The golden age of luxury long-distance train travel is over. The days when overnight journeys were made in exclusive style — complete with Pullman sleeping cars, lounge bar and restaurant on wheels — have gone the way of the steam locomotive.
But memories die hard among rail enthusiasts. Chef George Somura worked for six years as a chef on the Eastern & Oriental Express, the Southeast Asian version of the Paris-Simplon-Venice train of Agatha Christie fame. He was so smitten by the experience that, after returning to Japan, he bought one of those high-end railroad cars. And then he built a restaurant around it.
There’s nothing like it anywhere in the city. Opened in February of this year, the sleek blue-and-white former sleeper car fills almost an entire block of Mitsume-dori, the street running along the side of Kiba Park, past the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. It’s a remarkable sight: welcome to A Ta Gueule Orient-Express, and all aboard!
You don’t actually eat in the train. Somura has had it remodeled as a lounge space with three separate rooms where you can relax over pre- or postprandial drinks. The actual dining room is in a spacious, brightly lit new annex constructed behind it, virtually out of sight from the street.
It’s not hugely atmospheric. But with the doors open on a balmy early autumn evening, it feels almost as if you were sitting in a modern station building, looking out over a narrow platform while your carriage awaits you, ready to depart for far-off destinations, Sapporo or Shimonoseki, Kuala Lumpur or Butterworth, Vienna or Istanbul.
Somura’s previous incarnation of A Ta Gueule, in Ebisu, was tiny — just 12 seats at a squeeze — but his new digs hold more than twice that number and they seem to suit his style. Before, he was confined in a space smaller even than the galley he worked from on the E&O Express. Now he has the luxury of a kitchen with room to properly swing a skillet, and he can give full range to his skills.
In the evening, he offers two prix-fixe dinners (¥5,500 for three courses; or ¥6,900 for four, including one of his deluxe “specialty” appetizers). You pick your entree and main, which you select from the seasonal a la carte menu, a choice of half a dozen of each — although supplementary charges apply for some dishes.
Somura produces excellent pates and other charcuterie. Right now he has an outstanding terrine of wild boar from the forests of Quebec. He studs the pink meat with green peppercorns to give it extra bite, and presses it wrapped in salted vine leaves, which lend their own distinctive accent to the flavor.
Somura is equally keen on his produce. Early almost every morning, he drives down to the farmers market in Kamakura to source his vegetables, including the crisp salad greens that accompany his pates and other dishes.
To mark the onset of autumn, Somura also makes delectable starters featuring mushrooms. He sautes girolles and ceps (porcini) from France, meaty Australian jumbo mushrooms and Japanese maitake, and serves them in the Alsatian style, over spaetzle, dainty little dumplings the size of beans (on the menu these are called “French gnocchi”) in a dark, rich sauce.
When it comes to the main course, there is always a fish option. But it is meat that forms the mainstay of the menu. And especially at this time of year, Somura’s love of gibiers — game and wild fowl — comes to the fore.
He is one of the few chefs in Tokyo to offer Scottish grouse. Flown in from the highlands where they were shot — the season opens each year on the Glorious Twelfth (Aug. 12) — they are hung until their meat develops the proper degree of gaminess. He roasts the birds, carefully arranging the various cuts and serving them in a thick gravy flavored with the liver of the bird and cooked down with plenty of port.
While the forthright flavor of grouse is not to everyone’s taste, Somura will soon be stocking other wildfowl, such as duck or pigeon, with a gentler character. Be warned though: These come with a substantial supplementary charge (a hefty ¥1,900 in the case of the grouse).
Another specialty at A Ta Gueule is venison. Somura has a source for sika deer hunted in the forests above Suwa in Nagano Prefecture. He is now serving this succulent meat along with Canadian matsutake pine mushrooms, unusual black-skinned carrots and five kinds of green beans, in a lovely jus prepared from five kinds of peppercorns, including Chinese Sichuan pepper.
Once you are done with dessert, you will be invited to retire to the plush confines of the railroad car for coffee, petit fours and perhaps a snifter of cognac or port. Surrounded by posters and memorabilia from Somura’s railroad days, this is where you get to sit back and fully appreciate the unique environment he has created.