Saturday, November 5, 2011

Meeting Joel Robuchon in Tokyo

Hello from Tokyo, where I've decided to go for the long weekend, just because the weather is nice and it's a great time for food. Another reason perhaps is to slow down. In a never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife, I find that my visits to Japan ironically are all about chilling out and just living normally for once in a rare while.


So I spent this afternoon until early evening with friends sitting outdoors at the Joel Robuchon cafe in Marunouchi, an area that has always been my favorite because it merges Japanese high-technology and design with an aesthetics and sensibility more found in Europe than in Asia.

Tokyo is pretty much a jumble of mindless construction, but in Marunouchi where they've have had the time, money and a second chance to re-do things, they've done things right by making beautiful buildings, keeping parts of old ones, creating pretty pocket gardens and filling the neighborhood with wonderful outdoor cafes and good restaurants that are not outrageously expensive.

Nothing is cheap in Tokyo, of course, but for some reason, Marunouchi has fewer of those $500 a plate restaurants compared to other ritzy areas. So it's a really nice walking area for real people with upscale tastes rather than endless budgets.


I'd already had lunch by the time I met up with friends at Joel Robuchon. But when I got there, the chefs were making what looked like the most delectable galettes right in front of customers and filling these with ham and gruyere cheese. So I ordered one of these with a glass of champagne and then had a kounig amman pastry on the side.

I love kounig amman and have it wherever I see it -- which isn't often as it's not a very easy pastry to make very well. But the best one I've had was at the breakfast buffet of the Park Hyatt Place Vendome in Paris and then I never had a one that was good enough for me again until Chef Cyril Soenen made one for the Commanderie de Bordeaux dinner at the home of one of the members sometime last year. How ironic that I fell in love with it in Paris, ate it all over France and all over the world in a fruitless search, and only re-found it again in Manila.

Today's version at Joel Robuchon was okay, but it wasn't fantastic. And he'd filled it with stewed apples, which is a non-traditionalist approach I don't particularly like.


But the galette was done to perfection and I loved it. This, and the entire atmosphere in that part of Marunouchi today made me feel like I'd gone to Paris for the weekend -- and it was a very nice feeling indeed. I really like this tiny and ever so casual outpost of Joel Robuchon as it reminds me of his Atelier de Joel Robuchon on the Left Bank in Paris.

When it first began -- in spite of a never-ending Travelife, I actually haven't been back to Paris in the last two years -- it was already very popular but it was still a neighborhood joint in every sense, where families took their kids for weekend dinners and people showed up in jeans and t-shirts.


For a very long time -- I used to go to Paris at least thrice a year -- I always went here at least once with someone in Paris. And then it became a ritual for me to have my last meal in Paris here on every trip as well. I would check out of my hotel and get a car to drive me and my luggages to the restaurant, and then the car would wait while I had my last proper French meal. After lunch, it was straight to Charles de Gaulle Airport to make it in time for my JAL flight back to Tokyo from Paris.

Sometimes, friends would join me on these last meals. But even when my friends were busy, I'd dine alone as Atelier is not a problem at all for people dining alone. It's all bar stools in front of a counter facing an open kitchen, and I'd have either the daily special or my all-time favorite spaghetti pomodoro (yes, it's a French restaurant and I'm in Paris, but I just love Joel Robuchon's pasta) with a glass of wine. A last meal before flying.


This afternoon reminded me of those days, which for some reason seemed a lifetime ago, and made me want to plan a trip to Paris sometime soon. I immediately began flipping through my schedule on my Blackberry for a free few days to fly to Paris before the end of the year, but it didn't seem to be possible. Such a pity, though, as Paris just before Christmas is simply magical. I'd been there a couple of times in December and the Champs Elysees and the area around the Place de l'Opera are lighted up so beautifully.

But who knows? My schedule may change, an opportunity may arise, and I might be on a plane to Paris in a flash. It's happened this way many times before.


Then, just as I was sitting outside Boutique de Joel Robuchon thinking just how much this was like going to Paris without the 16-hour flight and the jet lag, who should I see sitting next to me and having a Perrier with lime and a galette but the great man himself? Yes, it was Joel Robuchon himself -- the chef with a cumulative total of over 26 Michelin stars -- having a late lunch at his own Marunouchi outlet!

Of course I struck up a conversation and told him just how much I love L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris. He was very pleased to learn that I'd been to most of his restaurants all over the world but ironically my favorites were his first non-traditional outlet (L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris is his first casual restaurant in the world) and perhaps what is his most casual outlet so far, the Boutique de Joel Robuchon in Marunouchi, which serves simple fare and tea in paper cups. So, indeed, it was just like visiting Paris for the weekend -- if not better.


When Monsieur Robuchon left and while waiting for my friends to arrive, as well, I'd read a bit of the back issue of the FT Weekend which I'd taken with me to read in my spare time. This is my absolute favorite weekend read and I read it cover to cover when I have time.

Coincidentally it had a lunch interview with Donald Keene, the most famous scholar of Japanese literature in the world. It's in the Interview Section of the Life & Arts section of the FT's weekend paper, and this is one section I always read and enjoy thoroughly. An FT editor invites a famous person to lunch and recounts the experience including the menu. The subjects themselves are always incredibly interesting, but it's the way things are written that keep me hooked. Talk about writing well.


Well, reading this interview today, I was very happy to note that Donald Keene and I have almost exactly the same tastes. I love Japanese literature with a passion as well, and I consider it some of the best prose in the world's history. But what made DK and I both passionate about Japanese literature was the book Tales of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. This is my favorite book of all time and I must have read every translation on the market, including Donald Keene's.


Another interesting similarity is that we both don't particularly like the modern novelist Haruki Murakami. Everyone talks about him and he is very big in the world of literature. But I read a couple of his books a very long time ago, just to see what all the fuss was about, and I so actively disliked his works. I found them nothing but shock value and strange fantasy. I'm sure lots of people will disagree, but literature preferences are personal and at least I've found an ally in Donald Keene.

Reading his interview made me appreciate Japanese culture again. Actually I've always appreciated it, and have never stopped reading Japanese literature. Even today, I still read about a book of Japanese literature a month (Periplus Publishing of Singapore has reprinted many classics and they're available in our local bookstores), and the most recent one was a re-read of the classic After the Banquet by the great Yukio Mishima, which brought tears to my eyes on my second read. Perhaps this is because I am older, wiser and also more in tune with everything that is complicated but beautiful and intriguing in Japanese society.

More on Tokyo later. It's time for a wagyu dinner and another interesting evening in a never-ending, and never-endingly eventful, Travelife.

PS: I've been so busy to catch up with all the posts and photos regarding the AIESEC Alumni Asia Pacific Conference 2011 in Manila last month, with the opening night party organized by AIESEC Philippines Alumni and Travelife Magazine. And just today I saw this great photo from the opening night of the organizing committee from different generations and schools. I'm so proud and lucky to have been a part of AIESEC!

Travelife Magazine's
Oct-Nov 2011 Issue


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