Saturday, April 4, 2009

Yonemura, Ginza (よねむら)

Kick. Ass. Food.

Granted, EOITwJ doesn't write about a lot of it, but here it is. Yonemura doesn't show up convincingly on radar - you won't find a lot of reviews other than these, and the web site is weak (I especially like how the first review mentions that it's the writer's first time to try foie gras! It's cool that they could end up in a place this good without too much advance knowledge). Tabelog has few reviews, some mixed, and very weak picture-taking. Michelin gives it a star, and some other site mentions that it's 'like Ryugin'. It's just not on the lists of "OMG, I'm planning the MOST AMAZING TRIP to TOKYO and where should I go?!?!?". Am I missing something? I was prepared to be disappointed, but after getting turned down by a good 6+ kappou-style places, I was happy to get in.

Maybe this is more like over-the-radar rather than under? The honten is in Kyoto, but seems smaller and less impressive than the Ginza branch. Ginza's outlet is in the Kojun building, which is completely, thoroughly terrifying. The front is Barney's, the west side is a crazy-looking private club, and the top floors are full of restaurants operating at the very limits of what any sane person would be prepared to pay. Most of them are Japanese (well, or Korean, or Chinese), including a kushiage with a sad-looking guy standing outside hopefully saying '串揚げです...', as if you would just be browsing around the stratosphere looking for a snack. Most of them look ril, ril good.

Yonemura wins the 'from-the-street' sweepstakes by having a huge painting of rice plants in brown and gold on the wall outside, whereas the other places are all traditional-looking. Inside there are a few tables and a long counter that faces the kitchen. The chrome-and-red-pleather chairs at the counter where GT and I sat, plus the un-industrial style of open kitchen, conspire to give the place a feel're sitting at the 'island' in a really, really rich person's kitchen. Not in a bad way, necessarily, but a little odd. Having the chefs right in front of you is slightly wacky too - the service staff didn't interact at all, and the chefs did all of the serving, clearing and pouring. No points for friendliness, especially from the guy who appeared to be the head.

All of this sounds like I'm complaining, which is not at all the intention. The Food. Kicks. Ass. Not having been to Ryugin I can't comment on the relative goodness of each, but the style at Yonemura seems to be more Japanese, not 'molgas' at all, and just focused on fun combinations of fresh and delicious ingredients. Dinner is one course. In fact, they never even asked about preferences and allergies. Shall we begin?

A layered starter struck a playful note, at least for me. Minus all but the briefest 'eating directions' (nothing like "Chef's creations must be eaten with the thumb and little finger, within 37 seconds of being deep-frozen to your tongue". In this case just "use your chopsticks. んっ".) it was a challenge to figure out what to do. I tried the aforementioned chopsticks and found things unwieldy; conversely the spoon was large and hard to hoist, and the attendant morsel difficult to consume in one motion...but eventually consumption transfer protocol was established, and inter-molar mastication commenced. This was a little worrisome, in truth; I didn't think the katsuo (if I'm right; missed the explanation) was that good flavor-wise. The garlic toast hit the right notes of 'crunchy and garlicky to contrast with the fish', Worrisome. This and a couple other experiences have made me think that maybe Spring katsuo just isn't my thing.

This dish, described on service as 'consomme soup' was underwhelming at first, and significantly grew on me by the end of eating. The soup was light but interesting, and more to the point, it obviously has a fern sprout in it. And under that, there was a taranome. So it's really a 'bitter spring vegetable consomme', if you're not trying to be all understated. Yay for bitter vegetables, we like them.

The wire portion of this dish reminded me of a device to hold a paper cone with fries. But in this case you find a semi-frosted glass more suitable for an ice cream sundae. And instead of ice cream, you find a clam and flounder salad. Lo, and it is good. The basil sauce could be said to overpower things, but the clam retained its natural chewiness in an appealing way, and by the time you were half finished chewing the clam, the sauce was gone from your mouth and you realized that it was a nice piecea hamaguri as well. The shrimps were sweet and tasty and only half-boiled, still a little raw inside (that's supposed to make them sound better, if it's not clear).

A real hodgepodge here, but it worked out surprisingly well. Boiled octopus (in this case 'ii' octopus, which I think translates roughly as 'food octopus'...) with julienne green apple, paprika sauce and various other bits 'n' bobs like the copious fresh herbs on top. Really nice, fresh, zippy...the sauce was worth mopping up with bread, an odd thing for a cold, slightly citrusy sauce.

This risotto, some kind of creamy thing, but not so cheezy, presumably because it came with a clam on top. And also including buds of yet another bitter spring vegetable. If I was really reading into it, I'd say the clam had been doctored to resemble pan-fried foie gras, and the chef was referring to some other sort of dish. This was a really cool east-west fusion, and quite successful at that. Not exactly risotto, but who cares? Judging by the pictures in other reviews, there's always a risotto course and it always comes in these nice bowls.

