation for the soft
scallops and pistachios. Delightful.
This next dish is an answer to those who criticize the
novelty of this cutting edge cuisine. Lauren, a veggie friend of mine,
hates zucchini. She thinks it has no flavor, is generally gross, and
without redeeming qualities. This dish was
Deconstructing things is definitely a tool in the cutting edge cuisine
arsenal. This was a combination of carmelized zucchini puree, seeds from
poached zucchini, and a warm gelee of poached zucchini juice. 600 grams
of zucchini were combined with 20 grams of butter to make this dish.
Frankly, it was mind-blowing. Yes, the range of flavors you got from a
simple zucchini butter combination was shockingly wide. But the
enjoyability of those flavors was also extremely high. The combination
had an amazing and deep buttery flavor with a subtle spicy quality.
There was also a tanginess. It almost tasted like a sharp cheese.
Almost. Complex and fantastic, this may have been my favorite dish of
At this point in the meal the chef and another cook
brought out a contraption that looked like it was from an episode of
Bill Nye the Science Guy. The
device was used to
inject droplets of carrot juice with seaweed gelatin into
water with calcium. What resulted from this little science
demonstration? You'll see below.
After show and tell we were served
Foie Gras with Cotton Candy.
Essentially it was foie gras with sesame seeds wrapped in vanilla cotton
candy. I couldn't tell whether it was a cold cube of foie pate or just
even raw or somehow poached. The flavor was savory and deep. The slight
tang on the finish was delicious. The sesame and vanilla notes were just
wispy context. Really only flavor traces. The foie was clearly the star.
Back onto the injection theme, the next dish was a
The foundation was a lobster tail seared perfectly with olive oil and
salt. It was like warm sashimi. Beautiful really. The injector was a
plastic tube (not a moderately more dangerous glass like I initially
thought). The tube was filled with a deep, rich, and almost thick
the result of the science demonstration arrived -
Carrot Caviar. It was beautiful to behold. Little perfect bubbles of
fresh cold carrot lightness. Really quite good.
While the meal continued at a brisk pace so a break
wasn't really necessary, we're not quite as accomplished. Stay patient
for our next post where we'll finish writing about this exciting
meal. Stay tuned!