Aronia de Takazawa
Aronia de Takazawa: "New French" restaurant in Akasaka, Tokyo
Reviewed by Lukas Kratochvil
The best meal of my life, enthused a reporter of The Sunday Times. One of the top ten life-changing restaurants, alongside established gourmet palaces like The Fat Duck or El Bulli, declared foodandwine.com The foreign press has bestowed many such accolades upon Aronia de Takazawa, a tiny, two table restaurant in a narrow side street in Akasaka run by a husband and wife team. You will be pleased to know that the hype is justified.
Aronia de Takazawa defies classification. Yoshiaki Takazawa, Aronia's young chef, calls it New French,' but the reality is less simple than that. Using cutting edge techniques and working with quality ingredients from many of Japan's regions, Takazawa has created a modern and genuinely original cuisine which will surprise, dazzle and delight any curious palate.
Aronia is hidden behind a white door with the name barely visible on the door handle; the Takazawas are nothing if not discreet. Once up the narrow staircase, we are greeted by Akiko, the chef's wife, and The Man himself, perched behind an ultra-modern, stainless steel work station.
I would normally only describe the highlights of the evening, but at Aronia, every dish is a highlight.
We started off with a trio of amuse bouche of kumquat with uni (sea urchin) and edible flower petals, a bowl of deep fried shirano (a small, white-fleshed fish) and a delicate, juicy cut of lightly vinegared sardine in oil. The textures and flavors of the three dishes harmonized beautifully. In particular, the kumquat's sweet and tart, citrusy flavor combined wonderfully with the fresh, creamy caramel-like uni.
Along with the amuse bouche, we were served Takazawa's warm signature homemade bread baked using bamboo charcoal powder, accompanied by pork rillettes from Okinawa, an area famous for its pork, and a choice of macadamia oil ("good for the brain" says Akiko) or flax seed oil. I took the hint and opted for the opulent, nutty macadamia oil. It went superbly with the sweetness of the freshly baked bread.
After the amuse bouche, our seven course extravaganza began. At Aronia, all dishes carry sometimes poetic and often misleading titles, keeping you guessing until Akiko ends the suspense and explains both ingredients and techniques employed.
The first course was Takazawa's signature dish, Ratatouille. No mere vegetable stew, it is a bite-sized mosaic of 25 vegetable cubes, each marinated in a different way and served with a solitary flake of Maldon salt a sublime combination of colours and flavours you will not forget in a hurry.
Next up: Emilio Pucci, named after the textile designer and his colorful patterns, recreated with multi-coloured daikon (radish). Here, guinea fowl tataki (seared raw meat) was topped with shiso (perilla) flower and yuzu dressing. The seared skin had a beautifully charred flavour, the meat was tender and subtle, the shiso flower provided a minty freshness and the tartness of the yuzu cut through the fat.
Another aesthetically pleasing dish was "Hymalaya" (sic). Seared, sweet scallop from Hokkaido with aged balsamic vinegar and freshly shaved black truffle was served on a block of Himalayan rock salt mixed with magma, emitting the sulfuric smell of natural hot springs. The saltiness of the rock salt contrasted well with the sweetness of the scallop and the balsamic vinegar, although the sulfuric element was a bit too strong for my liking. A primarily visual dish.
"Yukidoke," or 'melting snow' recreated a cosy winter landscape - beautifully. Parmiggiano and sesame oil, the latter treated with liquid nitrogen to make it powdery, represented the snow flakes. The sesame oil flakes slowly melted on the miso and truffle soil. The scene also featured a plump, juicy piece of buri (yellowtail), deep fried sansai (mountain vegetables) and lilibuds. This mesmerizing dish engaged all senses, showcasing the chef's culinary and visual creativity in equal measure.
We had already witnessed a virtuoso performance by chef Takazawa, but the crescendo was yet to come. It arrived in two parts.
Part 1 - Tachiuo Choucroute: tachiuo (a Japanese white-fleshed fish), red cabbage puree cooked with clear tomato soup and a hint of vinegar, crispy bacon, petite belle, deep fried leaves and smoke-flavoured foam. The bacon and smoke flavours combined well with the juicy, delicate fish without overpowering it. The vinegary zing of the cabbage puree cut through the fat of the bacon and the deep fried leaves were sweet, crispy and juicy at the same time. Truly memorable.
Part 2 - Forest in Winter: cubes of medium rare saga beef sirloin, bamboo, deep-fried broccoli, shiitake and nameko mushrooms and tender burdock on a piece of hollowed-out cork tree all covered in flame-blasted pine branches for a wonderfully deep smell of forest enveloping the dish. The beef was full-flavoured and intense, its buttery texture melting in the mouth. The woodsy, slightly smoked and buttery flavour of the bamboo harmonized well with the salty broccoli and salty beef, and contrasted with the sweetness of the burdock, which had been pressure-cooked in a broth of sugar, soy sauce and mirin.
We closed with "Chocolate and Banana." On a bed of powdery banana ice cream treated with liquid nitrogen, we found 7 chocolate pods, liquid inside, and held together by a gelatinous skin. Each pod had a different powdery topping: truffle, mint, coffee, salt, yuzu, nuts and matcha (Japanese green tea). The seven flavours each harmonized perfectly with the chocolate, culminating in seven delicious explosions of flavour.
We ended with one of twelve teas, all named after their properties. I opted for the beauty tea,' the lack of transformation of my outer charms being the only let-down of the night.
The wine list at Aronia deserves special mention. While the restaurant cultivates a small but very fine selection of French wines, Takazawa's pride is his exquisite selection of Japanese wines. Most Japanese wines are at best underwhelming. However, a small number of premium wines are very impressive. In addition to Koshu, the main indigenous white grape variety, and a host of other, unspectacular domestic varieties, Japan produces some excellent Chardonnays and Merlots.
Japanese Chardonnays can be particularly impressive. They vary tremendously in style, from austere, lean, unoaked and elegant offerings to powerful California-style wines brimming with toasty, buttery oak, and anything in between. Our Yama no Chardonnay 2005 from Coco Farm & Winery was a tremendously balanced Chardonnay with well-integrated, subtle oak and elegant fruit reminding me of a classy Burgundy such as Puligny Montrachet. Indeed, the price did almost match that of a decent Puligny Montrachet.
Aronia is not cheap; the choice is between a 7, 9 or 11 course menu at 16,000, 20,000 and 24,000 yen. The Japanese wines are between 10,000 and 20,000 yen per bottle. However, it is an acceptable price to pay for a meal that will leave you feeling that your culinary horizon has expanded beyond anything you had thought possible.