One thing I was bummed about at this point was the speed of service. Sitting right in front of the chefs is cool, but they kept banging plates down, and I felt like the spectacle would be over in an hour. The 'kitchen island' ambiance isn't that conducive to lingering either; in fact some other people came and went in the time that we were there. It ended up being 2.5 hours though, so no real need to complain.

Ohhhh, the pork. These little La Creuset pots are a sign that a place is taking themselves seriously these days, no? At least they didn't use the heart-shaped ones. But this dish was all the way into Awesome for me. The pork was perfect, better even than lunch at Igrek (good lord, was that just the day before?!), the roasted bamboo shoot was incredibly sweet and savory, and the potato was beautifully boiled and baked, or something. Had to ask - it looks like sweet potato, tastes like village potato, and was in fact shrimp potato (which last crossed my palate at Onodera, which was full on Saturday, which is why I reserved Yonemura). Just awesome.

You know what was great about the pacing and sequence? The way they built up to this thick, hot savory dish and then dropped off again. It worked so well to have a break where you could refresh a bit rather than just the normal straight-through, heavier-and-heavier pattern.

Interestingly, the generic menu on the web site says the next dish is always a 'cold pasta course'. That's unassuming, no? In practice, it was probably the best dish. Going in the modern direction of 'make your own course', the kitchen starts by flame-searing some firefly squid on the counter across from you (at this point in a Zagat review, some wag would insert a comment like "so fresh you can practically hear the screams!"), putting them on top of cold, oily cappellini in a cup, and serving with these accompaniments - very good fresh uni, some chopped tomatoes, and these divine pickled green things (maybe just nanohana). Oh, and a spoon of spicy green tomato paste (not pictured); looked like yuzu kosho but wasn't. You mix it all up, then start eating, then exclaim loudly about how refreshing and yet delicious it is. In retrospect, the squid were possibly unnecessary, but hey, it's Spring.

Some overseas visitors have mentioned the dearth of wagyu beef (pronounced ko-bee) in Japanese fine dining - if you're not at a specialist, you may be pressed to find it. That's sorta true; I guess in my mind when you see wagyu at a French place it's usually a stewed cheek or something. But here it was - on the left a chunk of sirloin and on the right a chunk of fillet. Breaking with tradition and common sense, the fillet actually seemed more fatty and flavorful. I dunno what else to say - it was good beef. The plate is neat too - there was a hole in the side to expose a vacuous interior; my theory was that you could put in hot water to keep the steak warm, but it was empty on the night. Hmm, maybe you could put flowers in it too!

More refreshment, but this time more traditional. Cute copper cups, freezing cold, filled with blood orange sorbet topped with perilla sorbet. Can someone please explain the difference between 'oba' and 'shiso'? In any case, I should really make shiso sorbet at home some time.

First risotto...then cold pasta...throughout, some really excellent fresh bread (which is made, wonder of wonders, on site). And then, just to really confuse you...rice and pickles. With dried jako. And tea. To drink with your wine. In some senses the inclusion of this course is completely silly, but in others it may capture what the chef is going for. I think up to this point I wasn't even thinking of the food as fusion, but seeing something so Japanese really contrasted with the precedents. And not to belabor it, but the rice was terrific.

Dessert is chosen from about 8 things on the menu. You can order extra desserts for a reasonable charge, but there wasn't any need, volume-wise. Everything has a bit of a twist; the creme brulee with tea is really tea-flavored, as opposed to some namby-pamby gentle-hint-of-tea crap (I read something that described the chef as the 'Jean-Paul Gaultier of food', so maybe this is the equivalent of leather straps?).

And the cheesecake, I have to admit I saw it in another review and wanted to try it, the cheesecake is a cheesecake, topped with cheese. Geddit?! The ice cream isn't cheese-flavored, but that's not a bad idea: 'cheez three wayz'. As that review noted, the trick was definitely to eat all three together, whereupon the three fatty textures and differing cheesinesses melded in a weird way that was most excellent. I suppose you could do this at home, now that you know the trick (in fact you may already have been doing it at home, and let's consider this a big shout-out to all the readers in New England who like a slice of Lyman Orchards Apple Pie Cheddar on top of their apple pie, sided with ice cream. Can I just digress for another second and say I really, really miss apple cider? Japan needs apple cider, and then it would be perfect. Oh, and Mexican food.)

And there you have it. This place is seriously interesting, with high-quality ideas and cooking to back 'em up. It's just the thing after an exhausting afternoon shopping at Barney's, or the lunches seem to be the same style and quantity for a lot less money.

We've deliberately skirted the price issue. Work it out.

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