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L’Effervescence: Artisan cuisine that looks as beautiful as it tastes

by Robbie Swinnerton

The bubbly season is upon us. The illuminations and Christmas music have been with us for weeks already, but now we’re into December, it’s high time to think about where to uncork a quiet commemorative bottle or two. Somewhere special and secluded, with plush service and, most crucially, fabulous food to go with it: Time to book a table at L’Effervescence.

If you’ve not heard of it, you’re not the only one. L’Effervescence has got to be one of Tokyo’s best-kept secrets. Open for just over a year now, it’s only a minute’s walk from the heart of Nishi-Azabu, but hidden among low-rise residential housing, its entrance set back so far from the street you hardly notice it’s there.

Like its predecessor at this same location, the busy, buzzy Citabria, there is a sense of exclusivity, of being a place for those in the know. What is different — and the reason we will not miss Citabria — is the cooking. There is no attempt now to woo the hip crowd: At L’Effervescence, the wow factor is all on the menu.

If you knew the place in that previous incarnation, you will find the decor has been toned down but the layout inside little changed: the large lounge by the door for relaxing before or after your meal; the semi-private alcoves in the dining room, dressed with metallic mesh curtains; the private basement chamber where you can watch the kitchen at work. And what work it is: Head chef Shinobu Namae serves some of the finest high-end contemporary French cuisine in town.

His food is inventive, precise and highly accomplished. He cut his culinary teeth working with French superchef Michel Bras, both at his Hokkaido outpost at Lake Toya and also in France. The influence is especially pronounced in the emphasis Namae gives to organic vegetables.

His signature dish is his wonderful whole-cooked turnips. The golf-ball-sized vegetables are cooked ultra-low and slow for four hours (not oven-roasted, we were told, but cooked using a “secret special process”), until they’re soft but firm, retaining much of the original texture and flavor. Cut into halves and pan-fried, they are served with a bright-green emulsion sauce of parsley.

Namae also spent a couple of years under British chef Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck, the acclaimed, three-Michelin-starred restaurant just outside London, working as both sous-chef and pastry chef. The influences are subtle but delightful, from the evocation of childhood taste memories — in Namae’s case, the scalding apple pie he used to bite into at a certain major fast-food restaurant chain — to the playful desserts incorporating both visual and taste double-takes.

On our first visit to L’Effervescence, which this week was awarded a star in Michelin’s “Red Guide: Tokyo Yokohama Kamakura,” we were blown away by the range and complexity of the dishes, even in the basic lunch (a choice of two separate menus, each ¥4,800; there’s also a ¥7,500 option). Returning recently for dinner (the chef’s tasting menu; 12 items, ¥15,740), we knew what to expect, but that only heightened our enjoyment. The evening was punctuated throughout by a series of highlights.

After three separate appetizers, including that “apple pie” (chicken and foie gras are the main ingredients), our turnip course arrived. Compared with our previous visit, when the weather was warm, there was a distinct extra level of sweetness in the root vegetable. In the depths of winter it will taste sweeter still.

For our fish course, fillets of flounder, slow-cooked tender but still full-textured, were accompanied by a tremendous sauce made from pureed mussels from Mont Saint-Michel in France, bringing the perfume of the ocean to our mouths. Served with orange chanterelle mushrooms and morsels of starchy white yurine (lily bulb), this was outstanding.

It was followed by another hands-down winner: A generous slab of smooth, rich foie gras cooked au naturel, just seasoned with a little salt to allow the full depth of flavor to shine through. Presented on a sheet of black slate, it looked brilliant, with small disks of nashi pear and dabs of sour cream (referencing the bubbles in the restaurant’s logo), a light glaze of rose syrup and a scattering of pink peppercorns.

An intriguing palate-cleanser of oolong tea led us into the meat course: roast French pigeon, rare and still oozing red, but again cooked perfectly and served with an intense parsnip puree, white haricot beans and a garnish of Agen prunes and wild pepper. When Namae introduces his winter menu (from Dec. 8), he will change this course to lean Iwate beef. It will surely be good, but it can’t be any more delectable than this was.

His desserts are a treat for the eyes. Keep your fingers crossed he is still serving his gorgeous apple butterflies, his “light-as-air” Mont Blanc and the lemon curd “paint” that is just one of the many little mignardises nibbles that come with coffee at the end. These form the denouement for a meal that leaves your senses approaching overload.

As with all tasting menus, the conundrum is how to pick the right wine from the substantial cellar (mostly French; a few Californian; enough bottles under ¥10,000 not to embarrass those of us with less spending power) to go with such a varied succession of foods. We took the easy route, the wine tasting menu (¥3,500 for three glasses, ¥4,500 for four, ¥5,500 for five), and had no complaints at all.

By the end of your meal, the aptness of the name becomes clear. The effervescence lies not in the restaurant itself — no amount of champagne will make it feel any less sedate and serious — nor in the utterly professional service. It derives from Namae’s remarkable cuisine, and the lingering lightness of being you feel as you float out into the night.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.foodfile.typepad.com/blog.