Twenty-five years ago the idea of mixing Japanese and Western cuisines was tantamount to heresy. A decade or so back it was cutting-edge novelty, embraced (and then almost as quickly disparaged) as “fusion.” These days, in Tokyo at least, it is fast becoming the postmodern standard. And the results can be exceptional — especially in the hands of creative young chefs like Taisei Kushima.
The 31-year-old Kushima is part of a generation for whom Western, most notably Italian, cooking is as familiar as that of his own country. Spaghetti and other pasta are now as integral to the Japanese daily diet as soba or ramen; olive oil is no less readily available than sesame; and balsamico appears little more exotic than kurozu rice vinegar.
It comes naturally to Kushima to blend homegrown herbs and condiments with Mediterranean staples. What sets him apart, though, is his refusal to compromise on quality. This is clear as soon you sit down at Cortesia, his restaurant in Minami-Aoyama, which opened last autumn.
Cortesia is one of those self-effacing places that do little to advertise their presence. There is no Italian flag at the top of the stairs, just a modest sign and simple menu in Japanese. The interior is equally understated. You glimpse the kitchen as you enter, but the dining room has no frills or lacey fripperies, no paintings of angels, just plain walls with warm, recessed lighting. Norah Jones croons in the background, then Miles Davis takes over, but ever so softly. There is nothing to draw your eyes, just your dining companion(s) and Kushima’s estimable cucina.
Some homemade anchovy pastries are served to nibble on as you mull over your choice of wine. The emphasis is on top-end Barolos and big-name Tuscans, although they also have more affordable bottles. But the food here is good enough to warrant a little splurge, such as on the Monile, an excellent “mini-Super Tuscan” in the 9,000 yen range.
“Italian cucina using Japanese ingredients”: This is Kushima’s philosophy, honed from his training at some of Tokyo’s top ristoranti — though interestingly, he has never felt the need to work in Italy itself. One antipasto was sauteed filets of unagi (eel) in a sauce flavored with fragrant green shiso leaf and myoga (the shallotlike vegetable often used as garnish at sushi shops) to balance the forthright flavor of the eel. This was remarkable, but our other starter was even better. Morsels of Akita hinaidori chicken, served on a mound of rice cooked with fresh porcini and topped with a poached egg. The rice was Japanese, cooked soft and moist like maze-gohan, flecked with broken grains of black kurogome rice, like a homegrown alternative to wild rice. Individually delectable, the components were superb in combination.
The porcini — along with the wonderful thick, dark-green, extra-virgin olive oil served with the home-baked bread — are just about the only imported ingredients that Kushima uses. Everything else he sources in Japan. The seafood is straight from the port, as you would expect; the beef is premium wagyu; the vegetables grown to order. More interestingly, he salts his own anchovies and knocks up his tapenades and other condiments in his kitchen. And in autumn, he even goes out to the mountains of Tohoku on his days off, to shoot the wild fowl that have become one of his signature dishes.
He has two kinds of homemade pasta on the menu this month. The tagliatelli is served with fat “Moroccan” green beans and topped with perfectly cooked scampi, cut in two lengthwise. And a hearty, chewy chitara topped with a ragout-style sauce of minced quail made with cream and a hint of fresh tomato.
For the fish course, you can choose from four different cooking techniques for your suzuki (sea bass) — steamed; simmered in a thick sauce; pan fried; or (as we chose) daubed with a coarsely ground black-olive tapenade and charcoal grilled, and served with a colorful variety of crisp pickled vegetables.
Kushima himself declares that meat is his metier. We plan to return in the fall to try his gibiers (wild fowl). In the meantime we were highly satisfied with another of his trademark preparations, his roast hinaidori. Top-grade meat like this requires little seasoning, so — in another touch borrowed from Japanese cooking — he merely dusts it lightly with powdered sansho pepper, the extra piquancy balancing the rich fattiness of the meat. We could easily have eaten twice as many of the wonderful potatoes served with it.
The only area where we were not totally impressed was the dessert course — we prefer our chocolate mousse to be darker, with more body and bitterness. But with a good choice of grappa to round off the meal, we wandered off into the Aoyama evening replete and highly impressed with the way Kushima uses local ingredients and flavors in the Italian idiom. He is a chef to watch over the years to come.
A growing cadre of gastronomes now maintain it’s no longer useful or relevant to compare Italian cooking in Japan with that of its mother country — some even claim that Japanese-Italian is evolving into (or already is) a “regional” cucina in its own right. Here are a few other favorite Tokyo ristoranti where both the food and ambience reflect a distinctive local flavor.
A perennial on our list — and the lists of those who have actually managed to obtain reservations — is Acca, an elegant little restaurant in Hiroo where owner-chef Tosei Hayashi showcases his inventiveness with dishes he learned during five years in Italian kitchens from Calabria up to Lombardy. His signature preparations include carpaccio of white-meat fish and marinated yama-imo (yam) topped with sevruga; a hearty cassoeula of long-simmered pork and cabbage; and a fabulous grilled salsiccia de cinghiale, homemade sausage of wild-boar meat seasoned with paprika, cayenne, garlic and caraway seeds. These are just some of the treats included in Hayashi’s 8,500 yen dinner menu.
Acca, Kyowa Bldg. 1F 5-19-7 Hiroo, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5420-3891. Open noon to 2 p.m. and 6-9 p.m.; closed Mondays. Reservations essential.
Masayuki Terauchi operates on the premise that simplicity is the mother of perfection. All he needs is a charcoal grill, premium olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and pepper — and top-quality ingredients, of course. Every single main dish — be it pork, lamb, beef, chicken, duck or fish — is either roasted or charcoal-grilled. Invariably they are superb. But the reason why we are such big fans is that everything else is kept simple too — the menu, the decor, the absence of BGM, the discouragement of mobile phones. What a pleasure.
Ristorante Terauchi, 1-4-7 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 5414-1808. Open 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. and 6-10 p.m.; closed Sundays.
The chic white-on-white interior at Caminetto is so minimalist it almost hurts, and the menu reflects an equally cutting-edge sensibility. Look out for such cross-cultural delicacies as fritti of edomae anago (conger eel) on a dab of mushroom risotto; scampi with Hokkaido uni (urchin), served with porcini and dusted with garam masala; or spaghettini in a ragu of anko (monkfish), madai (snapper), suzuki and octopus. Why should you be surprised that it all tastes so good? Looking out over the lights of Gaienmae, ambient house the soundtrack, a good Brunello swirling in your glass, here — like nowhere else in the city — Italy meets 21st-century Tokyo head-on.