Tuesday, December 1, 2009

La Bombance, Nishi Azabu

It's interesting to come back from Kyoto and immediately have what amounts to a kaiseki meal, albeit in a dark, stylish, hostess-friendly setting in Nishi-Azabu. It's even more interesting to meet completely new people especially when they come with their own nicknames - Baron Destructo and Deluca Cheesemonger. You can tell I didn't assign those names!

La Bombance, despite the French name, is firmly Japanese, and very much in a kappou style - a small basement space in a building in the early reaches of the dead zone between Roppongi and Shibuya, staffed by a genial, (very) accomodating young master, an assistant and a waitress, with a counter and one 4-person table. The master even carries over the French fusion theme to the plates - each place setting comes with a large glass plate that succeeding courses are served on (you can see this on the web site), and a quality pair of chopsticks. The room really is pleasant; it's dark and woody and has nice touches throughout. However I can see why he's moving next month (literally within sight, up the hill) - the bathroom is accessed through a half-height door under the stairs, and the kitchen must not be much bigger.

The food is an interesting mix. I say this advisedly, in the knowledge that leading with the word 'interesting' is unlikely to provoke much excitement. I'm afraid Bombance may be in the 'Aroma Fresca' class - judging by the scores, it appeals quite a bit to Japanese people, but the flavors and cost performance are somewhat lost on foreigners. I have to say that, for the same price, Yuubi four days earlier was similar in style but there was clear daylight between in terms of flavor. It's not really fair to compare a Nishi-Az place to a Gion place, especially after only one visit to each, but that's what I do.

The first course started right off with an ingredient-heavy bang. Crab and mushrooms in ankake sauce topped a small pile of eggplant and yuba (Kyoto 'kagura' eggplant, the menu says - the whole course was quite Kyoto-style) and a slice of abalone. Nice, soothing, not explosive in flavor. That was a recurring theme throughout, and now that I've woken up the next day, I realize that the master is trying to stay in a more laid-back Kyoto style, which is part of why it's harder for foreigners to get into it.

Mixed plate of bits was next. Ikura, really the best sourcing I can imagine - huge eggs with really thin walls. Unfortunately very mild in flavor, and I think the yuzu solution they floated in deadened the taste a little more. Grilled shirako was very good - I like it best when it's grilled so it's crusty outside. Otherwise the creamy texture is a bit unsettling.

A funny switch, the slice of beef was mainly raw, but the ball of rice on which it sat was grilled brown and crusty; for some reason this appealed to me less than I thought it would. The last thing was kawahagi with ankimo sauce and crisp-fried negi slivers, which was probably my favorite thing on this plate. All good, either well-sourced or well-executed.

The menu has all kinds of cute touches. I was a little dazed during dinner due to some last-minute work demands that made me late and flustered, so I didn't notice. For example, the abalone in the first dish is written アワb, while the deep-fried croquette in the next dish was written 勝Let's. This croquette was a slice of foie topped with mozarella, wrapped in shabu-shabu style beef, then fried. It was good, but more in a luxury menchi-katsu way (breaded, deep-fried hamburger) than in a foie way. As you can see in the picture, it was topped with a leafy little salad, including little shaved 'leaves' of black truffle. A very luxurious dish, but not so exciting to me.

The next dish was smaller and a good deal more exciting - cutely titled "Tiger" on the menu, I couldn't figure out what it was. Of course, as soon as the chef said it was fugu, the mists parted and I realized he was talking about 'Tiger fugu', which is now in season. Presumably this was wild-caught fugu and not the year-round, farm-raised, de-fanged stuff. (Despite any sensationalist articles you may have read, and the fact that a couple of people recently suffered ill effects from eating wild fugu, the majority of fugu is farm raised, and the poison glands were bred out long ago.) I assume this was natural fugu mainly because of the taste and texture, which were both sensational. This has only strengthened my resolve to have one extravagant wild fugu dinner this year (it's only for a couple months, and it ain't cheap).

This chicken dish was cute (and again I must mention my addled mental state. Each plate had a different color sauce. I asked the master if they were the same flavor and was briefly horrified when he stuck his finger in the sauce to illustrate that it was, in fact, part of the plate. Not the last time I acted like an idiot this evening...). The chicken itself was very flavorful and had a nice firm texture, but was a touch dry. Still the grilled pepper was excellent, the 'Marronzola' (chestnut topped with gorgonzola sauce) was neat, and the sliced daikon sandwiching a grilled slice of karasumi (dried mullet roe, like bottarga) was a great idea that went well together. Not especially unified, and mostly just a hyped-up yakitori, but a nice dish.

For months (years?) I've put off purchasing a donabe, or earthen stewpot. But every time I see these cool little ones, it gets me interested again. Especially when the contents are as good as this, unassuming as they may look. They were based on a fish called 'kue' or 'kuai' (Longtooth Grouper, says Wiki) which the master described only as 'big'. Like many people who have spent a lot of time in Florida, I have a real soft spot for fish called 'grouper' (which comes in as many sizes and shapes as things that the Japanese called 'tai'). It's just a great family of fish, and the pieces in this nabe were terrific, as was the tofu, as were the roasted negi, as was the shrimp potato. The real standout though, and the best thing of the meal, was the soup. Heavy on the yuzu, reduced to concentrate the dashi, this was exemplary, and better than any soup I had in Kyoto.

This plate of mixed vegetables was interesting - Chinese-style oiled / pickled lotus root, mitsuba with sesame, deep-fried slivers of some interesting root vegetables that tasted like...chips... Pleasant.

And yet another fugu dish, this one a zosui (sorta porridge - properly, the thing that you get when you finish cooking something in a pot, take out the cooked stuff, and mix rice with the remaining cooking liquid). Bits of egg and lots of fresh green onion tips, this was also good.

Desserts were a black sesame sherbet that was somewhat incongruous, and a 'white coffee blanc manger' that was absolutely delicious despite not being set like the name would imply, and instead being milkshake-y. 'How do you make something coffee-flavored white?' I asked the chef. 'Magic' he said.

Okamoto san was pretty happy with us, despite the cheese incident (when I asked to borrow a map, he sent the waitress out to get one, and 20 minutes later she came back with a selection of cheeses that she served us. We didn't let on that it was a funny accent-driven mistake! haha! The jolly times we had!). He was so happy that he kept trying to push this 20-year-old marc on us, despite that fact that none of us like it. Stefan poured his into his hojicha and then begged off, saying he was driving.

You take a lot of pictures, Joe. Rock on!

Looking back, there were some real high points in this meal, in addition to the courses I remembered most, which were a bit ordinary. You wouldn't be disappointed if you went, but I think you could do a touch better elsewhere. Or if you like Kyoto-style food, you might love it.

Where you goin' with that gun in your hand?

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