In a food-crazed megalopolis such as Tokyo – with an estimated 100,000 eateries vying for the attention of your tastebuds – it’s not easy to get noticed. Becoming a dining destination in this Michelin star-studded city takes a special combination of innovation, consistency, technique and flair. Three restaurants that hit all those notes are Signature, Sense and the Tapas Molecular Bar – and all can be found at Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo.
But each in this trio of restaurants is quite different. Signature calls its food ‘French-inspired dining’, which in practice means French, but modern, light and a lot more adventurous than your average haute cuisine. Sense is the hotel’s Modern Cantonese restaurant, upholding the Group’s reputation for the fine dining of its spiritual homeland of Hong Kong. And then there’s the Tapas Molecular Bar, where you dine with a culinary conjuror who loves to reveal all his secrets.
At 37, though looking 10 years younger, Signature’s Chef de Cuisine Olivier Rodriguez has two decades of top-flight experience behind him – including spells at Le Chantecler in Nice, Les Jardins de l’Opera in Toulouse and the legendary Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence – but he credits Tokyo with raising his game. ‘This city is a quality engine,’ he explains. ‘We have so many competitors, so it’s a challenge every day to keep competitive. The customers are educated, they really know about food, and that pushes the level very high.’
There can be few culinary destinations as competitive as Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district and the neighbouring luxury heartland of Ginza, both crammed with landmark eateries and Michelin stars galore. The area also offers one extraordinary resource: the Tsukiji fish market, where the Frenchman indulges his passion for fruits de mer. Being on the doorstep of the world’s largest seafood outlet means Rodriguez can keep a close eye on produce that is as seasonal in Japan as fruit and vegetables are elsewhere.
Green asparagus and truffle salad with Parmesan cheese and Jabugo ham
Sense at Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo has sweeping views of the city
The chef’s experiences in France, Italy and Japan all make it onto the plate at Signature. Though dishes of foie gras, fillet of beef and grilled langoustine leave little doubt about the main influence, the preparation will surprise anyone that still associates French fine dining with large plates and rich sauces.
There is a grilled fatty tuna topped with ratatouille, and melt-in-the-mouth Wagyu steak paired with an ingenious carrot tart that Rodriguez creates with sweet, red Kyoto carrots and techniques more commonly used to make crème brûlée. But as you might expect from a chef born in Toulouse, it is the foie gras that stands out. A staple of the Signature menu, his signature if you will, is a double helping of the pâté: one steamed and gratinated with pistachio, the other pan-fried. They are lighter than your average foie gras, and served on contrasting seasonal sauces and compotes, perhaps beetroot and apple, or mango and lemon. On a recent visit, Rodriguez used two kinds of cherries – a sour morello and a sweet, dark cherry sautéed with prunes and kirsch. It was teamed, impeccably, with a glass of rosé d’un jour, a wine fermented in a single day, offering unmistakable notes of cherry.
Lightly smoked fillet of beef with red wine, scented beetroot cannelloni and chickpea tart
Chef de Cuisine Olivier Rodriguez at work
Every fine French restaurant has its top sommelier, but the relationship between Rodriguez and Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo’s Chef Sommelier Fumihiko Kamo is something special. Kamo might select a bottle to pair with a Rodriguez dish, or the process might begin with the sommelier. ‘It’s really interesting to do,’ says Rodriguez. ‘I get a description of the wine from Mr Kamo, and then I create the dish. He has the same idea as me: with the appetiser the wine is pairing with the dish, then the next wine is contrasting with the dish. With always different regions, different sepage, different textures, different tastes, it’s really fun for the customer.’
Few culinary destinations are quite as competitive
Not every chef could craft a dish to match a wine, nor would every chef want to. Equally, a sommelier has to trust his colleague in the kitchen to leave the pairing in their hands. Rodriguez says it took years to build the relationship, but the sélectionnés par notre sommelier now elicits great feedback from guests – though they may never know whether it was the food or drink that came first.
