Japan Blog Post: Narisawa

I found out about Narisawa a while ago on one of those Best Restaurants in The World For Terrible Snobs websites. I’d been looking for high-end restaurants in Tokyo for our upcoming family trip, and was struck by a picture that appeared to show people eating a mossy chunk of bracken in the forest. It was actually a picture of one of chef Yoshihiro Narisawa’s better known creations, named “The Essence of the Forest,” featuring scattered local ingredients meant to resemble the forest floor, as well as a bamboo cup of purified, oak-infused water from a forest spring. Narisawa explicitly wanted to make his high-end diners scrabble for little tidbits through leaves on the forest floor, like a foraging badger.

I read more about him, and was charmed by his down-to-earth reliance on local ingredients, and self-confident (but well-considered) weirdness. He calls his food “Innovative Satoyama”: the word “Satoyama” in Japanese refers to the liminal zone between mountainous foothils and the flat land where most people live. Narisawa interprets this term as a reflection of human coexistence with, and proximity to, nature and natural ingredients. The food the restaurant serves is meant to be a visual expression of these values, something he describes as “Satoyama Scenery.” I wanted to see what it was that he was talking about, and also, I just wanted to eat that fucking forest bracken. Luckily my family did, too.

Narisawa has two Michelin stars and has been getting a lot of press recently thanks to Chef Narisawa’s recent appearance on that “Final Table” show on Netflix. Reservations can be a challenge, both due to its popularity and the fact that there’s only one dinner service a night. They do mercifully open their reservations up to a month in advance, freeing you from having to make concrete dinner reservations a year out. The restaurant is located in central Tokyo, in a pretty modernist building, with an entrance that faces away from the street and towards a small garden. The dining room is fairly austere (as is often the case in fine Japanese restaurants), because the focus is meant to be on the food, as well as on the open picture window that shows the chefs darting around the kitchen during the dinner service

The lighting was excellent, which I appreciate. So many of today’s nice restaurants have dank and forbidding lighting. If I’m going to do an many-course tasting menu at a place like this, I really like it when I can actually see the food. The lighting also made it very easy to take nice-looking photographs of the food, which may even be intentional – without asking, the servers would cheerfully tilt dishes towards my iPhone camera so I could catch a better angle. How vindicating! Chef Narisawa was there in the kitchen, overseeing the dinner service (we watched through the window), and he in fact came out to say hello to us and to ask us if we were enjoying the food midway through our meal.

We arrived for the earliest seating, and behind us were a group of Americans who we were pretty sure were from a band, except none of us were cool enough to know who they were. We’d picked the middle option for the tasting menu, which came out to a dozen courses focused on different Japanese ingredients and regions of the country. The menu is variable and extremely seasonal: we were eating the “Winter Collection,” which differs markedly from what you might be served during other times during the year. . One of us selected the wine pairing, and one of us selected the sake pairing as well: the wine pairing featured exclusively Japanese wines (which were pretty good, but the sakes, unsurprisingly, are better). The sake selection is truly remarkable, and I enjoyed trying varieties I’d never heard of before.

Here’s the “Satoyama Scenery and Essence of the Forest.” The forest bracken on a plate! I loved this. They encourage you to eat this with your hands, much to the horror of some of the usual jerkholes on TripAdvisor. I didn’t actually lick the plate, but I probably could have, if I really had no sense of shame.

This was followed by Japanese Yam from Saga and Botargo from Fukuoka. This was served hot in a sheet of paper, and we ate them fast, which is why I don’t have a photograph. Our waiter told us the dish was meant to evoke the handheld wintery street-food of the chef’s youth. It was a surprisingly delicious, comforting bite, with the fishy quality of the roe matching nicely with the dense, carby yam.

These are skewers of soft-shelled turtle from Shizuoka, brushed with a light teriyaki sauce and with just a bit of buzz from the Japanese equivalent of Sichuan peppercorns. “You are fine with eating turtle?” the waiter asked us at the beginning of the meal, just in case we were turtlephobes. (We were not. We hail from New Orleans, where we take angry, hissing bog turtles and turn them into refined soups).

