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Monna Lisa: Michelin-starred food you can afford

by Robbie Swinnerton

As the dust settles from the annual pronouncement of Michelin stars — and, yes, Tokyo remains the tire company’s gastronomic capital of the world — it’s timely to remember that stellar dining does not have to mean stratospheric prices, even in the most rarefied of surroundings. A case in point: Monna Lisa’s Marunouchi branch.

Perched on the penthouse floor of the plush Maru Biru (Marunouchi Building), right across from Tokyo Station, it boasts one of the finest views in the city. Floor-to-ceiling windows offer panoramic vistas over the dense woodland of the Imperial Palace compound to the skyscrapers of Shinjuku on the horizon.

Gratifyingly, the food lives up to this dramatic setting. Owner-chef Toru Kawano’s cooking is confident, modern, vibrant and colorful. Above all, it is intensely flavorful, just as you’d expect from a chef who has worked with some of the top names in French cuisine, from Guy Savoy and Georges Blanc to Joel Robuchon.

It also bears the imprint of his own background. Kawano hails from Miyazaki Prefecture, on the east coast of Kyushu, and a good proportion of his produce, seafood, poultry and meat is sourced from that area.

These are shown to their best effect in Kawano’s top-of-the-line Menu Degustation (¥15,000), a 10-course dinner extravaganza. But even the simplest lunches reflect the same balance of delicacy, flair and satisfying bulk.

The Menu Leger (¥3,750) is, as the name suggests, a light meal intended as much for people with time constraints as those with an eye on their budget. It starts with some amuse-bouche appetizers; but Kawano’s artistry becomes apparent as the first courses arrive.

Some typical examples from earlier in the autumn: a half-moon-shaped terrine of sweet potato and shrimp, served on a sauce of pureed chestnut, accented with Madras curry, and served on glass plates double-layered with autumn leaves sandwiched in between as both decoration and seasonal accent.

Or a single giant shiitake cap, topped with a light gratin of scallops and mushrooms, accompanied by diced baigai clams with parsley, in a butter-rich bourguignonne sauce, the same as that served with snails in Burgundy.

Or, one of Monna Lisa’s most attractive specialties, ginger-marinated sanma (saury) cut into squares on cubes of soft, jellied eggplant and garnished with fresh tomato, chives, purple shiso (perilla) spouts and petals of yellow chrysanthemum: All humble, everyday ingredients, but in Kawano’s hands fashioned into dishes of almost gemlike brilliance.

His main courses are more substantial, whether fish, fowl or meat, but no less attractive on the plate. Even his bulky, rustic homemade sausages get the treatment: Carefully plated with small, flavorful inca-no-mezame potatoes, enoki mushrooms, a small side salad and a dollop of Dijon mustard, they are served on hexagonal plates with a multicolored border.

This, plus dessert and coffee, may constitute the “business lunch,” but it still demands leisurely appreciation. You should not expect to be finished and back at your office within the statutory one hour, least of all if you arrive at the noon peak.

Open almost exactly 10 years now — since the opening of the present incarnation of the Maru Biru — this is Kawano’s second restaurant, after his rather more intimate establishment of the same name in Ebisu, which is now celebrating its 15th anniversary. Since he divides his time equally between the two, the menus are near identical (though the Menu Leger lunch is not offered in Ebisu). Both have Michelin stars.

The story of how he rose to the top — of the Maru Biru tower, at any rate — bears retelling. Unlike today, in the early 1980s, only the most gung-ho of Japanese trainee chefs made their way to Europe, and they often found it hard going. Kawano arrived with little money. He had to pay his dues the hard way, from the bottom up. Eventually he ended up working for three years under the undisputed maestro of haute cuisine, Joel Robuchon.

He returned to Japan after over a decade away. The timing was perfect. Robuchon was setting up his first restaurant in Tokyo, to be housed in the grandiose faux chateau in Yebisu Garden Place, and he turned to Kawano to be in charge of the kitchen.

When he eventually went independent, Kawano recalled his early days in Paris when thinking of a name for his new restaurant. Virtually penniless and far from home, he had found solace and inspiration inside the Louvre museum, from its most famous painting, the Mona Lisa (though he preferred the modern Italian spelling of it).

While Monna Lisa embraces the trappings of haute cuisine, it does not feel stuffy. At the Marunouchi branch, the tables are packed in too tight for intimacy and sometimes you have to raise your voice in conversation. But that also lends the room a cheerful buzz. The main negative is that the kitchen sometimes struggles to keep up.

During the day, with the sunlight streaming through the windows, business suits are well outnumbered by the designer casual dresses of the ladies who lunch and chatter. In the evening, though, when the city outside is at its most beguiling, it’s a great place for a date — especially if you can book a window-side table.

Ebisu branch: 1-14-4 Ebisu-Nishi, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; (03) 5458-1887. Monna Lisa will serve a Christmas menu from ¥4,800 (lunch) and ¥10,000 (dinner) Dec. 20-25. On Dec. 23-25, there will be two sittings each evening, from 5:30 and 8 p.m. Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.