Monday, April 6, 2015

Down the Memory Lane - Re-visiting Hotel de Mikuni

Over the last decade or so we were blessed with many trips to Japan, through cities and villages north and south, and trips that brought us wonderful food memories, from a simple bowl of tonkotsu ramen inside a street-side yatai to the most delicate, eye-opening kaiseki dinner at Michelin-starred restaurant. And this time during our recent Japan trip a few weeks ago, we decided to go back the memory lane to re-visit the very restaurant that started all these, beginning on a cold, rainy Valentine's Day 12 years ago - our first and only real food trip.

Twelve years later, it must still be one of the most bizarre ideas we have had to date - to do a 3-day weekend getaway to Tokyo essentially for one meal and one meal only, at a restaurant called Hotel de Mikuni owned by the legendary Japanese Chef Kiyomi Mikuni in the Yotsuya neighborhood. To be honest, we don't remember much of what we have eaten or drank that evening - another good example why we should take pictures of the food for our record which obviously we didn't do then - but the other details of the meal remained a fond memory of ours, from scrambling to find the place in rather heavy rain, to the most elegant setting once we walked inside, to the attention to details of the service, and oh yes, Chef Mikuni's signature duck dish.

These days Hotel de Mikuni may no longer be the epicenter of the exciting Tokyo dining scene as it was when the restaurant first opened for business in 1985, but Chef's Mikuni's take on combining traditional western cooking techniques with Japanese ingredients and his unique style remain a pioneering idea and an inspiration to a new generation of chefs coming through in Japan and abroad having much success around culinary world in recent years. We are also curious to know how the restaurant now measured up to our palate these days after so many other fine meals we had since then, so this is unarguably the most-anticipated meal of our entire trip.

We made a booking for lunch on a Friday afternoon - the only full day we spent in Tokyo this time. We arrived at the somewhat familiar entrance of the restaurant, set in a classic, cottage-like house in a quiet residential neighborhood after a comfortable 15 minute walk from the closest metro station. Through the door and the open kitchen, we were led to our table in the main dining room already packed with customers. We immediately fell in love with the space and table settings, completed with high ceiling, natural light beaming through the windows, chinaware with floral motif and neatly done flower arrangement on our table and throughout the room.

As we settled, the waiter came to explain the menu for us, which was the 6-course set lunch with dishes changed regularly, and while we were busy studying the wine menu, a glass of fizzy yuzu drink was served as aperitif. Our lunch got off to an interesting start with a small slice of quiche served as amuse-bouche - it's perfectly baked with fluffy crust and a rich, creamy custard. A textbook example of something simple yet superbly done.

But nothing compared to the dishes that came after - it's nothing short of an eye-opening experience with something we have never seen or tasted. Our first course was a colorful dish of lobster with a unique combination of flavors. The lobster was gently seared and coated with aspic of americaine sauce, served on a bed of a trio of thinly sliced daikon pickled into 3 different colors, pieces of deep-fried Hanakkori from Yamaguchi prefecture - a cross-breed between broccoli and nanohana (mustard greens) - and sprouts of benitade, red water pepper commonly used for garnishes in Japanese cuisine. My favorite bit was the fried Hanakkori revealing a hint of mustard and smoky flavors, offering an unique contrast to the slightly sweet Americaine sauce, a classic accompaniment to lobster in French cooking.

We continued with another seafood course. Fillet of Hanadai, or crimson sea bream from Kagoshima, was seared/grilled and served with a capers sauce, a thick slice of bamboo shoot braised with pig foot ragout, medley of sansai (mountain vegetables) and a bed of champagne vinaigrette jelly. The champagne jelly has a racy acidity by itself, but somehow balanced out by the rich, gelatinous ragout and fresh, crunchy bamboo shoot, offering a hint of clean, refreshing taste which worked well with the fish with crispy skin in a briny, caper sauce. The combination of many textures and tastes was impeccable and I reckon this is a great hot-weather, summer dish that simulates one's appetite.