This was a turnip from Shizuoka was filled with crab from Hokkaido. This was the best turnip I’ve ever had. It made me want to eat more turnips, except I know very well that any turnip I cook will not be filled with butter and Hokkaido crab. All my future turnips shall pale in comparison with this perfect, Ur-Turnip. My turnip life has peaked.

Spanish mackerel from Yamaguchi was served with mixed grains from Gifu. Like the finest high-end breakfast cereal you’ll ever taste. Some unnoticeable detail with the sauce was wrong on my plate, so the waiter apologized profusely and brought me a new one (I hadn’t noticed anything was wrong, so I didn’t ask). Impressive!

This is rosy seabass from Ishikawa served with kombu (seaweed) from Rebun Island off Hokkaido.

Free range chicken from Shizuoka with wild mushrooms from Hokkaido. It is a known thing that a very good restaurant that dares to have chicken on the menu will make exceptionally good chicken. By their chicken, ye shall judge them.

This langoustine hails from Shizuoka and was part of a dish named “Luxury Essence 2007″: the crustacean is served in a truly remarkable broth, which apparently is made from chicken, pork, and ham. It is now among the Two Best Langoustines I’ve Ever Eaten. The first was a langoustine I ate back in 2009 at Extebarri, the famous Basque all-grill restaurant. Eating that was like being punched in the front teeth by a delectably smoky mantis shrimp.

The Narisawa langoustine was totally different from that langoustine, much more subtle and aromatic, but it was equally sublime: eating it was more like being gently caressed by a mantis shrimp. I dismembered my langoustine with extreme throughness. It died for my sins, after all. I also dismembered my mother’s langoustine, as she is not nearly as committed as I am to digging for very tiny pieces of meat inside of multiple layers of hard chitin. I ended up with a fairly large boneyard of langoustine parts on my plate, and a profound sense of happiness with the world, in that particular moment. (How many good langoustines does one life get, I wonder?)

This was eel from Aichi with fresh wasabi from Shizuoka. The eel was delicious, although at this point in the meal we were starting to flag, and it was just a little dry.

This was the piece de resistance, the biggest fanciest thing: the “Sumi 2008” Kobe beef from Hyogo, which is served to you as a gigantic carbonized thing that looks like a space rock from Planet Zarg that might be cursed. It is the most delicious cursed alien space rock you will ever eat. The black charcoal on the exterior of the meat is carbonized leek. I looked up a recipe for the carbonized umami leek dust and I’m pretending I’m going to try to replicate it someday.

The beef was sliced and served to us with a single piece of steamed taro, and a drop of an extraordinarily densely-flavored reduction sauce, with notes of soy and vinegar.

A strawberry from Fukuoka was served with deliciously light magnolia sorbet from Gifu. Intensely essence-of-strawberry flavored here – I loved it. Japan does strawberries much better than anywhere else.

Finally, we were served whiskey ice cream in a whole pear (like the turnip!), with walnuts from Yamagata. The waiter politely told us that we shouldn’t eat the walnuts. I bet they’ve had some fucking guy at Narisawa before who shrugged and tried to eat the walnuts. Tragedy ensured. Christ, don’t eat the walnuts. Please. One of my walnuts rolled on the table, because I am very clumsy and bad at eating, and I had another thought. About the walnuts. Has someone, some déclassé couple perhaps, got into an actual hissing and spitting fight here, right at the point that the walnut course is served? Has anyone yeeted a whole entire walnut at their spouse’s face at Narisawa before? I hope they haven’t, as the restaurant is so nice and the staff are so nice, but you have to wonder, when a place serves people who’ve gone through six or seven wine pairings little hard projectiles on a plate.

Finally, we ended with some subtle tea cookies made with yame matcha from Fukuoka and Azuki beans from Kyoto.
Our meal at Narisawa was incredible, and it was interesting as well. Interesting is the highest compliment i can give a restaurant: I mean that it is a place that works with local ingredients that I have never tried before and does things with them I have never experienced before. It is a perfect way to sample the flavors of Japan at a restaurant that is actively engaging with modern, international food culture.