Monday, March 9, 2009

Aquavit, Gaienmae

Lest anyone think that EOITwJ is strictly an OL-style lunch blog liberally peppered with snarky comments and random musical asides, here's some genuine fine dining.

Aquavit hit my radar through the glossy pages of Tokyo Calendar, where it featured in one of the 'style' posts - models lounging around the restaurant, little to no food coverage (on the bright side, it wasn't in the monthly 'toilet' feature, where a toilet manufacturer pays for a glossy 6+-page spread on some high-end restaurant that uses their tankless toilets. Although those places always look good...). I held off on going because of the undesirable location (Gaienmae; really not so bad) and my suspicion that I was going to feel bad about the price. In the end, I found the food very worthwhile, the atmosphere and service lovely, and the price, well, a touch high, but we didn't really drink so the total was manageable.

Set back in an odd way to the Oracle Tower in North Aoyama, Aquavit makes a treMENdous first impression. From the street, you enter through a slot in the building, pass the office lobby entrances and an Aoyama Flower Center branch, and emerge into a center courtyard dominated by the round driveway, modern architercture and bright lighting of Aquavit. This is a setting that begs for a spectacular event - I felt like limos and red carpets even though there was no one else around and it was eerily quiet.

Inside is similarly stylish; the reception area is dark and woody, with a curved staircase behind the desk and smooth transitions to the bar on the left and the lounge and dining room on the right. The lounge is bent-wood chairs, black leather, metal light fixtures...Scandanavian cliches, maybe, but awfully nice looking. The dining room continues the style with a bit more soft light, wide spaces between tables, and a few different areas divided by curtains.

The menu has a few notable points - one given the name, they have a significant section of store-made aquavits (I got into this later...). I didn't look at the wine list; there were 7 or 8 wines by the glass at prices that matched the food. The dinner menu is prix fixe, and 3 courses. From reviews that I read, I confess that I expected some more 'gift from the kitchen' or 'unannounced' courses in between. This seems to be the trend these days in European and American restaurants (although of course not in Japan, where it's a big deal to receive an extra cracker as 'service'!). Thus I was a bit disappointed to receive the ordered 3 courses plus a starter shot of soup and a 2.5-course shot of pre-dessert. This is the only area where I felt somewhat let down - 4 courses wouldn't go astray, or at least an interesting little starter course after the shots.

Heavens, I'm hundreds of words into this post and haven't mentioned the salient point that this is 'modern Scandanavian cooking'. That means there are some fun things on the menu, like roasted beets (OK, I don't know if that's Scandanavian, and I didn't even order it, but I do love beets) and pickled herring. The pickled herring is listed as coming with 'necessary accompaniments', which are naturally a shot and a beer. After that, there's a lot of salmon, a bunch of other fish, some normal meats and some game meats, totalling 10 or 12 options for each course. No extra charges, which always warms my heart.

I was accompanied on this excursion by Helena, whose name has been changed to protect...actually just to give me an excuse to make up a nickname. As a more-or-less non-drinker, her presence came as a relief to my liver after the previous evening at Karaya and then Fal. We started with the shots - potato soup, more or less, but very creamy - which the waitress instructed us to down in one go. Another aside - what's with the 'one bite' regulation on so much modern cuisine? I dislike this even though I understand that it's supposed to let the chef control the portion and proportion of flavors more precisely.

First courses: gravlax for Helena was, in my estimation, positively architectural. I'm extrapolating, but it appeared to have been cut thin and layered in a rectangular tart pan, overlapping the edges, then filled with cubes of potato and espresso mustard sauce (!), then folded over to make a 'plank' of salmon with ses fillinges. Very square. I'm afraid I didn't get to try this...On my side I opted for the lobster soup (over the equally architectural lobster roll that features prominently on the web site) - a lobster claw circled with slices of asparagus atop a dome of steamed shrimp paste with chunks of foie gras, surrounded by a white bean soup. Not as life-changing as it sounds, but very pretty and very nice.

Second courses: Lamb for H; not cooked enough for my tastes - the meat and fat were a bit on the mushy side in places - but excellent flavor throughout. My salmon was interesting (especially since it was trout) - batons of lightly-smoked trout mixed with fresh greens (something mizuna-like), celery root puree and apple horseradish broth poured on at the table (I admit, I'm consulting the menu here). This was a generous amount of excellent fish, with a lot of interest, fresh and light flavors. If I had to complain, and I always do, the size was a bit too big: hot soup + good conversation = cold soup. This should be half the size and served as a starter, but it went well with the extremely spicy and very amusing glass of horseradish aquavit I ordered up on the side. Note on the service: it was very good (especially one woman, Matsuda, I think). There when needed, good explanations of the food, helpful with recommendations (like horseradish aquavit!).

Desserts: The pre-dessert shot was something like raspberry soup with fresh cheese mousse; difficult to finish in one go, even for me. As for the actual desserts, I went with the signature 'Arctic Circle', a tall goat-cheese cylinder filled with passion-fruit cream and topped by a thin curving wafer and a quenelle of raspberry ice cream. A little difficult to eat; I think the texture could be improved by making it more fork-friendly. However the taste was interesting due to all the sourness in the cheese and fruit. Oh, 'blueberry cobbler' was the other side's effort. More of a luxury version than expected, and impeccably executed with a few different blueberry-oriented elements spaced around the large, rectangular plate.

Aquavit only opened late last year; based on the luxurious fitout, mildly outre location, and sparse attendance, I'd have to guess it's not going to make it. Might be worth a visit while it's still there - or even two, as I got the feeling there are many surprises lurking in the kitchen!

What's that moose in the corner?

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