There's a set of people who apparently spend a fair part of their time and money going to the world's best restaurants. I don't aspire to be one of them, because it's so damn expensive, but I do enjoy reading their reviews and seeing the pictures. In that spirit, here's what it was like to visit the Michelin 3-star Quintessence, noted in Tokyo for the youthfulness of the chef and the refined-yet-tasty cuisine.
Knowing the price, I came into this in the wrong frame of mind on January 8th - hugely high expectations, and a hair-trigger propensity for disappointment. Keep in mind that this is actually quite cheap compared to some of Europe's best - something like half of the price of Pierre Gagnaire in Paris, or example. As a result of my mood, the first few courses didn't feel great, but things improved as the night went on (and on).
Throughout dinner we were drinking Krug Grand Reserve (which we BYO'ed; corkage Y5000 ++, and this is a very good deal when you consider that most of the enormous wine list is above Y15,000, with the bulk of that being Y20,000, Y30,000 and then into the stratosphere, as befits a restaurant aiming for Michelin rankings). This turned out to be an excellent choice for the food - keeping it cooler for the earlier courses and then warming up a bit out of the ice for heavier courses. Like no other champagne, the Krug is massive but stylish, and seems to contain a bit of everything. For me the overall impression was of maturity and, dare I say it, power, with the lighter components of the wine seeming to give way to a heavier core with every sip (relatively high pinot noir percentage, which means it's nice at various temperatures and displays different personalities). I shouldn't go on too long with this.
Poor communication on my part - they opened the champagne and poured us healthy glasses, which annoyed me because that bottle had to last all night. On the other hand, I have to give credit where due - on the next pour we told the waiter to stop at half a glass, and on the third pour we said "Only with new courses", and each time he adapated perfectly. On the whole, the service was really world-class once we (I) settled in, but I was disturbed that they served one person at a time, i.e. none of the 'multiple servers drop the plates on the table for everyone simultaneously' stuff, and certainly none of the coordinated cloche-removal that you might see at restaurants that still use cloche.
We also had a brief kerfuffle with the staff when they reconfirmed that one of our party wouldn't eat foie or lamb, and we reconfirmed that it was only one of us, thank you very much, and don't skimp for the others. They said "ohhhhh, only one menu per table", which is amusing considering the 'no menu' policy, and after some back-and-forth went to check with the kitchen. The kitchen cleared things up nicely by saying "There's no foie gras on the menu anyway", and we started with the first course of...
Sable Foie Gras. Tiny sable crouton topped with a round of foie and a slice of pear, drizzled with olive oil (or maybe that oil was just runoff from the foie!). Very nice in the way that the foie fat combined with the dry-and-sandy sable crouton, and the pear provided a little texture and fruitiness on top. Perhaps meant to be playfully eaten with the hand, so that you have to get a little oily because the crouton is so small? Well, I did at any rate.
This was the point where they unleashed the 'no photos' rule. On top of the other perceived indignities, this had me deeply irritated. (And the evidence on Tabelog says that at least a few other people have taken pictures in the past, of the same dishes.) I persisted in furtive picture-taking, and while the staff must have known after 4 or 5 courses, we probably had an unspoken truce where they admitted that my photography was quite discreet, and I kept it as such.
Sweet Potato Soup. One of these 'no added anything, essence of the potato' dishes. The soup was squeezed from sweet potatos, with some added butter but no water or sugar. Delicious, like the most perfect yaki-imo ever, in liquid form. The little potato financier was interesting because the texture contrived to make you think of financiers as well.
l'Assaisonement (Biology? Chemistry?). Described by the waiter as a vehicle for enjoying salt and olive oil, this was a bavarois of very mild goat cheese topped with lily bulb and sliced macadamia nuts, sprinkled with salt and doused with oil. The oil and salt were indeed delicious, as befits special Provencale oil and Bretagne salt, and the lily and macadamia gave a bit of texture to an otherwise smooth and soupy dish, but we didn't feel that this really came together. It was also a lot lighter and less seasonal than the potato, which was confusing. Good.
Kyoto turnip with 4 kinds of shrimp tartar, baby ruccola, herbs. One of the star dishes of the evening, mainly because of the produce. The waiter described the turnip as something that I can't remember, a fruit. In practice, it had a very earthy smell for a turnip, with a lovely sweet taste and a texture that was exactly like just-ripe persimmon. The shrimp were nice of course for their freshness and texture, and the inclusion of the (non-seasonal, hence dried?) sakura ebi was a terrific touch. Excellent.
Far Breton. Filled buckwheat galette in several layers, topped with kobashira (bay scallops?). "Eat from left to right because it gets sweeter in that direction, and you'll feel like you've eaten a complete meal by the end." (Unfortunately only the 5th course...) A very good idea here, with the strong buckwheat taste leading to the scallop taste and slightly crunchy texture (actually kori-kori ; how do you say that in English?), and then back to the sweetness of the pastry. While not explained the first time, we asked a question or two, which prompted the head waiter to start explaining every dish to us in exhaustive detail (and may have contributed to his tacit revocation of the earlier 'no photos' rule). In this case, the interesting point is that the scallops were dropped into a hot pan whose bottom was covered with hijiki, then taken out as soon as they started to cook, being left on the side to finish themselves off with residual heat. Very good.
