Test-tube “caviar,” froths and foams and taste-teasing flavor infusions, miracle fruit and desserts “cooked” at super-chilled temperatures. . . . Welcome to the brave new world of contemporary cuisine commonly known as molecular gastronomy.
It’s not really new, of course. For the past decade or so, the melding of culinary creativity and cutting-edge food science has been gathering steam (or is that dry ice?) in both Europe and America, and gaining plenty of critical plaudits, too.
The leading apostles of the movement are Catalan chef Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal in England, and their restaurants — El Bulli outside Barcelona, and The Fat Duck near London — consistently and deservedly rank among the best in the world.
Not that we have to travel that far to discover what the buzz is all about. This avant-garde approach to dining is gaining a foothold in Tokyo too, and its most elevated outpost is the sleek, chic Tapas Molecular Bar, inside the luxurious portals of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Nihonbashi. Thirty-eight floors above street level, it’s a highly apt location to embark on such a culinary flight of fancy.
There is also a distinct sense of exclusivity. The Tapas Molecular Bar seats only eight people at a time, with two sittings at precise starting times, 6:00 and 8:30 p.m. each evening. By the time we’re shown to our seats, it’s hard not to feel a rising sense of anticipation.
“This isn’t fine dining; it’s fun dining.” Standing behind the glass of the counter, American chef Jeff Ramsey is keen to put us all at ease. He and his assistant wear floppy white flat caps rather than crisp toques. Trained as a sushi chef and still in his early 30s, he has a quiet demeanor, introducing each of his creations in either Japanese or English as required. As the last stragglers arrive, the opening aperitif — a molecular cocktail of sparkling Champagne jelly — is served. It hits the spot. We have liftoff.
Since there’s only one set tasting menu, which is delivered to everyone simultaneously, no ordering is necessary. You just sit back and wait for the food to arrive. As the name suggests, the meal takes the form of a succession of small tapas-sized dishes, each merely a mouthful or two. But the underlying inspiration for Ramsey’s cuisine is just as much Japanese kaiseki ryori as it is European haute cuisine.
True to Japanese tradition, the menu and its ingredients change with the seasons. The current autumn menu comprises 15 courses featuring more than 20 separate elements. These are inscribed on a metal sheet that you can refer to throughout the meal (though the order is mixed up to keep you on your toes). All the courses are elaborate; many are presented with the kind of showmanship you associate with the Cirque du Soleil; some are designed to boggle both mind and taste buds.
Ramsey’s party piece, which appears toward the start of the meal, is his “carrot caviar.” This is produced in a piece of Perspex equipment straight out of a sci-fi movie science lab. Syringes filled with carrot juice are slowly pressed so they release drops into a clear liquid bath below, forming bright orange globules.
The juice has been blended with a seaweed-derived alginate. The bath below contains nigari (calcium chloride, a coagulant used for making tofu). This forms a thin membrane around each drop. The result: instant ikura (salmon caviar) that has never seen a fish. Even when Ramsey explains the process, it’s no less impressive.
There’s little time to wonder, though, as the courses follow thick and fast. Among the standouts are a dish of sashimi sea bream tenderized with konbu seaweed (a traditional sushi shop technique), served with a dab of green-tea mousse and crunchy arare (tiny rice crackers) — a deconstructed version of classic ochazuke.
There’s a dish of cubed venison, as red and rare as steak tartare. It arrives enclosed under a glass cup, which, as you lift it, emits a waft of cherry-wood smoke that fills your nostrils. It’s not the meat itself that’s been seasoned, but your senses blend the two sensations as one while you eat.
The underlying aim of molecular gastronomy is to understand the physical science of preparing food to optimize flavor and nutrition. This has led to techniques such as sous-vide (under vacuum) cooking. Ramsey takes cuts of wagyu beef, infuses them with the essence of premium Bincho charcoal, then puts them in vacuum packs and cooks them for the best part of a day at low temperature — a carefully monitored 53 degrees celsius. The result is meat with texture so melt-in-the-mouth soft you can almost cut it with a chopstick.
Inevitably, there are some items that fail to hit the heights. But everything is beautifully presented, invariably bringing revelations and surprises: South American tonka beans, grated to impart their unique vanilla-almond aroma; the aptly named miracle fruit, which briefly rewires your taste buds so that sour tastes sweet; and — one of our favorites — a bowl of miso soup deconstructed and encapsulated into a single spoonful.
Overall it’s a great show. However, Ramsey takes care not to overdo the showmanship, leaving the magic of molecular cuisine to shine through. It’s an approach that has won him accolades, both as a sushi chef (top place in the first ever global Sushi of the Year competition, in 2006 in London) and, since last year, a coveted Michelin star.
He gives you 2 1/2 hours at table, with never a dull moment. Indeed, if we have one gripe it’s that there isn’t quite enough time to fully appreciate each course before the next arrives. Turn your attention away for a moment and you may miss something vital — a good reason for ordering one of the set wine pairings (from ¥7,000 for four glasses) rather than wading through the substantial drinks list.
This is food that stimulates mind as well as body, palate along with intellect. It also evokes responses on the emotional level. Sitting at the counter in that select group of fellow diners, it is hard not to share a glance or smile with your neighbors. Soon conversation breaks out, even among strangers.
Dissolving formality in this way is unusual in a Japanese setting, or indeed at any haute cuisine restaurant in the West. It’s yet another remarkable aspect of this revolutionary cuisine.