Enough already with the hype and chatter about Michelin stars. Many of Food File’s favorite chefs are those who fly below the radar of that most self-promoting of gourmet guides, shunning the limelight and just getting on with the business of putting fine food on tables — exactly the way chef Katsuki Mori does at Esperia.
Until a couple of years ago, Mori was not so much in the shadows as off the map altogether. Not only was his first incarnation of Esperia sited in untrod, unlovely Akebonobashi, it was housed inside a converted diner with about as much atmosphere as a Denny’s. And yet word spread and the punters came, drawn as much by the down-to-earth feel of the place as by Mori’s accomplished, individual take on classic North Italian cucina. To find such inventive food in such uncompromising surroundings was recompense enough.
Even after making his long-awaited move to the far more upmarket, accessible setting of Nishi-Azabu, Mori has kept that personal, idiosyncratic touch that won him his loyal customer base. The three-year-old Esperia now occupies a distinctive timber-fronted house on a quiet residential side street, well away from the main drag.
It was previously occupied by a tempura restaurant, and many of the original furnishings have been left in situ: the alcove dining area with a handsome full-moon window; washi (traditional Japanese paper)-covered screens giving glimpses of bamboo and greenery; a small counter where, instead of a deep-frying wok, you gaze at an array of premium grappa bottles.
The first time we ate here, shortly after the move, we were not convinced that the spare decor suited such sensuous food. Returning recently for dinner, we found all initial hesitancy was gone. The dining room felt intimate and comfortable, the service assured and relaxed, and Mori’s menu as complex and appetizing as ever.
Just about all of his dishes feature cheese in one form or another. Indeed, Mori was named a chevalier of France’s Confrerie du Taste-Fromage, making him Japan’s first ever “knight of cheese.” Those who share his enthusiasm can order his ¥7,000 top-of-the-line “cheese course” chef’s special. But unless you are seriously ravenous, you will find the basic dinner menu more than satisfying, and excellent value at ¥5,000 for five courses.
To ease initial hunger pangs while perusing the long list of the day’s specials, we nibbled on a special order of cheese “crêpes.” Made from finely grated Parmesan that is flash-heated in a pan to form a savory “pancake,” it was the size and crisp consistency of a masala dosa, and every bit as addictive.
Soon the appetizers arrived, a small oblong plate of tidbits such as Palma prosciutto; a mouthful of carpaccio; a smooth red-pepper mousse; tender cubes of raw scallop; and a hot empanada-style pastry filled with finely minced beef. These were as delicate and as beautifully arranged as the zensai (appetizers) served at the opening of a traditional Japanese kaiseki meal.
Mori’s signature Revolutionary Salad is not to be missed. What’s so innovative about it? The young salad vegetables are served not with a standard oil and vinegar dressing but colorfully arrayed on a layer of molten cheese, or actually a blend of three cheeses and plenty of cream, imbued with the powerful tang of Gorgonzola or similar blue cheese. Mix it all up quickly, while the rich sauce is still hot, so the tender leaves are gently coated. Voila! It’s unique, outstanding, and, yes, a radical (but in no way revolting) take on the idea of a humble salad.
It’s not all dairy food, though. Another antipasto was a carpaccio of lightly smoked kidai (yellow porgy), served with segments of grapefruit. The contrast in flavors was as refreshing and striking as the artistic arrangement on the plate.
The homemade pasta is first rate, served with morsels of snow crab and avocado. But his risottos are even better, especially at this time of year when he adds funghi porcini and other fresh mushrooms to the recipe.
The same finesse and inventiveness was on display in the main courses. Our fish (itoyori, or goldenthread) was steamed inside a wrapping of lettuce leaf with creamy cheese and arranged beautifully with a colorful scattering of vegetables. It tasted every bit as good as it looked.
Mori’s most spectacular party piece is the dish known as pollo al sale — salt-baked chicken. Wheeled to the table on a trolley, a mound of rock-hard salt is cracked open in front of your eyes to reveal a breast of jidori (free-range) chicken wrapped in salted edible cherry leaves. The outside of the tender white flesh is delicately impregnated with the subtle fragrance of the sakura; the inside reveals a molten core of mozzarella.
The cheese platter is just as good as you might expect (though by now you may be starting to feel you have surfeited) and so is the appetizing selection of desserts. We rounded off a highly enjoyable meal by lingering over espresso and mellow snifters from the cellar of premium grappa.
Wandering back toward the bright lights of the Nishi-Azabu Crossing, you may find yourself pondering (as we did) the question: how come Esperia remains so little known? The answer can only be that those who know it prefer to keep it under their hat, so it doesn’t get too popular. Perhaps the Michelin inspectors do too.
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