TOKYO’S HOT SE­CRET

Matt Rudd dis­cov­ers an out­stand­ing back­street eatery missed by the Miche­lin men

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

IT took me a month and 18 emails to get a ta­ble at Aro­nia de Takazawa, but it was worth it. It would be the best meal of my life. Ne­go­ti­a­tions had stalled be­cause I wanted a ta­ble for one and Takazawa only had two ta­bles, so he was re­luc­tant. But I ex­plained to Akiko, the chief ne­go­tia­tor, that I was pre­pared to fly more than 9500km to visit. I’d beg like a dog. I’d pay dou­ble. I’d come at any time of the day or night. I’d walk across Tokyo naked. Fi­nally, it was agreed. I didn’t need to walk naked.

The email be­gan: ‘‘ We are now pleased to con­firm your book­ing at Aro­nia de Takazawa.’’ But then it went on: ‘‘ 21.30 could be all right but, since we will have two ta­ble be­fore you will come on the day, we are a lit­tle bit wor­ried. If one cus­tomer stayed longer than we ex­pected, could you kindly ar­rive bit later than 21.30? In that case, we would like to call to you to let you know what time we would like you to ar­rive. Is that all right with you? This means that you might be able to come later than 21.30 but, at the mo­ment, please con­firm at 21.30.’’ Deep breath. ‘‘ In the case of later, could you kindly let us know where you will be stay­ing? If you are not go­ing to stay at your ho­tel around that time, could you pos­si­bly make a phone call to check how we are go­ing? 14th is just there! Thank you. Akiko.’’ By this time I had fallen in love with Akiko and was de­ter­mined not to let a few fi­nal ob­sta­cles get in our way. I vol­un­teered to ar­rive at 21.30 and sim­ply walk around the block un­til a ta­ble be­came free.

Four more emails about menus, po­ten­tial al­ler­gies and my views on Dar­fur, as well as the small mat­ter of an 11-hour flight from Eng­land, and I was in a taxi, hunt­ing for what was, I had been re­li­ably in­formed, Tokyo’s best-hid­den se­cret. Yes, the Miche­lin in­spec­tors have just given a stel­lar thumbs-up to the city, but the word on the culi­nary street is that they’d missed the real star.

And so has my driver. Even­tu­ally, he gives up and just points to a cou­ple of streets. Half­way up the sec­ond, I find a door with the word Takazawa etched, mer­ci­fully in English, on its han­dle. In the min­i­mal­ist room are two ta­bles, one for me, one oc­cu­pied by a cou­ple half­way through their meal. Up where you might put an al­tar, if this were a church, Yoshi­aki Takazawa is labour­ing at a sim­ple stain­less steel work sta­tion, com­mu­ni­cat­ing with his sous chef hid­den away through a door be­hind him. I have 10 cour­ses, each of which re­quires in­di­vid­ual doc­u­men­ta­tion:

1. Af­ter a palate-cleans­ing pyra­mid of frozen macadamia oil, I be­gin with Takazawa’s sig­na­ture dish, a veg­etable ter­rine: 15 bright cubes of veg­etable, each mar­i­nated in its own spe­cific way, then put to­gether in one beau­ti­ful square the size of a Zippo lighter. It takes him a half day to make it, but you are asked to eat it in one mouth­ful, with a crys­tal of English salt. It is al­most per­verse.

2. Fish with pow­dery dress­ing: the sushi ar­rives, fol­lowed by Takazawa clutch­ing a wizard’s bowl of dress­ing, cooled to -200C to cre­ate the pow­der. It is sen­sa­tional, lit­er­ally.

3. A slice of smoked Ezo veni­son is pre­sented in a bowl full of wood smoke, with mush­rooms, for­est nuts and parme­san (to re­sem­ble snow be­cause this is win­ter). Takazawa uses one of Ja­pan’s best hunters: the deer is un­likely to have known what hit it, hence the un­star­tled flavour.

4. Aroma pot: Takazawa has spent sev­eral in­tense min­utes build­ing a salad of sweet­breads and herb leaves in a glass, then has flipped it over and poured boil­ing wa­ter into the nape of the up­turned glass, with a sprig of rose­mary. I am asked by Akiko (with whom I’m still in love, even though she is Takazawa’s wife) to en­joy the rose­mary aroma and wait for magic. Af­ter two min­utes, the boil­ing wa­ter re­leases a frozen dress­ing through the salad and I am al­lowed to eat it. It is amaz­ing.

5. Prawn on the beach: this is a spe­cial type of but­ter­flied prawn, served on a beach of bread­crumbs and crushed shell, with a wave of prawn bisque poured over it.

6. A sim­ple plate of veg­eta­bles, but grown by Takazawa’s un­cle and grand­fa­ther on a farm in the north, no doubt with the same ob­ses­sive ded­i­ca­tion he dis­plays. Like a war­weary sol­dier hav­ing a flash­back to a time be­fore ev­ery­thing went so, so wrong, I have a surge of nos­tal­gia when I eat the car­rot. I had forgotten they could taste like that.

7. Mush­room for­est, on a plate on which Takazawa has painted mush­rooms with bal­samic vine­gar.

8. Hid­ing Be­hind the Grove in Win­ter: more veni­son, served with bur­dock, chest­nuts and sweet potato. I won’t tell you how good it is be­cause it’s be­com­ing repet­i­tive.

9. Medicine: a blob of ki­hada, which I am told won’t taste nice but will be good for my stom­ach. It doesn’t and it is.

10. One fi­nal trick: Takazawa’s camem­bert plat­ter. It looks like camem­bert but it’s cheese­cake made with parme­san and cream cheese. It floats to the ta­ble.

Over tea (I have a choice of 12, all promis­ing great things; I opt for ‘‘ feel younger’’, which proves to be the only empty prom­ise of the night), I try to un­der­stand why Takazawa serves only up to 10 peo­ple at once when he could fit at least 20 into the room and cash in.

He says his restau­rant is mod­elled on a tra­di­tional Ja­panese tea cer­e­mony, where one host sources ev­ery­thing, makes ev­ery­thing, keeps an eye on ev­ery­thing. He just couldn’t man­age more than two groups in one go.

I ask if he’s been to Eng­land, and he re­veals he went over to eat at He­ston Blu­men­thal’s Fat Duck. What did he think of the snail por­ridge? Im­pec­ca­bly po­lite, Takazawa says that he didn’t un­der­stand the food (al­though it was in­ter­est­ing). Akiko chips in that they were seated right by a door and that it wasn’t a restau­rant de­signed for its cus­tomers.

And Blu­men­thal has three stars. It doesn’t make any sense. The Sun­day Times

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Un­less you’re trav­el­ling alone, it won’t be as dif­fi­cult get­ting a ta­ble here as try­ing to get into one of Tokyo’s Miche­lin-starred restau­rants. Ex­pect to pay Y=19,977 ($212) for 10 cour­ses, with­out wine.

www.aro­ni­ade­takazawa.com

just

Cer­e­mo­nial size: Num­bers are kept low at Aro­nia de Takazawa so chef Yoshi­aki Takazawa, top right, can give enough time to each of his com­plex dishes, such as the one above

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