Fine dining, what does it mean to you?
Does it mean:
- Bow tied associates
- Silver flatware
- Fancy chinaware
- Crystal drink glasses
- Exotic ingredients
- Vintage wine
The list goes on.
In Japan there is a “bias” towards western opulence when it comes to fine dining. While Japanese cuisine is in itself exquisite, it probably more likely that you will come across michelin graded fine dining establishments instead. At least this has been the experience of Mel and Suan in their regular sojourns across Japan.
Our criteria of fine dining is a somewhat ‘diluted’ from that listed in the first paragraph. We define dining to be “fine” simply by; the quality of the presentation, taste and aroma of the dining experience. The environment can be lavish, or it can be humbler. The center of attention after-all is what goes down our gut. And we do not lose that focus for the sake of what we consider aesthetics or cosmetics.
You also need to understand that Mel and Suan are a picky lot when it comes to nourishment. We hardly use salt nor sugar in our cooking. And for condiment we only use specific and trusted brands selected from an “intensive” set of criteria.
Experience one – French restaurant, Japan alps (May 2010)
This one we stumbled onto by accident. We were on a journey to explore the alps of Japan around Nagano and had based ourselves at the exclusive EKSIV resort in Karuizawa (read here). At this time of our experience with Japan, we had not done a lot of research on places to dine.
Late into the evening after a long day’s shopping at the outlet mall, we were driving around quite aimlessly searching for a place to have dinner. We were not keen on dining at the restaurants near the outlet mall, as they seemed to be overpriced and not overly appealing. And so we searched, until we came up to signage that read “Pyrenees”. As it was late, we decided to give it a try.
When we walked into the restaurant, it was well past 7pm and there was only one other couple seated. The restaurant looked authentic enough – ie it had solid wood roofing and a large fire place. Actually the fire place was where the chef worked, as we soon found out. Called a “cheminée”, firewood is used to roast their pork and beef dishes.
While we did not drink (as Mel was driving), we were offered a well oiled dish of herring. Now this tasted so much like what we had in Holland that we simply kept eating (pity no photos) even before our main course was served. When it did come it was fantastic, as we had seen it roast slowly over that open fire. The chef even allowed us to walk to his work area to smell the aroma and feel the heat (passion?) of the roast. Long after we had this meal, we can still recall that lovely evening, especially the herring.
Experience Two – Top Asian restaurant (March 2013)
Our second example was a planned one during one of Suan’s procurement journeys to Japan. As you will know, The World’s 50 Best restaurant ranks the top dining places over a diverse criteria set. Our targeted place to dine has consistently been placed within this list, and in fact has been nearly always in the top 10.
Narisawa is helmed by chef Yoshihiro, his style is dubbed “innovative Satoyama”. This celebrated chef had humble beginnings and spent many a year working in Europe before he returned home to start his own eatery. As the culinary style name suggests (or perhaps not), the ingredients used mostly come from Japan. Depending on season, this will vary.
For those who need to know; Satoyama “里山” refers to the border between mountains and cultivated land in Japanese culture. It is about a balance of taking from mother nature what is need for sustenance and not overburdening the environment with over exploitation.
Evolve with the forest, Spring collection 2013
For our experience we took on wine pairing with our meal, the course names of which will turn your head. We had “essence of the forest”, a mélange of greens as the equivalent of salad. The “forest ash fried oysters” was equally intriguing as was Narisawa luxury essence served out of test-tube like glasses. And who would like to drink soil? Well, only chef Yoshihiro will be able to concoct this!
Chilled ash over your grilled squid? Yes, it seems weird at first with the instruments of delivery, but we came to appreciate that this is indeed a critical step to achieve the combination of aroma and taste in the serving. And to rub it in, we paid ¥12,700pp for the 10-course meal. While we did tag on wine pairing that doubled the total, it was definitely worth the experience that today costs the same just for the meal! Wanna know the details, read the full journalog transcript here.
Experience three – Brand house restaurant (February 2016)
Once again this third experience we share was a planned affair. In Japan, there is (was) a proliferation of restaurants run by the fashion brands. These are not run-of-the-mill kind of establishments, but full service dining places usually helmed by very experienced and sometimes celebrity chefs.
With that many out there, which one is to be chosen?
As a frequent customer of this brand (from watches to jewelry to leatherware), Suan determined that the Bvlgari restaurant in Ginza be a good place to start. Coincidentally it is located in the same building that houses it flagship store, so it is really convenient to drop by before or after the meal (yes we did…). Now the restaurant is Italian, but with a strong touch of Japanese influence after-all we are in this country!
We shall not repeat the photos of the meal we had (you can read them here), but will point out that it is better to make an advanced booking as seating is rather limited to 8 couple tables.
We had attempted to book a table on Valentine’s day but the system could accept it. We found out later that the restaurant had a special event that you need to call to book. So this was a pre V-day lunch. In any case, the restaurant filled up quickly even though it appeared not to have been booked when we first got in.
In a nation where presentation is an art form, we expect to continue writing about fine dining experiences. This is not the end of the essay. In fact, it is only the beginning. The next time you get to journey to Japan, take time out to savor the delightful culinary gems (coming soon) that are just waiting for you to unearth.