Balai Isabel

The Genius of Bruno Menard

Today I braved the freezing winter rains in Tokyo to have lunch in Ginza, at L’Osier, one of my favorite restaurants in the world, and one of the world’s top French restaurants. It’s run by Bruno Menard, an extremely talented and energetic Frenchman who I’ve known for over 15 years. Bruno is considered one the best — if not the best — French chef in Japan, and he’s had a stellar career in places as diverse as Tokyo, Osaka and Dallas — as well as in France, of course. In fact, as a young man, he was recognized in France as one of its most promising young chefs. He also holds the distinction of being one of the first Michelin three-star chefs in Japan, and also of being awarded one of the food world’s highest accolades at a young age.

I’d been so looking forward to returning back for a meal at L’Osier. The moment I got out of the car and saw the familiar facade of L’Osier, a very warm and comfortable feeling overcame me — as if I was back in the midst of old friends.

Back with old friends

What a wonderful feeling it was to see L’Osier restaurant director Lionel Lavernhe waiting for me at the entrance with a warm smile and a simple “Welcome back.” Since I left Tokyo to move to Manila at the end of 2008, I actually had not eaten at L’Osier again, simply because there never was any time during short visits to Japan after that to have the kind of leisurely lunch that L’Osier requires.

When I walked into the restaurant today, I saw immediately that nothing had changed in spite of my absence for two years. And most of the restaurant staff who I knew well were still around, greeting me with the Japanese remark “O-hisashi-buri desu,” or the more formal “Gobusattashiteorimasu.” Both of these basically mean “it’s been a long time since we last saw each other.” I’d spent a lot of happy hours at this restaurant; sometimes, my friend Beth and I would come for a very long lunch, savoring the excellent food and glasses upon glasses of wine, before finally leaving the restaurant long after the sun had already gone down. This was at the height of the good times in Japan and the success of many people was just as intoxicating as the wines we were drinking.

So little has changed at L’Osier

Tokyo has changed so much in the last two or three years since it fell into an economic abyss, and the fact that nothing has changed at L’Osier is comforting indeed to someone like me who saw the city in its glory. But beneath this small comfort is also the sad reality that L’Osier is closing at the end of March next year! This news came as a shock to many food lovers and followers of the Michelin Guide, as L’Osier — one of Japan’s few consistent three-star restaurants — was being closed by its owners at its peak. Apparently, the beautiful art deco building that houses the restaurant, and all its very expensive made-to-order furnishings inside (this is definitely not a restaurant created on a budget), will be torn down to give way to yet another high-rise building in Ginza.

The closing of an institution and a temple of dining

A lot of people found out about the closing of L’Osier the way I had — by reading about it on the international news along with the announcement of next year’s Michelin starred-restaurants in Tokyo sometime in November. The closing of L’Osier was included as news to explain why the restaurant and Chef Bruno Menard were not getting a three-star rating — or any star rating, for that matter. Michelin could not include in their 2011 guide a restaurant that was closing next year.

Shocked at this news, I immediately emailed Bruno from Manila and he replied, confirming the sad truth. L’Osier was indeed closing in a matter of months. That was when I decided to book a table for my next trip to Tokyo. Of course, L’Osier was full as always — the waiting list for a Saturday night table here can go as long as six months — but the restaurant made a space somewhere for my table and this was how I got to lunch here today.

Heavenly food

Finally seated at our table, over glasses of champagne, we looked through the menu and decided on the three-course lunch menu Bleu. And for a starter, I chose a fillet of trout with horseradish cream, followed by beef cheeks with madeira sauce as a main, and Bruno’s specialty of lemon meringue tart with a gin fizz sorbet for dessert. But first, a present from the chef — an absolutely beautiful mushroom flan drizzled with green tea oil, that we were encouraged to eat with an assortment of very thin toasts. It was absolutely heavenly.

Unexpected treat

As I was enjoying this, I asked Lionel for the menu once more, just so I could see what was new among Bruno’s current offerings. That was when I espied the starter on offer on the a la carte menu, of scrambled eggs with white truffles. It sounded so scrumptious that I almost regretted for a moment choosing the lunch set, even if I knew that basically anything Bruno cooked would be simply marvelous.

