Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sant Pau, Nihonbashi

You know Sant Pau, right? If you don't know that it's a Spanish 3-star restaurant, and one of the few 3-stars worldwide headed by a female chef, then you probably know it as the fancy place nestled in behind Nihonbashi Coredo. As Volleyball and I confirmed today on our special "Holy Cow We Survived a Whole Year" lunch, these are the only two branches worldwide. They follow the same format (huge exposed kitchen downstairs, dining rooms upstairs) and the chef in Tokyo is a former sous chef from Spain.

The layout is great - they've done a terrific job of arranging things so that you go through 4 distinct areas to reach your table and thus feel far, far away from Nihonbashi. As our server pointed out, the main difference is that in Spain, your table on the second floor would be overlooking the Mediterranean and not Coredo...I also loved the deep red leather detailing on the railings and cabinets and the wide spacing between tables.

And I'd also like to point out that the service by Yasui san was equal to any I've had, anywhere in the world. A truly phenomenal mix of attention, knowledge and atmosphere.  Now, food. Your results will almost certainly vary - they change the menu every 3-5 days depending on what's available.

Having the regular lunch (on weekdays you can also get the quick lunch, which forces a choice between fish or meat; we declined to hurry), we started with the Mini-Menu. This means they brought to the table 4 plates with 1-2 bites each - a starter, a fish course, a meat course and a dessert. I thought the presentation at the table was a little ungainly - like it would be mildly hard to eat around the four plates since they were spread out quite a bit - but they managed to be at our elbows perfectly to shift the plates around so we didn't have to move more than a few inches to hit the next 'course'. Service.

This mushroom-shaped croquette with green onion 'pine needles', a pretty technical preparation now that I think about it, contained a thick mushroom puree. It was fried very well, and the taste and texture were both very good.

This small rice ball contained sardines, vinegar and pine nuts. And was good; izakayas should serve something like this.

An excellent slice of pork sausage, but more interestingly doused with vinegar, some shallots, and a few wedges of tangerine (it's tangerine season in Japan, after all).

For 'dessert', a Catalan specialty consisting of a ball of soft, salty marzipan with a dusting of manchego cheese (I cheated and looked at my menu for this one, otherwise I wouldn't have guessed manchego). This concluded the mini-menu; a fun little tapas-y conceit.

This squid was cooked very very well, and was stuffed with squid ink pasta and other goodies. The texture of the squid was the high point for me; the filling didn't do a lot. The small pool of mayonnaise (you could say aioli if you wanted to be fancy) added a lot to the taste but was too small to persist throughout.

Fresh cod with peas was also perfect texturally; I really thought it was cooked sous-vide, but it's just pan-fried briefly and then steamed at low temperature (so you can sorta understand my confusion). The fish was great, and the 'three textures of peas' were nice too, since I love peas (3x = whole peas, shredded pods, sprout).

I thought this soup was a further moment of cleverness, being as it was cod and potato. Our server made a point of saying several times that the main was 'fresh cod' - only in Spain, I thought, since usually you'd only specify the difference when the cod was dried or salted. The soup seemed like a faux-brandade, which would be the typical thing to do with salt cod and potatoes, except our cod was fresh, so...see my point? The glass was cute too. One problem with the cod dish overall was the diminutive size, boo.

It's a sign of the times when a diner (me) can actually be disappointed to hear that the meat of the day will be Iberico pork. Under normal conditions, this should be the cause of celebration. At this point, I feel like the poor Iberico bootas have been done to death in the last few years, especially at the merciless grills of Italian restaurants who trot them out daily as if grilling up a piece of pork and spritzing it with lemon juice were an excuse to give up on their diners. Well, I was wrong (not for the first time today). Our server described this as our special pork, more like beef', and the taste and texture were indeed awfully special. A bit of the fatty, fall-apart texture of hanger steak, I think. The puffed potato millefuille with gel-pods of pureed Spanish pepper was a nice accompaniment.

Volleyball was stopped dead by this dessert right from the leaf on top (which was a thin twist of chocolate-salty caramel). Under there was a grainy chocolate mousse that grew on me - from "It's kinda grainy" through to "Please sir may I have another" by the end. Plus two kinds of pear (one in the sorbet, one in the gel strips mixed with the chocolate) and a caramel sauce (not a crust) around the outside. A bit in the Japanese mold (composed, textural, formless) but quite good.

Hand-to-hand frozen peach lollipop. This is why I tried to make peach liqueur this summer - because I wanted this extraordinary burst of fresh peach taste in the middle of winter. I failed, but Sant Pau did not.

The petit fours plate was possibly the best thing of the lunch (which is mildly disappointing; all the courses were very competent but never quite extraordinary to me). Let me tell you what I remember...I loved the little Bailey's-soaked cake on the spoon. It made me think "Wow, this is why people eat rum baba!" but of course it was actually Bailey's, so never mind. The matcha-topped chocolate truffle square was also excellent; it made us cough as we inhaled tea powder, then the mix of flavors and the terrific marshmallow-y, fruity chocolate flavor killed us. The small cylinder was 'lemon polvoro' - I thought 'toasted cheesecake', and I also thought "Wow". The nondescript ball of raspberry crumble was also delicious.

The glass of yogurt and confit fruit was also excellent, in a most surprising way. As we were eating it, I consulted the menu card and then announced to Volleyball that I would happily bet him the cost of his lunch that he wouldn't guess what the fruit was. He declined, but still ran through an exhaustive list of options (including quince! I always forget about quince.) before I finished his misery and told him it was eggplant. Eggplant boiled in syrup, who woulda thought?

Sugar-coated strawberries & chocolate truffle finished things off. That's a lot of snacks just to go with coffee, eh?

During lunch, my opinion remained undecided. Now I think I would just about admit it as a two-star restaurant (which it is), in no small part because of the service and petit fours (which shouldn't be criteria). It would be better to go on a day when you had no reason or inclination to go back to work afterward, however! I'd like to go here for wine-bar and tapas purposes some night, but I know I'd regret it afterwards. In short, smoke 'em if you got 'em.

Blammo! Zowie!

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