Friday, February 3, 2012

A bit of Spain in Tokyo


Sant Pau in Barcelona

Restaurant Sant Pau, Japan's most cutting-edge Spanish restaurant and currently the recipient of two Michelin stars in Japan, has been a great favorite of mine since before it first opened its doors in Tokyo, and it was just a little nine-table restaurant with an increasingly famous female chef (Carme Ruscalleda) in the tiny coastal village of San Pol de Mar, about 50 kms from Barcelona, and a meal here meant a lovely day trip from Barcelona.

Then it received three Michelin stars for its Spain restaurant and tables became impossible to get. While on a driving trip from Barcelona to Rousillion in France some years back, for instance, I tried to make reservations but was told that the place was booked for weeks.

Sant Pau in Barcelona

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.

Sant Pau in Tokyo

Fortunately, shortly after that it opened in Tokyo's Nihonbashi district in a very quiet way some years ago, and this became one of Tokyo's best-kept secrets for foodies.

The food in Tokyo's Sant Pau is almost identical to the food in Spain because, frankly, the chef is quite OC and she is hands-on about the entire experience from the food to the menus to the way the napkins were folded; but in the beginning we could get a table at a moment's notice and without having to fly to Barcelona. How nice was that.

In fact, in the first year that it opened in Tokyo, we often found ourselves the only customers, or perhaps one of two tables whenever we dined. And I worried for a while whether Sant Pau in Tokyo would be able to survive, with its assumingly high overhead, pricey menus and empty tables.

ENOUGH WINE TO DROWN A SEA

One very liquid evening at the restaurant, we had the restaurant's most elaborate tasting menu and paired this with an equally fab wine tasting menu. This was probably one of the most liquid dinners I have ever had in my life, by the way; we had to hire a driver at past midnight at a moment's notice as no one in our party could even get up, and I spent the entire weekend in bed with a headache. Anyway, perhaps inspired by the good food and just so much wine, we took bets as to how long Sant Pau would be in Japan, and I can tell you that we were all certainly thinking short-term.



ALL'S WELL IN TOKYO

But fortunately the Michelin Guide changed all that by bringing Sant Pau and a host of other chosen -- or should we say, lucky -- restaurants to the attention of foreigners, many of whom now troop to Japan regularly to eat, armed with the latest Michelin guidebook and a handful of credit cards.

It's good because the recession in Japan has walloped many local diners' budgets and also trimmed corporate expense accounts, so a good many fine dining places here in Tokyo are being held up admirably by rich clientele from Hong Kong, Singapore, the States and, yes, the Philippines.

The downside for Tokyo foodies like myself is that so many of my favorite restaurants are now harder to book. Although, in the dead of winter here, things haven't been so bad. I rang up earlier to reserve tables at Esaki and at Chateau Restaurant Joel Robuchon, two excellent restaurants that have made the Michelin three star mark, and both actually had tables at a moment's notice. However, I fear that things will not be so easy once spring comes and tourists arrive.

I recently crossed the city to Nihonbashi, Tokyo’s business district, to once more sample the delights at Restaurant Sant Pau. I was quite excited to eat here again.

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.

WAY AHEAD OF ITS TIME

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. In many ways, Chef Carme was doing this kind of experimental modern cuisine way before her global counterparts started doing so; and today, it's a dime a dozen, but Chef Carme was certainly at the forefront.


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.

THE CRAZY CANELO

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. 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 her Tokyo chef. When I ate there last, Esther Bedmar was Sant Pau’s young and talented Tokyo chef; but Sant Pau's original maitre'd, Sandra Martorell, had already transferred to the Mandarin Oriental Barcelona.

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.


WHAT TO EAT

For the ultimate gourmet Catalan meal, try the eight-course Menu Degustacio 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.

WHAT TO DRINK

The Degustacio de 4 Vins, a tasting menu for wines, 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.

Restaurant Sant Pau
Corredo Nihonbashi Annex
1-6-1 Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku
Tokyo

*photos from Sant Pau

* * *

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