TOKYO’S HOT SECRET
Matt Rudd discovers an outstanding backstreet eatery missed by the Michelin men
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
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.
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