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Restaurant J: A favorite chef’s inspired return

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Fantastic news: Restaurant J has returned. After a gap of over four years, one of our most talented chefs, Masahito Ueki, is back in action in Tokyo.

For longtime readers of this column, Ueki will need little introduction. Over the last 11 years, we have followed his progress from Tableaux to Stellato (from its very opening) and thence to the original Restaurant J, a superb little contemporary bistro that many (the Food File included) still rate among their all-time favorites.

Now, after an unforgivably long absence in self-imposed exile up in Nagano Prefecture, as executive chef of Masaa’s in Karuizawa, here he is again. And he’s raised the ante one more time. Those hoping for a reprise of the old J — chic but slightly scuffed around the edges; superb value for special occasions — will need to adjust their expectations several notches upmarket.

No obscure off-off-Omotesando location for him this time: The new J is firmly in the heart of the mainstream. He has taken over the restaurant above (and formerly operated by) Enoteca wine store in Hiroo, just steps away from Arisugawa Park and the National-Azabu store. It’s early days yet — J only opened for business in the first week of October — but this venue could be a perfect match.

The main dining room is formal and crisp, filled with sunlight at lunchtime, more subtly lit in the evening. There are also a couple of small side rooms for more private occasions, and a handful of outside tables on a sunny, secluded veranda. Wherever, this is a place to get dressed up for. The food is definitely worth it.

No longer constrained by a cramped kitchen or a shoestring budget, Ueki is producing brilliant, expansive meals well worthy of the plush, capacious surroundings. He has moved away from the Pacific Rim influences of his early career. What he’s cooking now is quintessential modern cuisine, French-based but with his own clear stamp on it. Finally, he says, he’s creating the kind of food he’s always aimed for.

Using super-fresh seasonal ingredients is a non-negotiable for any high-end chef. But Ueki, even more than most, is focusing on the vegetable kingdom, often using indigenous varieties rarely found outside of Japanese cuisine. This came about from the years he spent in Nagano Prefecture, where he was working directly with the market gardeners whose produce — grown organically, naturally — he was cooking daily.

Vegetables play a prominent role throughout his meals, from the first amuse bouche taste-teaser to the final dessert, as we found out at a memorable dinner we had at Restaurant J a couple of weeks back.

Our appetizers, served on a chunky square platter of thick handmade glass, featured three separate, contrasting elements. Pride of place was given to a terrine of lightly cooked vegetables as colorful as a painting, a cross section of kabu turnips, purple beni-azuma yam, yellow and orange carrots, dark-jade greens, all lightly pressed within a thin outer membrane of marinated daikon.

Besides this was a spear of zuiki (the fleshy, fibrous stem of the full-grown sato-imo yam), as thick and tender as asparagus but infused with a gently tart vinegar marinade. Draped over this stem was a cut of white fish sashimi, scattered with multicolored petals and dotted with little pearls of piquant green wasabi.

At the back, a rolled slice of smoked venison, like a soft jerky, its deep red color echoed by the swirl of a purple sauce prepared from fresh basil and red beet. And for further decoration, the deep emerald swoosh of a sauce prepared from komatsuna greens. It looked too beautiful to eat; it tasted far too good not to.

Equally complex, in terms of both flavor and color, was a dish of pan-fried foie gras. The rich duck liver was topped with deep-fried goma-dofu, a cube of creamy black sesame custard in a golden casing, anointed with a tart jam of fresh blueberries and balsamic vinegar. This was served on a large tree leaf of bright scarlet speckled with green, glistening jewel-like against the gleaming white plate underneath.

Ueki has never been afraid to incorporate Japanese ingredients into his cuisine, but now they are no longer relegated to the subsidiary role of mere garnishes. One of our main courses was a generous cut of venison wrapped in a sheet of yuba (soymilk skin). Infused with the dark jus served with the tender meat, it added an intriguing extra layer of texture to the dish, combining beautifully with the mushrooms and gleaming-green fresh ginkgo nuts served alongside it.

There were many highlights throughout the meal, but the one that has lingered longest in our memory was the charcoal-grilled ise-ebi lobster. Balanced on the open crustacean was a large, moist ravioli stuffed with fine-chopped forest mushrooms, moistened with a saffron-curry sauce of vivid yellow and topped with a cloud of white foam. Adding to the visual impact, this was brought to the table on a transparent Perspex platter in which a long sprig of rosemary was embedded. Stunning.

Two items from the dessert course were also outstanding. One, a small slice of baked cheesecake pierced with lengths of candied burdock root and decorated with tiny flakes of crystallized pumpkin. The other a creamy bavarois made (though you certainly couldn’t tell by tasting) from daikon and served with a sauce of Tasmanian pepper berry and vanilla.

Overall, the flavors are as subtle as the exquisite presentation. Since our visit, Ueki has introduced a new winter menu, with plenty of choice of gibiers, meats from animals caught in the wild and delivered straight from the hunters. Besides the Hokkaido ezo-jika venison we enjoyed, he also serves mallard from the Nagano uplands of Shinshu and wild boar from the forests of the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture.

There is good news for non-meat- eaters, too. Ueki says he is ready and able to prepare equally dynamic full-course dinners that are entirely vegetarian — if booked a few days in advance. And he already features a vegetarian option on the regular lunch menu.

An evening at J does not necessarily entail a major outlay. Even the simplest dinner menu (¥4,800) is a complex multi-course affair, and there is a good selection of wines by the glass. Ditto at midday. You will eat three good courses for ¥2,800; and the simple ¥1,500 “one-plate” lunch is great value.

But this is a place where you will want to linger, to slowly savor Ueki’s creations. It’s a place for celebrations — and he will be marking the upcoming festive season with a special Christmas menu. For us, though, we are already celebrating his return and the phoenix-like rebirth of Restaurant J.