Guests can also experience Kamo’s wine pairing at Sense, the Modern Cantonese restaurant just a few paces from Signature, though Chef de Cuisine Kenichi Takase leaves the sommelier to work the wine list. Takase has his own selection of shokoshu (Chinese wines) to offer diners, but his real passion is the food.
Takase exemplifies the stereotype of Japanese chef as fastidious perfectionist, striving for authenticity in every detail. As a teenager in the northern Japanese city of Sendai, a part-time job in a local Chinese restaurant sparked a lifelong obsession with Cantonese food, and a lifelong effort to teach his compatriots about it. ‘People in Japan love Chinese food, but there are so many strands of the cuisine – Cantonese, Pekingese, Shanghai – and people don’t usually know the difference,’ he says. ‘In China, it’s different – people see Cantonese food as the very best.’
Takase’s cuisine comes with a rich cultural context and he sees it as his role to spread understanding of that context. He wants you to know that his food is about more than nice flavours and textures. ‘It’s important, of course, for food to be delicious. But that’s not the only important thing. There’s history, culture and the medicinal benefits of the food to consider. I have the chance to introduce the real Cantonese cuisine to my guests.’
I have the chance to introduce real Cantonese cuisine to my guests
Takase cites his seasonal soups as an example of the difference between authentic Cantonese cuisine and popular perception in most of Tokyo. ‘These restaurants have their corn soup or shark’s fin soup, and they never change; but in true Cantonese cooking there is much more variety. A soup of the day should be ever-changing and usually contains medicinal herbs to suit the season,’ he explains. So Sense serves soups fine-tuned to the environment. That means chilled soups in summer, warming broths for winter, and a particular blend of watercress, herbs and chicken gizzards that he says helps regulate those changeable days in between.
The challenge for Sense is to take the classic ideas of Cantonese cuisine and apply them to a different climate and palate. ‘I have to localise many aspects,’ says Takase. ‘In Hong Kong, the food is typically light and delicate – it might even be the lightest of the world’s cuisines. But Japanese people like their food a little stronger and saltier, so I use more seasonings. And conversely, bitter ingredients such as goya [bitter gourd] are enormously popular in Hong Kong for their health benefits, but if you use the same amount of goya in a soup in Japan it will be too bitter, so I use it sparingly.’
Takase says that about 70 per cent of his menu is orthodox and 30 per cent original. Top of the list of classics is Peking duck, and it’s a great example of the perfectionism at Sense. The time, energy and effort required to roast the duck compels many, or most, restaurants to cook the ducks in large batches. Takase insists that the roasting is done daily to ensure the skin crackles and the meat is as juicy and tender as possible. His staff serve the duck in traditional fashion, carving it in front of the diners, first offering a slice of skin with sugar and sweet miso, then slicing the meat for guests to roll in flour crêpes with julienned cucumber and leeks, and that sweet miso. It’s a moreish dish, and luckily there is more. The Lettuce Cup at Sense is a leaf loaded with tiny dice of duck, shiitake, carrots and pine nuts, drizzled in an oyster sauce.
Among the chef’s innovations is a riff on the piquant XO sauce served at high-end Cantonese restaurants. He calls it MOT sauce, after the initials of Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo. It is milder than XO, and contains ingredients that only a Japanese chef would think of, such as bonito shavings and spicy, marinated pollock roe. The presentation is also innovative in the sense that Chinese food is rarely this photogenic. Takase gestures to the restaurant’s décor, suggesting that he has no choice but to keep up with the design. Like Signature, Sense is a 37th-floor restaurant opulently tailored by local interior design star Ryu Kosaka. Both also have floor-to-ceiling windows with sweeping views across Tokyo, an amenity that any restaurant would be proud of.
Kenichi Takase, Chef de Cuisine of Sense
Ryu Kosaka’s highly stylised interior at Sense
The Tapas Molecular Bar is one floor higher, in a lounge that also looks over the city but which seats its guests with their backs to the window. The view for diners here is a 33-year-old chef and his assistant dispensing some of the most innovative, amusing and playful dishes in town.