I was secretly hoping for a duck main course for nostalgia's sake, but instead we got pork this time - c'est la vie. A piece of Ebetsu pork chop from Hokkaido was pounded to a thin cutlet, coated with black sesame and pan-fried. On the side was risotto made with Japanese five-grain rice with black daikon (a special breed of radish with dark skin) and black garlic sauce from Aomori. Once again, very interesting combination of ingredients and typical Mikuni style. I couldn't even work out whether this is French inspired Japanese or the other way round, but who cares - it was excellent. The course was well-balanced - rich but not overbearing - and the pork was tender and with good portion of fat.

The cheese course was done unmistakably Japanese style. A bowl of soft cheese from Hokkaido was served with dried Japanese kumquat and zest. In a sense it's more like a creamy yoghurt or panna cotta as palate cleanser than being a cheese course in the most traditional sense. It turned out to be fine given the heavy course we had right before. Then two desserts were served - first a floating island with cold strawberry soup surrounded by thin slices of strawberries on the side, followed by a "mont-blanc" made with Narutokintoki (sweet potato from Tokushima) with Shochu-infused Creme Chantilly. Both of them delicious, but I liked the latter better, impressed by the use of shochu fermented with sweet potato in a creamy dessert made with sweet potato. Why would anyone else not think of such an idea before?

Finally we finished the meal with a cup of tea made with house-grown herbs and a trio of petit fours - a small yuzu tart, a biscotti and a matcha macaron, all of which a bit predictable compared to other dishes but nonetheless delightful.

Having no idea what our dishes were like I reached out to the sommelier for help with our wine selection. With only us two eating did create a small challenge - it's hard to find one bottle that matched all the food but then 2 full bottles seem to be a bit too much. Luckily the restaurant did have a good half-bottle selection so we ended up with something light to start and finished with something richer - and I love both selections with our dishes based on the sommelier's recommendations. The Bruno Paillard rose was elegant and feminine, reminiscent of a sweet milk bread rather than being super toasty and the Chateauneuf du Pape from Domaine de Beaurenard had a great nose of herbs - shiso was one that came to my mind - and a slight hint of smoke, and big enough to stand against the heavy pork dish.

Before we left home, I brought along a copy of a photo we took last time at the door of the restaurant, and after our meal, we showed the waiter the picture and asked him to take another one for us at the exact same spot. It's funny to see how things changed between the two pictures - to start, we probably "grew" at least 2 sizes since then not to mention being a decade older - but we were glad to have made this nostalgic pilgrimage back to the first chapter of our food journey. Another piece of wonderful memory from the meal at this fine restaurant, and I hope it won't take us another decade before we return here to experience the wonderful cooking of Chef Kiyomi Mikuni.

More pictures in

When? March 27 2015
Where? Hotel de Mikuni, 1-18 Wakaba, Shinjuku, Tokyo 東京都新宿区若葉1-18
Menu Highlights?
"Hanadai" grille aux capres salees, garni de pousses de bambou braisees et ragout de pied de porc, "Sansai" frits, a la vinaigrette de champagne
Bruno Paillard Brut Rose Premiere Cuvee NV
Domaine de Beaurenard Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2009

(Part of the Japan Rail Trip 2015 Series - a journey through the Tohoku region by rail in Spring 2015)

1 comment :

Peech said...

Hotel Mikuni will always have a special place in my memories, being the first fine dining French restaurants I ever visited in the late 90s... where I took an ex-colleague on a date because her then-boyfriend (now husband) would never have spent the money.

It was also where I ordered an appetizer for around JPY 14,000. The description said it was black truffle and pâté de foie gras baked in a brioche. As it turned out, in the center of the brioche was a WHOLE black truffle, surrounded by a thin layer of foie gras pâte dotted with finely chopped black truffle. I had never eaten a whole black truffle before, and it was completely decadent.


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