I left the office for lunch in a light and positive mood today. The weather has cooled by at least a few degrees, my June farewell lunch with Volleyball turned out to be only penultimate when found a few minutes in his busy schedule today...and since he was in Nihonbashi it occurred to me that I should call Merveille to see if they had a table. Last one.
One last time (for now) - this is my favorite restaurant. OK? There are close to 1,000 reviews on here now, reflecting roughly the last 2 years but not the 4 before that when I already lived in Japan. When people say 'What's your favorite restaurant?" I just say "Merveille". You can get more refined food in other places, and you can get longer courses, and you can sit in grander rooms, and you can have more perfectly polished service - but for my money there's no place that hits as high a standard on all of those fronts simultaneously, including the cost-performance front. Being on the way out of Japan, Volleyball was in an expansive mood. He didn't hesitate for more than a second when the waiter started describing the 3 courses, just closed the menu and said we'd have the top course. See what you think.
This rillette puff is thumbnail-sized, and they've been serving them for a couple years, but it sets a tone for the food - not always showy, but really intense flavors that surprise you. Here, the tiny amount of fat and meat somehow packs a huge punch.
This 'salad' was a heck of a way to start. Last time I visited I distinctly remember that the cold lobster starter was the highlight of the meal for me; fortunately this time the standard stayed high throughout. But this was a terrific Japanese-French fusion - boiled eggplant, lobster, and sea urchin in a creamy soup, with a sweet foam on top and shiso flowers all around. I'll let you decide which elements are from which background, but this is the kind of thing I wanted to eat at Il Ghiottone; sort of like their first course, but much better.
One thing about the menu style that can be unsatisfying is that there aren't many substitutions or surcharges (wait, did I just complain about the lack of surcharges?). There are three levels, and at each level you can make one or two choices - which don't overlap. I don't know what would happen if you wanted to eat, say, foie gras with the low-level course. I do know that we got to eat this terrific foie terrine, rolled with cashews, walnuts and cranberries. Considering the quality of the other breads (three varieties rotating throughout the meal - sesame, rosemary, mini ciabatta), I bet they make the brioche in-house too. There were leeks three ways - sliced and sauteed with truffle oil, peeled and fried into the vertical 'chips', and finally burnt, pulverized, and mixed with oil to make the dark, ashy sauce. If you're thinking ash-based items are hopelessly trendy, they're not yet so in Japan, and if you're thinking truffle oil is passe, you might be right. It's really pleasant to see Matsumoto san using some modern techniques though; I didn't see a single one of his previously-signature 'fried meat-filled phyllo pocket' dishes today. And it's extra pleasant that they immediately got us a whole saucer of the leek sauce when we asked.
The fish was, similarly, pretty incredible. Merveille was the place that set the standard for me on fish - crisp but never oily skin with just-cooked, translucent meat. This piece of greenling (probably similar to a grayling, though not found as readily in Oxford) was crusted just a bit in semolina, then fried...and all the vegetables were cooked and chilled in vinegar, with lemon and orange flavors in the sauce. A funny but perfectly cooked and perfectly summery way to get through cooked fish.
We thought we were pretty special, getting this beef instead of the quail on the lower courses (until someone behind us got the duck breast roasted on hay, filling the dining room with the sad smell of an even higher-level course that we didn't know existed). The beef, sure, it's perfectly marbled, well-cooked, tasted great. But the port wine sauce with it was a real improvement, and whatever they had done to the chanterelles and fresh beans (like sauteeing in butter but much, much more...) was terrific. And the polenta, with fresh corn mixed through...mmm.
Volleyball let the waiter pick his dessert and thus naturally got the thing they were having a hard time moving - the fruit soup. With melon, pineapple, tapioca balls and jelly surrounding a scoop of basil sorbet, and the whole covered in a spicy soup (really, there was chili in it), this was a refreshing and texturally-varied dessert that probably appeals more to Japanese palates. I liked it, he...didn't.
The dessert he was against ordering was the one I really wanted to try - corn pudding with black-pepper ice cream. The flan didn't have whole corn in it, but a gentle corn flavor, and the charred kernels around added a different texture. Black pepper ice cream is pretty weird, but not in a bad way. This was altogether more interesting than most of the desserts I remember here in the past (they used to say their specialty was 'roll cake', which is something that's popular in Japan but terribly boring to me) although the last few times I visited I remember enjoying the salty-sweet lentil blancmange.
This feels weird to say, but I swear the cooking was more creative and better than I remembered. I could easily imagine being served this same course for twice the price (which, to be fair, is about what I think it costs if you get the top course at dinner). Sheesh.