It’s all too easy to take for granted a restaurant of the caliber of Les Saisons. Ensconced within the venerable portals of the Imperial Hotel, it is plush, self-assured and runs with the same effortless reliability as a well-tuned Bentley sports car. You just know that an evening at table is going to be wonderful (it always is) but, inevitably, within a conservative, patrician frame of reference.
This is why it is so exciting that, as one of the Imperial’s 110th anniversary events, Les Saisons has invited chef Eric Frechon from Paris to take over the culinary reins for a special season. Granted, Frechon comes direct from the kitchens of Le Bristol, a hotel with even more heavyweight history than the Imperial itself. But he is also one of the most talked about young generation chefs in the French capital.
Before taking over behind the grills and saucieres of Le Bristol last year, Frechon achieved prominence as part of the recent wave of young chefs who have opted out of the haute cuisine rat race. Preferring to operate under their own auspices in smaller, more casual surroundings rather than pursue the elusive goal of Michelin stardom, their modern bistros concentrate on quality food at reasonable prices. In Frechon’s case, he sited his eponymous restaurant, La Verriere de Eric Frechon, way out in the 19th arrondissement, which in the Tokyo area would be equivalent to opening up in Kamata or Akabane.
For a period of three weeks, until Nov. 21, Les Saisons is exclusively serving lunch and dinner menus that Frechon has brought from Le Bristol (and previously developed at La Verriere). And it’s a match made in culinary heaven, marrying the technical excellence of Les Saisons’ kitchen staff with a bright infusion of Parisian flair and artistry. This is the kind of banquet you can expect.
You will have a choice of five entrees (starters). Do not miss the Saint Jacques (scallops) with crisp shavings of black truffle and shards of fresh parmesan in a “lasagna” created from lightly steamed slices of celery root, in a superb vinaigrette perfumed with truffled chicken jus. Nor indeed the creamed flesh and miso of spider crab served as a mousseline in its shell with a sauce of cauliflower and broccoli. Both of these are wonderful creations which awaken and tingle all your senses.
There are three different soups, though we did not try any of them. However, we did take our fill of the generous servings of hearty pain de campagne bread baked on the premises from a natural levain starter that Frechon brought with him on the plane.
The seafood dishes include red mullet studded with anchovy; roast lobster with black truffles; breaded bass; and turbot in a crust of chestnut. Undoubtedly all are superb. However, the dish that made the greatest impression on us was the cod. A substantial fillet of white fish, its huge, moist flakes ready to fall apart at a touch, it stood like an iceberg in an ocean of jade green cress-based sauce, and was crowned with a healthy sprinkling of sevruga caviar. It had been steamed over a basin of hot water containing wakame seaweed, drawing out the depth of its innate flavor in a way that seems almost Japanese both in its delicacy and presentation.
Frechon is every bit as successful with his meat dishes. Here, fowl feature prominently (three out of five choices on the evening menu). We tried both the supreme of Bresse chicken, which was cooked as beautifully as we have ever eaten it, served with thick tubes of macaroni stuffed with artichokes and truffled foie gras; and also the roast pigeon, perfectly prepared on the rare side of medium, just the way we ordered, on a bed of green Puy lentils enriched by foie gras.
There is much more as well, from the crunchy bread sticks with which you are greeted through to the sumptuous cheese wagon and rich, heady desserts — not to mention the mika-flavored pre-desserts and the petit fours that accompany the coffee. To do justice to the surroundings and, of course, the cuisine, you should set aside no less than two hours, perhaps the whole evening.
Needless to say, such munificence comes at a price. Arrive at lunch time and you can sample abbreviated versions of the above repast for 7,000 yen or 9,000 yen. For a full-immersion experience of Frechon’s cuisine, the evening courses of 15,000 yen or 20,000 yen are unequivocally recommended. Or pick your way through the a la carte menu, in which starters are priced around 5,000 yen and main dishes around the 7,000 yen mark.
But you do not expect less in such surroundings. Here you are cossetted and insulated not just from the outside world but even your fellow diners. With low ceilings, light wood paneling and cheerful furnishings, the atmosphere is relaxed and enveloping, and in no way prim or dauntingly formal. And you are looked after with such care that professional efficiency never gets in the way of the personal touch.
However, the bottom line at Les Saisons is always the food. And for the duration of Eric Frechon’s short tenure here, you will eat every bit as well, and in as much comfort, as you would anywhere in Paris.
There is no shortage of first-rate home-grown chefs in Tokyo either, and many of them are content to work their culinary magic well away from the mainstream of media. Hisao Nishimura is a brilliant, inspired artist of the kitchen, demonstrating creative versatility and virtuosity in a post-nouvel cuisine vein. He is also a maverick, as you can tell by the name he’s chosen for his stylish little bijou bistro tucked away in the back streets of Nishi-Azabu.
Although the basis of Nishimura’s work is French, he also incorporates ingredients and influences from as far afield as Italy, North Africa and his native Shinshu (Nagano Prefecture).
Make sure to start your meal with his classic Spoonful of Happiness, a seriously decadent hors d’oeuvre created from sea urchin and crab in a thick, chilled consomme subtly flavored with yuz citrus, chilled to a jelly in a single silver dessert spoon. It is only a mouthful and a half, but this will set the tone perfectly for a memorable evening of indulgence.
Nishimura does excellent things with sweetbreads and foie gras. His pigeon and mushroom salad comprises pan-fried porcini and Japanese fungi on a bed of greens, topped with a generous serving of soft breast meat in fine slivers cooked to semi-rare perfection. For your fish course, you can choose from five different styles of preparation, including a wonderful bearnaise sauce. The meat dishes are also excellent, especially the lamb steak coated in spicy black pepper served with chunks of pan-fried marinated aubergine in a sauce of balsamico and tomato.
Befitting its name, Du Vin Hachisch boasts a considerable cellar in which noble and top-dollar Burgundies, clarets and fine Italians sit alongside prime New World bottles priced at more affordable levels. Well ahead of the wine boom, Nishimura was one of the first to offer premium wines by the glass, allowing you to match the character of each course as it is served.
You can treat Du Vin Hachisch either as a restaurant or as a deluxe wine bar; either way works just fine. It would be easy to drop 50,000 yen here on an intimate dinner a deux, or on some celebratory banquet, but there’s absolutely no obligation to do so. This is a place where you can pamper the inner soul, on occasions when only intensely sensuous food and a bottle of serious pedigree will do. Mark this one down for that special year-end evening out.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5