Perhaps because eating is such an intimate and essential experience, it can be hard to appreciate all the levels of artistry that go into the production of a remarkable dish. At L’Effervescence, a new restaurant helmed by chef Shinobu Namae, though, it is hard to miss that food here is not simply about sustenance – it’s about a whole delightful world of experience.
Namae has a rich culinary background, starting as an Italian chef but then training for five years with Michel Bras at his eponymous three Michelin star restaurant in Hokkaido before heading to the current holy grail of young, ambitious kitchen masters: The Fat Duck in the UK. Heston Blumenthal, the man behind The Fat Duck, has been tickling people’s gustatory fancies for over five years with multidimensional dishes that appeal to all the senses. Namae studied with Heston for a year, and came away with a true appreciation for his approach, which he seeks to present at L’Effervescence.
“I had never experienced dinning as fun and enjoyable, but Heston’s approach is to make the customers have fun, not just on the palate, but with other senses as well, such as visually and with sound,” explains Namae. “For example, a dish of seafood would be served on a glass plate, revealing real sand on another plate below, and on the side would be an iPod with the sounds of the sea for the dinner to listen to as he ate.”
Namae is also inspired by René Redzepi’s Noma in Copenhagen, which was ranked as the number one restaurant in the world on The S.Pellegrino World’s 50 best restaurants list. There, chefs come out to the table to explain the concepts behind the dishes that they serve.
The dishes at L’Effervescence could well use explanations, as the thoughts behind them are deep and poetic. We were lucky enough to have Namae describe some of the inspirations for dishes that we tried. The young chef tries to imagine presentations that compliment the source of his food: With a main such as sea bass, Namae feels that the fish conjures up a wild image, which he wants to replicate on the plate, so he serves the tender fillet with a crispy skin in a blood-red beet sauce, with homemade fresh cheese and melt-in-your-mouth mango.
For another main, he serves short-horn beef from an Iwate herd of cows that live free range in the mountains half the year, grazing on wild grass. Thus they have a healthy, lean meat, the opposite in appearance to the typical fatty Kobe beef that Japan is known for.
The dish that Namae builds around this flavorful beef is inspired by the feeling of waiting for the spring at the end of winter. Around a thick, perfectly cooked steak is an assortment of pureed parsnip – spread out to look like a snow drift – spicy young wasabi flowers and stems, sweet winter cabbage (the sugar content rises as it is kept cold and protected under the snow) and new spring onions. Trust me, it tastes as good as it sounds, a mix of unusual flavors that bring to life Namae’s wintery vision, skillfully handled ingredients, and a presentation worthy of an artist.
As an appetizer, we tried the foie gras, which was unusually firm and buttery and served with the unexpected sides of peanut skins and small fresh oranges with a ginger and orange sauce. The foie gras is served in the “natural style,” neither cooked nor marinated but topped with large crystals of salt. The dishes is meant to summon the feeling of sitting under a kotatsu, a Japanese heated table, in the winter, snacking on mekon (tangerines), grapes and peanuts, drinking ginger tea, while waiting for the winter to end.
The name of Namae’s 5-month-old restaurant refers to an explosion of power, a place bubbling with loads of energy. “Producing a ‘Wow!’ from the dinner is the target,” says the chef brightly. The goal can also be described less prosaically as serving high quality and surprisingly fun haute cuisine in a relaxing environment.
For Namae, one of the key factors then is giving equal importance to vegetables as to meats, as should be obvious from the dishes above. Namae sources many of his vegetables and herbs from the Nasu plain, which he uses to produce seasonal menus. One of his signature dishes is turnip cooked four hours and served with an Italian parsley sauce and brioche bread crumbs. From Bras in Hokkaido, he learned the importance of how you approach fresh produce.
“He is like an artist when it comes to vegetables,” says Namae with admiration. “Bras is qualified as a specialist that is able to work with 40 types of herbs and 40 different types of vegetables.”
At the Fat Duck, the Japanese chef specialized in desserts, and this shows in a mind-blowing strawberry concoction that we try as a final course. Topped with lime bubbles, the dish is restrained and not too sweet, mixing fresh strawberries with a gelatin of strawberry syrup, tonka bean sorbet and a coconut roll. The roll is prepared with sodium alginate — a trick surely learned at the Fat Duck — that produces a skin around the flavorful coconut juice, that takes you by surprise once you bite into it.
With what Namae has learned from his mentors, and the inspiration that he takes from some of the best chefs in the world, it will be no surprise if this Tokyo chef soon pops into the spotlight with his thoughtfully prepared dishes. Go now before it because impossible to book a seat!
2-26-4 Nishi-azabu, Minato-ku Tokyo, 106-0031
Tel 03-5766-9500 Fax 03-5766-9501