Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Chez Tomo, Shirogane

Ahhh, it's been simply ages that I've been thinking of going to this place. I suppose I had heard of it, but then I ran across it one night while walking randomly around after work (when you worked at the one of 2008's most spectacular failures, you've got plenty to walk and think about). And when Dominic said he had booked it for our second 'blog geek dinner', it was a pleasant surprise. The Curmudgeonly Ol' Bastard was also in attendance, having pulled out, then thought better of it and thrown over his global CEO to be with us. Tomo is slightly out of the way, south of Hiroo's Tengenbashi intersection and a bit to the left, down the shopping street of Shirogane (not Dai, not Takanawa, just the quaint, plain Shirogane street that has a lot of cute little restaurants and old shops). He's got this neat place, shielded from the street with a wall that has some lights built into it, and a little garden out front, and a semi-exposed kitchen, and staff that grab the door and really make you feel that you've arrived. The customer base seems pretty glamorous too; well-dressed and attractive, other than the 3 of us in the corner. The atmosphere deserves the Michelin star that they got last year.

Michel Bras is a chef in Laguiole, France (the knife town), who is famous (among other things like being 3-star and also the #7 restaurant in the world according to San Pelegrino) for gargouillou. This is not a mouthwash, and is legal in all 50 states as far as I know. It's a heavily-prepared salad, heavily-prepared in the sense that zen gardens are heavily-prepared - to seem like a perfect, flawless, exaggerated version of nature. In pictures, the salad looks like a huge variety of vegetables have somehow picked, washed, cooked and seasoned themselves, and then, suitably attired, are having a festive and freewheeling party on your plate. People talk about how the smell of the vegetables is overpowering. Tomo is most famous for his composed salad too! It's the one that always shows up in pictures, and on the web site. It's a bit different though. Tomo is trying pretty hard to recreate a serious French dining experience, and getting at least part of the way there.

The service is really excellent, if a little stilted. The waiters are all significantly dressed up (in fact, gentlemen are requested to wear jackets, but we followed the 'take it off immediately' rule and heard no complaints) and had a hard time all night deciding whether to speak English, French or Japanese to us. Once we let them know we weren't going to fill up the 4th seat at the table, they brought bread 'n' bits and we got started. These three containers were generous (and easily refilled) portions of rillettes (moist, not overly flavored), green olive tamponade (my best guess; not really pesto; the spelling is a nostalgic joke), and butter (undistinguished). The bread was thin baguettes, brought one piece at a time but replaced in a timely and unobtrusive way.

The menu is 'semi-fixed', meaning that you get to pick 3 of 6 courses. It's also cheap, about Y6500 (including service), although they do a bit of nickle-and-diming by including surcharges on quite a few things, and these are significant - Y1200-2000 - which is an odd choice. If you can be happy with the un-charged items, this is great value. If you feel compelled to order up, the value-for-money goes down to average (but not bad).

The course starts off with an artfully-photographed sea urchin, cruelly hollowed out and filled with a sauce made from its own ovaries. Some will say this was fantastic; I'll say it was good, but many things that contain this much cream and butter are pretty good too.











First courses. The morels on the left (in cream sauce, with oysters) were a special order (Y1200) and were very nice; I'm not sure what great morels taste like, but these were shown to us beforehand in a big bowl so we could be convinced to order them, and it worked on one of us! In the middle is the 'cubic black pudding'; this looked extraordinarily like a brownie in color and texture, but I presume tasted more...dunno, bloody? This was the COB's dish, so no sharing was permitted. On the right, eel and foie gras terrine (mine), which was a real study in texture. I think the surrounding jelly was port, but I'm sure that the terrine contained foie, eel meat and skin, so it was a neat combination of soft, slippery and chewy. The accompanying jelly was another nice textural element, but I can't remember the taste, and the sauce was Earl Gray cream! Pulling out all the stops there, and it was pretty good.

At the time I thought this shark knife (and fish-shaped fork) was a cute way to lead in to the fish course, but it was just cute. Coming up next was...
The Salad. I think it said 30 varieties (and a quick count roughly affirms that theory) of organic vegetables from Yamanashi. I'm not sure if this is inspired by Bras (who has been making some version of his salad for over 10 years now and has certainly inspired many others) but it features the same theme of lots of vegetables, each prepared separately in a different way. It's just that here there's no apparent attempt to combine them, and there wasn't any direction about what order to eat in. That's a nice lack of pretense, I think.

Getting up close and personal, you can see the different treatments of many things. The foreground's melon-like item is a steamed marrow; in the row behind that you can see (I think) a piece of gobo with sumiso, renkon, daikon, takenoko, and on to the mini asaparagus city. The standout bite was the eggplant that you can see (half-peeled) above the gobo and renkon; it was cooked and marinated, so was oily and spicy and tasty. A lot of things seemed marinated, or doused in oil, or in some other special sauce. They were all fresh and nice, but it would have been cool to observe some logic at work (which I may have missed).


This chicken-based carrot soup was just filler. They should skip it.


















COB and I both went for the pork, which was described as something like "Lombardia Pork, Cinderella Style", and that meant roasted with hay, which smokes it a bit. They brought it to the table in a glass pot filled with smoke, which they situated (annoyingly) in front of the COB before proudly opening it to let the burnt hay fragrance fill the room. (In their defense, he IS a lot bigger, older and grayer. And more prone to wearing hats.) This is a good trick that's showing up in a bunch of finer restaurants recently; if it's made its way here it may have played out its line. I just couldn't enjoy this. You can see from the picture that there was a very high ratio of rind to meat. I've worked hard to train myself to be able to eat, and often enjoy, fatty meat, but in this case, with un-crisped skin covering firm sheets of fat, I struggled. Dominic's Tower of Duck was pretty good, if a bit workmanlike (ground meat, roughly flavored is what my notes would say if I took notes), and the little piece of terrine that accompanied each dish was pumpkin and lentils, cute and tasty.

We kept seeing desserts delivered throughout our preceding courses, so it was pretty well a foregone conclusion that we were all going to have the souffle (pronounced "soo-full"). As with the morels, they brought out a cute presentation to show the options - a big bar of Valrhona chocolate for the choco dessert, a lime to represent the souffle, and a cup with bread, sugar and egg to represent the bread pudding. But soo-fulls it was, and with a pleasing 'whump!' they were lightly flambeed tableside, prompting cute if repetitive giggles from the table of women next to us (who still feigned surprise even though they had seen their own souffles flamed, and watched the waiter doing ours).
Not a bad souffle; the lime ice cream melted into the cracks, the outside bits were pleasingly crunchy and caramelized from the flame. The bottom was a bit heavy and eggy, but not in an objectionable way. I wish I could compare this to Cafe Jacqueline, but it's been, ohhhh, 7 years since I ate at that all-souffle establishment on Telegraph Hill.

Coffee or your choice of about 15 herb tea blends (note that you have to pay a cheeky Y300 to drink herb tea, possibly to cover the capital investment on these cute cup-and-plate sets).


For some reason I was dying for mignardise, so these vanilla caramels were very welcome in addition to being cute. They were nicely vanilla-flavored, but very soft and a bit greasy (related problems, I think), more like a soft vanilla fudge than the caramels that are so popular this year.



Overall, this is a terrific environment, everyone is trying hard, and the food delivers top-class mannerisms most of the time and very good taste some of the time. The whole experience is worth the money, but if Michelin were really judging only based on what's on the plate, there could be some difficulty with the one-star thing.

Some people say Bras has become a caricature of himself too, so it's no crime.
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