When I visit a country, I like to eat only the traditional local cuisine. Traveling to New York to eat Chinese food is as pointless as paying entrance fees to the zoo to see pigeons. (That said, Chinese food in New York is pretty good, because Hong Kong chefs migrated there during 1997.)
But for my recent trip to Tokyo, my doctor friends and Japanese friends highly recommended a French restaurant: L’effervescence. Oh yeah, the Michelin Guide recommends it too, giving it two stars.
My friends convinced me, “Nowhere else in the world can you find Japanese interpretation of what French food is. And you know the Japanese, they excel in everything, they can out-French the French.”
And it turned out to be one of the best dining experiences in Tokyo.
Chef Shinobu Namae, who studied under Michel Bras and Heston Blumenthal, uses European techniques on seasonal and rare Japanese ingredients to create set menus. The dinner set starts from ¥18,000; and naturally, being leisurely travellers, it is best to go for the more affordable 6-course lunch at ¥7,000. Reservation is a must as it was full house when we were there.
When I stepped in the restaurant, I said to myself, “SHIT.” I was unprepared for how elegant the restaurant is. It is situated within a house, residential-like, very quiet. The moment we entered, the receptionist asked if she could take our bags and store them.
We were led into a beautiful space, dimly lit, where every Japanese customer was wearing a jacket—except us. (I was wearing a tee-shirt. Yikes.) Padded tables are covered with white table cloth, a rare sight in Singapore these days. One side is a complete full-panel glass, looking into a tranquil, long, and narrow Japanese garden. This is a proper fine-dining restaurant.
Although we were extremely embarrassed that we were underdressed, the service staff were nothing but courteous, polite, and comforting. I could be naked and they would still pretend I’m wearing Tom Ford. The service is nothing short of astounding; I give them 11/10. (Note how the busboys carry the food; they lift the food at their eye level as a form of respect to the food.)
There is, however, something peculiar about the restaurant: the wines. They don’t have a wine menu. Most people go for wine-pairing until they tell the sommelier to stop; with each new dish, you get a new glass of wine. I only wanted one solid glass of wine since I am almost a teetotaler, but unfortunately, I didn’t know how to communicate this to the sommelier.
The lunch menu has two choices, named “Through the pathway” and “When the Ocean Meets the Land.” Only Japanese can come up with this airy fairy stuff and get away with it. Instead of rolling my eyes and lamenting how pretentious it is—do you really have to name the set menu A and set menu B?—I said to my partner, “WOW. This is so poetic. The dishes in the menu go with the theme of the menu.”
“Through the Pathway” represents walking in a forest or a garden, and has more greens on the menu (it still has meat); whereas “When the Ocean Meets the Land” has elements of sea and land in each dish. Even each dish has its own name; both menus have a dish named “A Fixed Point,” which makes absolute sense because there is always a fixed point on a pathway or where the ocean meets the land. This is genius, this is artistry.
Normally, one would assume that a menu of seafood and meat is better than a menu of greens, but not in this case; Chef Namae does vegetables and seafood very well.
“Through the Pathway” presents a better, lighter, more subtle menu. The main course in this menu is called “from an idea of apple pie.” (Get it? The garden pathway has apples.) It’s actually more like a fisherman’s pie, with salmon, roe, amaebi shrimp. The pie is great but the salad surrounding it is even better; it has 51 types of vegetables.
There are two areas that needed work: firstly, the “small” dishes made more impact than the mains. We were blown away by the amuse bouche and appetizers; they are umami, explosive with flavors. But the mains are more subdued, turning into an anticlimax. That said, this is a problem with most fine-dining restaurants, because mains usually have a focal piece and it’s hard to work complexity into it.
Secondly, the signature dish, 4 hour slow cooked turnip, does not live up to its name. When sliced, it gives off too much liquid, which dilutes the parsley sauce. By itself, it’s just a turnip. It’s a very Japanese philosophy, to appreciate things in its simplicity, but we couldn’t get into it.
If there is a slack in the signature dish, then the desserts definitely pick things up. Chef Namae was a pastry chef under Blumenthal for a year, so the desserts are textured and complex.
This is a beautiful and unforgettable meal that starts well and ends well. The sommelier walked us out of the restaurant and stood at the gate to watch us walk down the long lane. Mr Fitness said, “He’s still standing there and looking at us.”
I turned around, and the sommelier bowed.
“Stop turning around,” Mr Fitness said. “He will keep bowing when you turn around.”
As we turned the corner, I couldn’t resist turning around for one last look. He bowed as we disappeared from his sight.
2-26-4 Nishiazabu Minato-ku Tokyo 106-0031
12pm-1.30pm, 6pm-8.30pm, closed Sun & M
Written by A. Nathanael Ho.