Friday, April 23, 2010

Magic at the Peninsula Tokyo

TOKYO - At the invitation of Peninsula Tokyo General Manager Malcolm Thompson and his charming wife Roxanne, old friends we'd known since Malcolm's days running the Park Hyatt Tokyo, we braved the heavy spring rains last night to have dinner at the beautiful private dining room of Peter, Peninsula Tokyo's flagship fine dining restaurant.

This private room itself makes an interesting conversation piece, pretty much the way a modern or avante garde piece of jewelry on a beautiful woman is something to naturally talk about. Peter, which is named after one of the Peninsula Group's top executives, is located on the top of the hotel, accessible by private elevator. This private dining room is at the very corner, affording the most beautiful views of this fashionable part of Tokyo. But what's most amazing, to me, is the steel art installation on the wall and ceiling that serves both as decor for this ultra-modern high-tech room and also a very unique chandelier. Lights sparkle from this installation that starts from the floor in one part fof the room and works its way up the wall to cover most of the ceiling. The room itself is very intimate, made for 12 persons at the most, lending itself to really posh private dinners. This was certainly the fanciest private dining venue in Japan. We'd heard that Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama had only recently hosted a private dinner in this very room.

Last night we were an eclectic group of 10 who gathered in this lovely room to dine on the new spring dinner menu of Peninsula Tokyo chef Patrice Martinneau, who also paired his food with equally wonderful wines.

After some champagne and catching up, I was shown to my seat in between a Japanese banker formerly of the Bank of Japan and the Lufthansa country manager for Japan. The three of us looked at the menu prepared for us -- a Western menu with lots of Japanese touches -- and immediately got hungry.

But just while we were enjoying an amuse bouche of Japanese pickled plums in a flan, a young man with a naughty smile and a purposeful air confidently walked in. He wasn't a waiter and obviously he wasn't a guest, as our table was full. But his entry was very noticeable in this very intimate room of people who knew each other.

Malcolm looked at one of the ladies on his side of the table with an inquiring look, and asked, "Is he with you?"

It turned out he was a magician hired as entertainment for the evening exclusively for our little party. And judging from the most amazing tricks he did, he was certainly among Japan's best.

He made rings disappear, turned 10,000 yen notes into 1,000 yen, and changed playing cards into stickers which ended up as stickers on the wristwatch of a gentleman guest. We were all simply astonished. It's one thing to watch a magic show on TV or from afar when the magician is on stage, as so many visual things are not obvious at such distances. But when the magician is performing for 10 people and you can see what he is doing from 5 inches away, and you still can't understand it; that's what I call magic.

This novel little touch certainly added sparks to a most enjoyable evening.

Then the service for the dinner proper began. I'm listing the food and wines here, but what stuck in my memory most were the prawns wrapped in a thin sheet of tofu and a barely seared filet of the the tenderest Japanese beef served with a crust of blue cheese and a cream sauce. Everything was a most unusual pairing, even for Tokyo, the city that prides itself in having perfected the marriage of East-West cuisine.

The company too was most enjoyable. My German neighbor had had a life of very exotic assignments for Lufthansa, including Verona (Italy), Somalia and Ethiopia. He'd seen violent war and la dolce vita at the same time, and now he was enjoying a rather peaceful existence in cosmopolitan Tokyo. At least peaceful until earlier this week when the Iceland volcano erupted and he found himself at the office until midnight on Monday trying to deal with over 100 passengers camped outside his office. Fortunately, everything returned to normal by Wednesday and he was able to enjoy this most elegant dinner at the Peninsula.

Meanwhile, as a banker and later oil executive, my Japanese neighbor had spent a lifetime criscrossing the globe. He'd been to Brazil several times in the past years, which is among the farthest places from Japan in terms of distance. We tried to figure out whether Tokyo-Brazil was easier via New York or via Paris. At least until our German neighbor piped in that Frankfurt was a good stopover too.

At the end of dinner, the impressive magician made a reappearance for a few more tricks to end the night with a bang. He brought in a table which, with very little effort, he made swing, sway, dance and float high up in the air. I'd seen similar stuff on TV and always suspected that batteries, strings or very thin and strong wires were involved in such acts. But last night, with the table floating next to me and no evidence of machines or paraphernalia, I just had to stand up, open-mouthed, and try to inspect the table as it danced around.

Then as quickly as he had appeared, the magician was gone -- leaving us all quite astonished that we couldn't speak. "The art of the quick exit," someone finally said. "I guess that's part of it. You can't very well stay to explain things after a performance like that."

But, as if he had read our minds (or overheard our conversation), he popped back into the room, the twinkle in his eye never disappearing. "You had some questions for me?" He asked. He was almost laughing. My Japanese neighbor recovered his composure enough to ask: "How did you do that? Did you use some kind of magnet?"

"I never use magnets," the magician replied. "But how, then?" My Japanese neighbor persisted.

The magician gazed steadily at each one of us. We all certainly felt he would be sharing his secret. The man who hired him -- the Peninsula Tokyo GM -- was there and he too wanted to know, after all. In that split second that we were waiting for the magician to say something, I remember thinking: Finally, I'm going to find out how all these magicians do it. I'm going to know how they do it!

"Can you keep a secret?" The magician asked us. We all nodded eagerly. In that moment, I felt I was transported back to the sixth grade.

"You can really keep a secret?" He persisted. We all nodded again. The suspense was killing.

"Well," he began slowly, "so can I." And with a flash, he was gone.

Spring Menu at Peter

Amuse Bouche

Japanese spice marinated Hiramasa Spanish-style
Poached quail eggs
Cold basquaise and dandelion salad

NV Peninsula Champagne Deutz


Yuba-wrapped Kuruma prawn
White asparagus curry veloute
Red daikon salad and lemon confit

2004 St Aubin "Les Charmois" Domaine Jean-Marc Morey


Grilled tuna and foie gras confit carpaccio
Fresh morels and green vegetable fricassee
with Szechuan peppercorn

2006 The Peninsula Pinot Noir Keller Estate


Umami-roasted beef fillet
with a white miso-blue cheese crust
Tomato tortellini and spring turnip mousseline

2002 Chateau Sociando-Mallet Haut Medoc


Peter's golden soft chocolate biscuit
Anis and caramel confit
Banana ice cream

Petit fours

Coffee or tea


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