When Lionel came around again, I said to him, “The scrambled eggs with white truffles — that must be just delicious.” Lionel nodded his head vigorously in agreement, as if to say (and please note that I’m only imagining him saying something to this effect), “Yes, of course, it is. we’re talking about that fantastic combination of Bruno’s genius and the inherent goodness of eggs and white truffles. How can it not be good?”

“Well, I must have it next time then,” I said, “when I come again in January.” Nothing more was said between us about this, but when the amuse bouche came — guess what it was? None other than the scrambled eggs with white truffles!

“You so made my day,” I told Lionel, as he lifted the majestic silver plate cover in front of me to reveal an almost-orange egg scrambled to the consistency of mush, and flaked all over with generous shavings of white truffles. I was right — it was truly amazing. And this cooking, together with this exceptional kindness and hospitality, is what keeps me returning to L’Osier.

The best beef cheeks in the world

Meanwhile, the main dish of beef cheeks in a madeira sauce with mashed potatoes is one that I will remember a long time. I love beef cheeks, and I usually order it whenever I see it on the menu of any restaurant, so I have quite a big basis for comparison. Well, Bruno’s version today came as a complete surprise. It had none of the usual accompanying sauce, sitting instead on a plate without much adornment but not in the least bit dry. And when I cut through it with my fork, it fell apart tender and moist, and yet tasty and flavorful. I didn’t know how Bruno managed this, but it was pure magic to taste.

Three courses of dessert

Meanwhile, dessert itself is almost another meal altogether. There’s a pre-dessert of all kinds of goodies, followed by the dessert proper of lemon tart in my case, and then finally the dessert wagon is wheeled over and one is asked to choose from among 15 sweet selections for a 3rd round. For my third round, I chose strawberries dipped in three different kinds of sugar, a couple of caramels, lime jelly on a stick, a 70% cacao lollipop and an assortment of tarts. This was, of course, after two substantial courses of desserts before.

I’ve been to many three-star restaurants all over the world, but L’Osier by far is my favorite. The food, as already described, is just unparalleled; and in an era when many chefs equate a Michelin star rating with food experiments and shock value — I can’t even count how many highly-rated restaurants I’ve eaten in where I’ve had trouble recognizing the food…the last one was a one-star restaurant which made a perfectly good steak look like charcoal — Bruno’s food is based on honest-to-goodness refined cooking that’s all about classic with a twist. You’ll recognize everything on your plate, and you’ll enjoy eating every bit. There’s none of the complicated combinations and ultra-exotic ingredients here.

Meanwhile the service is impeccable. For a 40-seat restaurant, they have a staff of 45 — so the ratio of staff to guest is over one-is-to-one, and each and every staff is professional, discrete, efficient, and friendly. This combination is so hard to get right! And it really is a beautiful restaurant created at a time when there was so much optimism and energy in Japan — and it is evident in L’Osier’s design.

Michelin pays tribute to Bruno

L’Osier received a three-star rating from Guide Michelin two years in a row, since the first Michelin restaurant guide for Tokyo was released. I still remember the exultation of Bruno and his many fans then. The call from the Guide Michelin people had arrived earlier than expected, catching him by surprise in the kitchen. And receiving three stars was the highest accolade for his cooking.

This year, L’Osier was not included in the ratings because Guide Michelin did not wish to include a restaurant that was closing in March. However, in tribute to the greatness of Bruno’s cooking, they made a touching gesture. They invited Bruno for the ceremonies and took his photo along with the 14 other official three-star recipients.

“There are 14 official three-star restaurants in Tokyo,” they said. “But in reality, as far as we are concerned, there are 15.”

If you’re going to Tokyo sometime soon, don’t miss an opportunity to eat at L’Osier — one of my favorites restaurants in the world.

* * *
This is a relatively inexpensive wine
as it’s even below a “Village.”
But it went excellently with our beef dish.

That’s the dessert trolley
that arrives after two courses of dessert.

This is what I chose from the dessert trolley!



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