Endive and Tsubugai. I thought tsubugai was 'conch', but it's not. Anyway, it's something like that, a wacky shellfish. In this case it was cooked, sliced thin, topped with seaweed butter, and layered over an endive that had been cooked sous vide, then browned a bit, and had ankimo-butter paste on the side (the orange paint). Texturally interesting dish with a lot of flavors - crunch from the endive, then butter flavor, then bitterness of the endive, and finally the chewyness and flavor of the shellfish. The strong ankimo added something, but overall not that exciting. Good.
Cuisson Nacree (Pearly Cooking?). First 'main course'. Amadai, roasted in a large piece to preserve its integrity, then sliced and served to multiple tables at once. Lime-nori sauce (the brown one). Dill sauce with salt - extraordinary. Spinach with basil, delicious. The fish was nicely rare, but the taste was heavy and fatty, the skin got soggy, and try as I might, I couldn't see how this all fit together. Some good elements, and judging by Tabelog it's been on the menu for ages, but overall this was a real letdown. Not good.
Poulet Roti. Before the fish, they asked if the portion size was going OK for us, and I said I'd be happy to eat more. The fish came normal sized, but this roast chicken came out super-sized. The waiter described the grower Takasaka san's chickens as 'the K-1 fighters of chicken' due to their extraordinary size, and this fellow showed all the evidence. The waiter's description had some other interesting elements - this was slow-roasted over 3 hours in a process best described as 'roast-rest-repeat - 30 times'. This led to a texture, probably intentional, that was quite soft and a bit spongy - not much fiber and stringiness there. Two other problems I had were the gaminess of the meat - not ordinarily an issue, but bothered me here - and the thickness of the skin. You can see in the picture that the skin is beautifully roasted and lightly salt-crusted, but it preserved a thickish layer of (K-1) fat underneath that made the texture disturbing. On the side are deep fried vegetables (peanuts as well as semolina-crusted mushrooms that were an eringi-awabi mix). Roast potatoes, herb sauce. Like the fish, this didn't seem to come together. Add in the lukewarm temperature and overblown portion size, and I couldn't finish this. On the night I thought it was Not Good, but I'm forced to admit that I was just getting tired and it was probably Good.
Cantal Vieux. You wouldn't know it, but this 9th plate marked the beginning of our 4th hour. The Cantal is a fairly normal cow cheese with a lot of buttery flavor, and the 'old' designation means it's over 6 months (I looked this up, OK?). In this case it was combined with butter to form a super-luxury Cheez-Wiz, with a really delightful piece of walnut bread on the side (toasted outside, soft inside) and a dried white fig that had been rehydrated in grape juice. The fig was meant to provide some acid to cut the butteriness of the cheese and butter, but got mostly lost in the transition. This was just OK - something more traditional in shape and presentation would probably have been better.
Sorbet Raisins Sec. Again, a humorous name since this was a sorbet made from 1979 Marc and topped with a Spanish raisin. This was decent, and the fact that it seemed to retain all the alcohol, which must be hard to freeze, made it even more refreshing. No picture.
Biscuit de Bis-Cuits. ('Twice Cooked' Biscuit) This appears on the web site as well as in other people's pictures, and is a decent item. If I remember the description correctly, the cake is made with almond meal and amaretto, and on the night I swore I could taste both flavors. The almond meal is pleasantly rough and grainy, and it goes very well with the coconut cream. I was puzzled that the 'shell' was only half full, since I quite liked the cream and the pairing with the cake. However I couldn't shake the impression that I could make something like this with the almond meal I picked up a few weeks ago. Good.
Tendre Guimauve. (Soft Marshmallow). Caramel marshmallow with caramel crunch on top and a tiny spot of caramel-rose syrup. "Usually made with pork fat, but this is all vegetable-based. Chill to -40 C in order to cut since it's so soft." The deep caramel flavor, soft marshmallow, textural crunch, and outstanding rose syrup made this one of the other best dishes. Should have been bigger and had at least 2 dots of syrup! Excellent.
Glace Meringue. I go to restaurants in search of basically one thing: those moments when the taste of something is so extraordinary that I feel compelled to throw my fork down theatrically and say "Umai!" or something equally cheesy. Finally, here it was...at course 13. This house specialty is made by baking meringues, then crushing them to a powder and combining with creme anglaise to make ice cream, then spraying the quenelles with salt water before serving. The taste was deep and complex, with the salt somehow giving the impression that there was a whole set of savory flavors also going on. Again, the temperature control was a little weak, because this started melting during the lengthy explanation, but I'm forced to say this was Awesome.
One picture gets you the mignardise, the coffee (metal demi-tasse in the background) and a hint of the Krug...these were white chocolate covered with black sesame or crushed pine nuts, and were the full extent of the mignardise. At this point we had been through 4 hours, which seems a bit long for the above, so probably shouldn't have been that disappointed.
The pictures kind tell the story, don't you think? While the chef was previously sous-chef at the now-3-star l'Astrance, he's clearly brought a lot of Japanese to the equation here and taken out much of the playfulness and joy that I see in pictures from their dishes. The room matched the food - rectangular, done in shades of brown and white, very reserved. If that was the case, I'd expect more extraordinary flavors to be hidden in the whites and browns, but for the most part they weren't there.
Due to this, plus the overall intellectual feeling of the food, I described it to my colleague as 'not for novice eaters' and had to advise him not to try it. Certainly the quality of ideas, ingredients, preparation and service are extremely high, but with the big dead spot contributed by the two mains, I came away feeling like this was perhaps worth 2 stars and could use a little more work to get to 3, where I'd feel more affected emotionally by the end.
Haha, the opening picture on the web site is one of those delicious turnips.