As the restaurant’s name suggests, this is molecular gastronomy – but American-born Chef de Cuisine Jeff Ramsey prefers to describe what he does as ‘dinner theatre’. ‘Imagine if Cirque du Soleil made food,’ he says. ‘That’s the kind of food we aspire to make.’
While his peers in the world of culinary acrobatics operate in the privacy of their kitchens, Ramsey prepares dishes at a counter in front of his guests, just as sushi chefs do throughout the city. Having spent the first eight years of his career at a sushi counter, Ramsey feels right at home. ‘I’ve only ever worked in front of people, I’ve never worked in a back kitchen,’ he explains. ‘For the last 13 years, always in front of the guests.’
For a chef whose forte is producing dishes that no one has seen, tasted or even dreamed of before, the feedback from face-to-face service is invaluable. ‘You learn to read people,’ he continues. ‘You can tell how much they know about food, and from the way they say something is delicious you can tell what they really think. A normal chef doesn’t have this tool to work with.’
Imagine if Cirque du Soleil made food. That’s the kind of food we aspire to make
The Tapas Molecular Bar space was originally conceived as a sushi counter. At some point post-design and pre-hotel opening, the hotel had a change of heart and asked the young chef if he wouldn’t mind relocating to Tokyo to run the world’s most innovative tapas eatery. It wasn’t a very difficult choice.
The Bar seats just seven people, and serves them a fixed tasting menu of up to 25 dishes. Guests are presented with a list of the dishes, but with names such as ‘Red’, ‘Smoke’ and ‘Langoustine Jim Lambie’ it’s a menu designed to tease rather than inform. The dishes that sound straightforward – ‘Cappuccino’, for example – turn out to be anything but. The Cappuccino at the Tapas Molecular Bar is a puff of candy floss coated in freeze-dried coffee and creamer; the ‘Carrot Caviar’, meanwhile, is carrot juice mixed with sodium alginate and dripped into calcium chloride to form tiny balls of juice that burst in your mouth.
The two men out front, Chef de Cuisine Ramsey and Sous Chef-equivalent, ‘Culinary Engineer’ Koichi Hashimoto, and one assistant behind the scenes, use test tubes, pipettes, liquid nitrogen and dry ice among other tools to create their dishes. For this unusual arsenal of toys, they follow NASA safety standards rather than regular restaurant guidelines.
When Ramsey and Hashimoto present the dishes, usually to the sound of giggles and camera shutters, they explain not only what’s in each one, but also how to eat it. ‘Eat this as quickly as possible’, ‘bite this, then eat that’, ‘chewing makes this dish more enjoyable… and more safe.’
It’s clever. But the Bar didn’t build its reputation just by being clever. Behind all the showmanship, dinner at the Tapas Molecular Bar is surprisingly traditional. Look carefully and you’ll spot the same combination of techniques – frying, grilling, roasting, vinegared – as you would expect at the most formal Japanese restaurant. Also in common with his more traditional counterparts is the fact that Ramsey’s cuisine focuses on seasonal ingredients. ‘In Japan, about a month before the season actually turns, people start to get a craving for certain foods,’ he explains. ‘So in order to satiate them we bring in the same type of ingredients that they would get in restaurants they normally go to, but then flip it.’
‘But it has to taste good and make sense in culinary terms,’ Ramsey assures. ‘It can’t just be “Ooh, it fizzes in my mouth”. It has to all come together. The last thing we want is for people to think we’re just playing with food. We are playing with food, but not just playing with food.’
Guests at the Tapas Molecular Bar may turn up for the fun and games, but they leave with appetites satisfied with fine dining. At Sense and Signature it may be the reverse – customers looking for classic cuisine will be surprised by the fresh, inventive ideas. Diners may arrive with different preconceptions, but the challenge for the chefs is the same: to innovate without losing the essence of what makes a classic dish classic. This could mean fine-tuning the herbs in a soup, or caramelising a carrot, and sometimes it means a pomegranate juice-filled lamb chop whose flavour explodes in your mouth. Whatever the innovation, one thing is certain, Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo’s trio of restaurants shines brightly in this star-filled city.