Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Restaurant Sant Pau in Tokyo

My husband and I recently trooped to Nihonbashi, Tokyo’s business district, to sample the delights at Restaurant Sant Pau, Japan’s most cutting-edge Spanish restaurant. I was quite excited to finally eat here, having missed a chance at the original Sant Pau in the tiny coastal village of San Pol de Mar, about 50 kms from Barcelona, some years back. While on a driving trip from Barcelona to Rousillion in France, I had tried to make reservations at this nine-table restaurant but was told that the place was booked for weeks. Sant Pau is one of Spain’s culinary stars and its chef, Carme Ruscalleda, is considered by many to be the country’s foremost lady chef. Then, and perhaps moreso now that Sant Pau in Barcelona received its third Michelin star (Tokyo's Sant Pau has two stars), everyone who enjoyed food was practically fighting for a seat at this tiny establishment. When I told a Barcelona friend then that I could not get a table but still held out hopes for a cancellation, he said, “Only the dying cancel a reservation at Sant Pau.” Thankfully, Tokyo’s Sant Pau has a little more room (19 tables) and reservation leeway.

With its pale yellow-ochre walls, red leather built-in banisters, interesting artwork and large on-display kitchen, Sant Pau Tokyo is an elegant restaurant decorated in the best of modern Iberian traditions. Meanwhile its menu is a proud assembly of original creations based on Catalan cuisine, with a few local specialties like the Canelo, a long pasta roll filled with meat often made by Catalan mothers for Sunday family lunches.

We opted for the tasting course as this seemed the best way to fully appreciate the talents of Chef Carme. Chef Carme’s signature style contrasts tastes and textures, particularly the subtle marriage of salty and sweet, and smooth and rough. So our meal began with a micro-menu of four appetizers including a brochette of sweetened meat and karashi mustard, and a piece of bread dipped in olive oil and served with seaweed and chocolate. Three proper appetizers followed. To start, warm apple consommé was poured into a bowl containing Hokkaido sea urchin and red peppers; the sweetness of the apples highlighting exquisitely the saltiness of the other ingredients and vice-versa. Meanwhile, for the second appetizer, tender morsels of lobster were sautéed with caviar and then topped with Japanese tokoroten (grass noodles) tossed with green olives for an awakening mix of understated flavors.

My main course, the Canelo, took on a crazy twist at Sant Pau, where a roll made of roasted chicken, veal and pork was instead filled with pasta. Meanwhile my husband’s entrée consisted of cubes of boneless lamb loin flavored with mint and corn. I tasted a forkful and was astonished at how wonderfully the meat paired with the strong taste of corn.

Chef Carme is a very hands-on lady with a passion for perfection. Unlike many other famous European restaurants with branches in Tokyo that merely lend their name and a few token recipes, Sant Pau Tokyo is so tightly controlled by Chef Carme that it may as well be located in the next village to San Pol de Mar. The menus served in Japan are exactly the same as the ones served in Spain and, once a menu has been decided, Chef Carme or her chief assistant actually flies over to Tokyo to demonstrate these to Esther Bedmar, Sant Pau’s young and talented Tokyo chef. Chef Carme is on the phone or email to Tokyo everyday as well.

During the course of the meal, I was charmed by tiny watercolor-and-ink sketches placed unobtrusively on our table. These illustrations explained the appetizers and desserts we were about to eat and were actually made by the creative Carme herself. And the dessert course, which is an entire menu in itself, is a labor of love and playfulness. Be prepared to have your tastebuds tickled as an assortment of trays laden with cheese, sweets and chocolates are laid out before you, each with a contrasting sauce to enjoy with. It was certainly a fun, eye-opening finale to a three-hour dining extravaganza.

For the ultimate gourmet Catalan meal, try the eight-course Menu Degustacio (21,000 yen) designed by Chef Carme herself, which includes four appetizers and two desserts. But those hankering for Jamon Jabugo, the ultimate of Spanish hams, can also opt for an authentic tapas dinner at the bar next to the restaurant.

The Degustacio de 4 Vins, a tasting menu for wines (7,500 yen), offers unusual Iberian choices, many of them directly imported from Spain and rarely found in Tokyo. Considering that refills are allowed, it’s also excellent value.

Every table in this modern restaurant has a good vantage point of the room and the art on the walls.

This three-star Michelin restaurant has three-star prices as well. Expect to spend around 60,000 yen for the wine and food tasting menus for two.

Many Japanese executives, particularly those familiar with Barcelona and its environs, and not enough expatriates yet. Not too many restaurants in Tokyo offer such top-calibre Spanish cuisine so go and splurge on a special night out.

Sandra Martorell, who is temporarily seconded from the original Sant Pau, can help with menus and share interesting tidbits about the Catalan region and cuisine.

Restaurant Sant Pau
Corredo Nihonbashi Annex
1-6-1 Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku
Tel. (03) 3517-5702

This originally appeared in the Frequent Flier's Fine Dining column in the Tokyo Weekender Magazine.


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