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Le Dessin: Designs for both palate and palette

by Robbie Swinnerton

It was one of those hot tips that come our way from time to time. This one, though, was delivered with a caveat: “A fantastic little French place, as good as any in town for the price; but the location’s so obscure no one knows about it. It’s called Le Dessin.”

We certainly hadn’t heard of it — nor even of Ushigome-Yanagicho, the nearest subway station. But our interest was piqued. Within days we had a table booked and were scanning our maps of the Oedo Line and nether Shinjuku Ward. We were also keeping our fingers crossed that the journey would be worth it.

The recommendation was right on the button. Even if you lived nearby, you’d probably call the neighborhood obscure. And you’d need to have a keen eye to guess that anything of great interest lay behind Le Dessin’s unassuming frontage, with its anonymous door opening onto an unlovely stretch of Okubo-dori.

There’s no denying it’s small, either. The cozy dining room has just space enough for seven petite tables. But this is intentional. It’s not just a matter of comfort; this is the maximum number of people that the kitchen can cater to.

That’s because Le Dessin’s chef, Toshiaki Masuda, works entirely solo. Everything in the kitchen, as compact as a ship’s galley, he does himself — from prep work and bread baking to cleaning up the spotless space. And taking care of everything in the front of house is his wife.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a typical pop-and-mom diner. It may seem modest in scale, but this is not just another basic bistro. Le Dessin is a full-fledged restaurant, with no corners cut but also a total lack of pretension. And Masuda is a true chef, one who cooks for the love of it.

You can tell by the amount of attention and creativity he lavishes on every dish. One of his signature starters is his vegetable terrine, a densely packed tranche of seasonal vegetables set in aspic, cut in cross-section and wrapped in a thin layer of pink ham. It’s arranged exquisitely on the plate, with extra veggies on the side and swooshes of sauce in vivid greens, oranges and earth browns, with flavors as intense as the colors.

This was one of the opening courses we were served at a leisurely lunch a couple of Saturdays ago. Masuda doesn’t bother to open for lunch on weekdays, partly because there are so few people around in this area, but mainly he doesn’t want to be rushed and have to cut corners. On weekends, though, he has time to pull out the stops. Whether you order the three-course menu (¥1,950) or four (¥2,800), you can expect to spend a couple of hours at the table.

Dinner at Le Dessin is equally impressive and even better value (¥4,300 for four courses; ¥5,500 for five). You should definitely arrive hungry, but not impatiently so, as there will be long lulls between courses, especially when all the tables are full (as they invariably are). This is classic Slow Food dining — an opportunity to sit back and settle in, order another bottle of wine and indulge in some good conversation (or bring a book).

There is nothing that we’ve been served that we haven’t loved, but a few dishes have been outstanding. One of those was Masuda’s savory foie gras creme bru^lee. The egg custard itself is unsweetened, but the morsels of rich duck liver hidden inside are perfectly complemented by the caramel crust, torched crystalline and bittersweet. It’s an outrageous confection and not to be missed.

Nor is Masuda’s rack of lamb — another of his classics. The meat is packed in a mix of rice, mushrooms and ground walnuts, with the bone protruding from the top. This is baked till it’s crisp on the outside but still rare and juicy on the interior, perfectly matched with a seed mustard gravy and baby green asparagus stems bound together to form beautiful green sheaves.

There’s one more dish that has lingered in the memory ever since our very first visit to Le Dessin in the warmth of early summer last year. It was a delicate gazpacho verde, prepared from cucumber and tomato so finely sieved it had not a trace of red in it, and with only the lightest accent of garlic. Served in a small bowl of frosted glass, it had a spiral of vermicelli rising like a volcano in the center, topped with a whole prawn, bright red and deep-fried crisp. When the warm weather returns, we’ll be back in the hope that Masuda will be serving this again.

In French, dessin means “design” or “sketch,” a motif echoed by the drawings on the wall (all by Masuda himself) and the platters in the shape of a painter’s palette. But the name is too modest by far. The finest of Masuda’s dishes are compositions of real artistry.