Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Art as Food at the Hotel de Mikuni


For many Japanese, the Hotel de Mikuni sits at the pinnacle of French cooking in Tokyo, revered for its adherence to the classics and particularly appreciated because it has not dabbled in the kind of experimental cooking that is so in vogue these days. It may not have amassed a handful of stars from international guidebooks, but nevertheless it's a great favorite among the genteel locals. It’s run by star chef and marketer par excellence Kiyomi Mikuni, who spent eight years training with some of France’s greats (including Jean Troisgrois and Alain Chapel) before returning to Japan and opening his own restaurant in 1985.

Loved by the locals
but not quite by the international reviewers


Mikuni did not make it to the top of the Michelin guide's Japan edition (a spot enjoyed for three years running by my talented and good friend Bruno Menard of L'Osier, of which I will write about later on), but it is a Relais & Chateaux restaurant and nevertheless well-loved by Japanese and considered a bastion of excellent French food in this France-crazy country. I first met Mikuni at the closing party of one of his satellite restaurants in Tokyo's Marunouchi district, and also seen him countless times in magazines and on TV, and was struck by his marked self-assurance. One thing's for sure, this is not a shy chef content to remain cooking in the kitchen.

The Hotel de Mikuni operates out of a charming old house, with a new modern annex attached, in a leafy residential neighborhood just a short stroll from the Akasaka Palace (where the Imperial family live...they don't actually live in the Imperial Palace, they just use it for official functions) and the Akasaka State Guest House. My husband and I arrived for dinner one evening and the main dining room was full; so we were ushered to the restaurant annex via the kitchen, which is rather unusual but apparently routine for annex guests who enter through the main house door.

A spotless kitchen

The kitchen was busy but immaculate. As a diner, it certainly felt good that Mikuni was confident enough about the state of his kitchen to allow diners to pass through it all evening in the midst of meal preparations. True enough, it was shiny and spotless. On one of the steel workstations, I saw rows and rows of creamy sea urchins peeking out from shiny, spiky black shells, and already laid out on the giant stainless steel counter like soldiers at a parade.


Meanwhile, unlike the Old World decor style of the main building, the annex itself is modern, comfortable and genteel, with white-and-beige decor and large stimulating murals by Hisao Domoto, a friend of the chef’s, that reminded me of a child enthusiastically at work with a new box of paints. One mural with orange squares looked like the color had run over, while another had intriguing green circles and splatterings of extra paint.

Foie gras flavored with curry

Feeling hungry and wanting to taste a little bit of everything, we ordered the six-course dinner set (15,800 yen) which began promisingly with a pre-appetizer: a sliver of onion quiche that was so soft and creamy it trembled in its pastry crust. A steady stream of food followed, but let me describe the ones that caught my attention. The foie gras came beautifully arranged with scallops and white asparagus in a long silver pan. Unlike the usual goose liver cooked in Sauterne or served with apple sauce, Mikuni’s version had a slight curry taste which proved refreshing and surprisingly enjoyable. Next came a tender grilled Isaki (striped pigfish) fillet topped with pink pepper and cresson, and resting on a bed of risotto made with green peas and Japanese dashi sauce – a perfect example of Mikuni’s ability to flawlessly combine Western and Japanese cooking.

Mikuni's specialty

No one said anything to us, but somehow we felt that Mikuni is at his best with duck. Our main course was a delicious duo of roasted dark duck meat in a sweet sauce that reeked of raisins, oranges and red wine, and a roll made of white duck meat swimming in a duck consommé soup. Both were excellent, providing a good contrast in taste, color and texture.

Then, just as we were about to pronounce ourselves extremely satisfied with our dinner, the maitre ‘d wheeled in a formidable-looking antique staineless steel wagon for the couple at the next table. On it was a proper carving board, an elegant heating contraption, assorted condiments and an entire roast duck with red berries strung right across its glazed body like a Christmas ornament. Before cutting the duck up, he elegantly held it up so that the aromatic juices fell onto a bowl to be used as part of the sauce later. Then he sliced two hefty pieces off and placed these on two large dinner plates already laden with crispy potatoes. The rest of the duck disappeared back into the kitchen. Later on, however, we watched with fascination as an array of little plates arrived at our neighbor's table bearing its remainders in various reincarnations.

What on earth was that?

The glorious visual feast we witnessed, and the even more glorious aroma that wafted to our table as a result, prompted me to almost frantically hail a passing waiter who had just taken the orders of another group of guests, literally take a menu from his hand and ask exactly what it was we were missing out on. It was the Le canard roti “sang-de-boeuf” (15,800 yen for two persons).

You know the end to this story. My husband and I have not talked about it, but of course we will be back at Hotel de Mikuni – hopefully sometime soon – and this time for an actual taste of this particular whiff of heaven.

WHAT TO EAT
The seasonal six-course dinner set (15,800 yen) is a great (and reasonable) way to sample a variety and also enjoy Chef Mikuni’s talent for creating French food in a Japanese style. Within the a la carte menu, the truffle soup (La soupe de truffes, specialite Paul Bocuse/ 9,500 yen), the roasted duck (Le canard roti “sang-de-boeuf”/ 15,800 yen for two persons), and the roasted Bresse chicken seasoned with truffles (La poularde truffee pochee ou rotie/ 26,300 yen for two persons) are highly recommended.

WHAT TO DRINK
Skip the thought of wines by the glass as we found none that did justice to the food. However, there is a very nice 2002 Saint-Emilion Grand Cru called Chateau Bellevue (8000 yen per bottle), which paired excellently with the duck.

HOW MUCH DID IT COST?
A full-course dinner and drinks for two will cost approximately 50,000 yen.

WHO GOES THERE?
Hotel de Mikuni is patronized mostly by Japanese and a sprinkling of foreigners who dine at restaurants worldwide associated with the Relais Gourmand association (http://www.relaisgourmands.com/). Tokyo’s French community also come here to celebrate special occasions.

WHO TO ASK FOR
No one in particular. All you need is a confirmed reservation. Call in advance. Good luck.

INFO
Hotel de Mikuni
1-18 Wakaba
Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Tel. 03-3351-3810

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