Poets may talk all they like about mist and mellow fruitfulness, but for us, autumn is above all mushroom season. And this year we have a new favorite place in which to indulge our fondness for fungi: Les Chanterelles.
Open since the beginning of July, this is just the kind of restaurant we love. Set well away from the razzle and bright lights of the inner city in residential Moto-Yoyogi, it has a relaxed neighborhood feel. The scale is intimate (just 16 seats), but the look and the lighting are plenty stylish enough for a serious night out, whether for a date or a celebratory dinner. Most important of all, though, owner-chef Yusuke Nakada’s food is fabulous.
That will come as no surprise to anyone who ever tasted his cooking during his seven-year tenure at L’Artemis in Harajuku, especially in the early days (as extolled in this column in 2006). But now that he’s his own boss — working virtually solo in the kitchen — Nakada is finally free to spread his wings much wider and show us what he’s capable of.
He’s now able to draw far more extensively on his experience at some of the top kitchens in France. For two years before returning to Japan, he worked alongside Regis Marcon, whose restaurant deep in the wilds of Auvergne (now called Restaurant Regis et Jacques Marcon) boasts three Michelin stars and whose cuisine revolves around foods foraged from the surrounding mountains. Marcon’s primary focus is fungi, to the point that he has come to be known as the roi du champignons (mushroom king).
Nakada is quick to stress that unlike his mentor, he is not a ‘shroom specialist — though you’d never believe him from the menu at Les Chanterelles this autumn. He’s using more than half a dozen types, most of them imported from Europe: cepes, pied-bleus (blewits), ink-black trompettes de la mort and fresh, orange-gold chanterelles from France; girolles from Poland; and Canadian matsutake — not to mention generous garnishes of black truffle, to add their woodsy perfume.
At dinner last month, Nakada led off the meal with a dish of those girolles, lightly sauteed with kuruma-ebi prawns and served on a thick, creamy sauce deeply infused with the heady aroma from a mixture of mushrooms. That was just the appetizer, to prime our palates and warm up our stomachs. There was plenty more to follow.
Nakada’s signature hors d’oeuvres is his classic pairing of salmon and egg. The fish (Tasmanian) is marinated and lightly smoked, just enough to deepen the umami savor without overpowering its inherent flavor, then topped with sour cream and a delicate dressing of minced shallots and fresh tomato. On one side he places a perfectly cooked onsen-tamago (lightly poached egg) covered with slices of black truffle; on the other, a small seasonal “salad,” such as bulgur topped with green soybeans, garnished with chrysanthemum petals and yet more truffle.
It’s a fantastic combination, one we remember Nakada serving us years ago. It was great back then but it’s even better now. As we found throughout our meals at Les Chanterelles — we’ve eaten there three times already — he’s cooking not just with finer ingredients but with greater depth and flair.
All his hors d’oeuvres are brilliant, but the pan-fried foie gras is another not to be missed. Encased in a crisp layer of almond and fine panko breadcrumbs, it was served on a bed of soft-cooked beans with a small side salad and a scoop of sweet-savory fig chutney.
Among the main courses, we rated the pan-fried fish (sawara), with its fragrant sauce of fish stock and black trompettes, served with a single large batter-fried chanterelle and a dab of pureed salt-preserved lemon.
We also loved the joue de boeuf (ox cheek), long-simmered till meltingly tender in red wine infused with black pepper and juniper. This too came with a generous serving of mushrooms on the side.
But the absolute highlight was the quail. Stuffed with wild rice and minced mushrooms, then wrapped in bacon and oven baked, it was perfectly matched with half a matsutake mushroom, soft-cooked small sato-imo yams, a light onion puree and one of the richest gravies we’ve had in a long while.
Together with nibbles at the start and home-baked bread rolls to mop up all those delectable juices, the ¥6,800 dinner menu comprises four courses. There is also a lighter three-course menu at ¥4,800. Curiously, dessert is not included (though it is in the top-of-the-line ¥10,000 “chef’s special” menu). If you want to sample Nakada’s excellent simmered fig in Champagne granite or anything else from his dessert list, that will add an extra ¥1,200 to your bill, although it also includes coffee, which comes with a second small sweet.
A full dinner here will never be a cheap evening out. But there is another way to eat just as well for substantially less: The weekend (and holiday) lunch is just ¥2,500 (also ¥3,500 and ¥5,500), including dessert.
That is a real bargain, and one the Yoyogi locals would rather you didn’t know about. But with the vernacular media homing in — and the Michelin inspectors too, no doubt — the word is spreading fast. By yearend, reservations are likely to be at a premium. Book your place at Les Chanterelles while you can.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.foodfile.typepad.com/blog.