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Takazawa: food for all the senses

by Robbie Swinnerton

Ever since chef Yoshiaki Takazawa opened his bijou restaurant back in 2005, it has been one of Tokyo’s most intriguing secrets, more talked about than actually visited. Lauded more loudly abroad than here in Japan, its mystique has been fueled by the setting, the scale and a palpable sense of exclusivity.

The legend has grown with the telling. Takazawa has only three tables and serves a maximum of 10 people each evening (initially it was just eight people at two tables). Working virtually solo, the chef prepares protracted banquets of complexity and flair. The experience is intimate and theatrical and, for some at least, transcendental.

After seven years, though, it was time for some changes, starting most notably with the name on the door. Since May, instead of being called Aronia de Takazawa — evoking a small, humble but highly nutritious native American berry — it is now simple and eponymous.

The location and look are much the same as ever. On a nondescript backstreet in Akasaka, you find a sleek door (now glass in place of plain metal) set into a sheer gray concrete wall. A flight of stairs leads you up to a small square chamber so precisely illuminated you could be in a high-end art gallery.

Three walls are lined with wood paneling; the fourth holds an imposing counter of polished steel. This is Takazawa’s front kitchen. Part laboratory, part stage, it is where he performs his alchemy each evening, putting the final touches to the elaborate succession of courses.

Everything gleams with precision and intent, but the atmosphere is anything but impersonal. Chef Takazawa’s wife, Akiko, greets and serves everyone with warmth and charm, explaining everything in fluent English when necessary. It’s impossible not to feel at ease.

She explains the recent changes like this: “We wanted to give our love to Japan, to focus more on Japanese ingredients, flavors and techniques.” This translates to greater use of lacquerware and local ceramics, chopsticks on the table rather than knives and forks, and even stronger support for local farmers.

As with the new name, the evolution in Takazawa’s cooking is subtle. It has always straddled the cusp between French and Japanese: Longtime readers of this column may remember him from his time at the helm of Studio J in Roppongi, and before that at Restaurant J. Earlier in his career, he worked in a kaiseki restaurant and a yakitori shop. Now the local influences are more pronounced then ever.

Both sides were in evidence with our amuse-bouches: first a taster of warm cauliflower soup, presented as three small balls in molecular style; next a crisp senbei-style cracker made from konbu seaweed and dried seafood; and then a miniature plant pot in which tiny herbs and root vegetables were planted in edible “earth,” a miso-sesame mayonnaise topped with crispy bread crumbs.

The same to-and-fro of influences continued throughout the rest of the dinner: 11 exquisitely arranged courses, all beautifully constructed with imagination and often wit. From the ratatouille, a terrine of vegetables in a multicolored mosaic that has been one of Takazawa’s signature dishes since he opened, through to the final dessert, the meal unfolds with numerous peaks and very few dips in creativity or flavor.

The first highlight was a dish simply named Sea. We were each served a rock-pool selection of percebes barnacles (from northern Kyoto); a tiny pink crab, crunchy but easily eaten whole; tender sashimi cuts of hon-mirugai clam; a single shiro-hamaguri clam cooked in fish sauce; and strands of crunchy Okinawan umi-budō seaweed, on a light scattering of “sand” made from powdered sakura-ebi shrimp.

But that wasn’t all. A long platter was placed in the center of the table, holding even more seafood — firm but tender abalone flesh, and also its liver, dark and intense; scoops of orange uni urchin; mounds of soft white crab meat; small sazae turban shells; green and red seaweed — all set into an ocean of clear jellied dashi stock.

In most restaurants that might serve as the finale. Here we had eight more courses to go — such as the Takazawa Gold, a rich soup of suppon (snapping turtle) and purple asparagus. Because turtle is reputed to give vigor and stamina in the heat of summer, this came with a place mat printed with a spoof advert for an energy drink.

Another high point, a dish named Salt, featured batter-fried young ayu sweetfish, green broad beans and sansai (mountain vegetables), served with a gorgeous arrangement of flavored salts in a pattern of colored microdots. Takazawa’s deep-frying is as light and delicate as tempura.

Our eleventh and final course (not counting the petit fours and chocolates that came with our tea) evoked the stone-paved backstreets of Kyoto. Paving stones of crispy almond were served with wells of kuromitsu syrup and “moss” of powdered matcha tea, with a wonderful wedge of lime-infused cheesecake that lingered long on the taste buds.

Just as with kaiseki cuisine, Takazawa’s cooking is concentrated but never heavy, with meat featuring only occasionally. While the ingredients will change with the season, the exact menu will vary each time. He keeps a record of what he has served each customer in the past, to avoid repetition. At the same time, you can ask for the number and content of the courses to be adjusted.

The seamless choreography of the cuisine, the quiet isolation of the dining room and this very personal level of attention, both before and during the meal: Takazawa is a wonderful place for a memorable celebration. We left again echoing the question that many others have voiced before. How come it doesn’t have a fistful of stars in the Michelin guide?

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.