Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

Toyoken: Narisawa's take on 'yoshoku' cuisine

by Robbie Swinnerton

Curry-rice, menchi-katsu cutlet, kani (crab) cream croquette, and kaki (oyster) fry… Dinner at Toyoken reads like a roll call of retro comfort food from a long-passed era — but with one big difference.

This is not the bill of fare at an old-school company canteen or some fusty provincial hotel. You’re in a grand new dining room in the heart of Tokyo, and this menu has been put together by one of Japan’s best and most innovative chefs, Yoshihiro Narisawa. His mission: to restore to its former glory the genre of Japanese cuisine known as yōshoku.

Literally, the term translates as “Western food.” But what it really means is European dishes as interpreted and assimilated by Japanese chefs over a century ago, at the time when foreign foods — and chief among them meat dishes — were being discovered for the first time.

Back in 1889, when the first Toyoken opened in Mita, it was exclusive and posh, catering to the imperial family and other dignitaries. Although it closed before World War II, a branch of the restaurant kept the flame (and the name) alive in Mie Prefecture. But with the arrival of authentic Western cuisines, yōshoku became seen increasingly as boring, passe and irrelevant.

Now, drawing on Narisawa’s enthusiasm and expertise, Toyoken is back. And so, in a sense, is yōshoku, reimagined and relaunched for the 21st century as a high-end cuisine, made with care, skill and quality ingredients — with touches of haute French cooking to raise the ante further.

Take the curry-rice. Far from the usual tired brown gloop spooned onto a plate of bland rice, Narisawa’s version is thick, black, concentrated. He uses premium Matsuzaka wagyū beef, some of the very finest in Japan. The spices are mild, as they should be, but it tastes vibrant and alive.

Even the simplest dinner set is a six-course mini banquet. It starts with salad Nicoise, a fabulous mix of raw and cooked vegetables, with egg, tuna and morsels of anchovy. Then comes a small cup of soup, a lovely rich bisque in light, frothy “cappuccino” form.

The deep-fried food is superb. The course menu offers aji-fry (breaded Spanish mackerel), but if you ask nicely, they may substitute another of the signature dishes, the superb kani cream korokke (croquette). It is a crisp, golden nugget of melting creaminess that contains as much crab as it does dairy.

For the final savory dish, you have a choice between the black curry and hayashi (hashed beef) rice. It’s a tough call, but, if anything, the latter wins out. The sliced wagyū is cooked in wine and tomato, and has a refreshing acidity

The desserts are also contemporary versions of classics such as Mont Blanc. And the meal ends with a tray of bite-sized mignardise cakes that would not be out of place at Narisawa’s Michelin-starred main restaurant.

So does Toyoken make yōshoku sexy again? The answer is it never was. It was aristocratic fare, and the food at Toyoken is suitably elegant and reserved, like the dining room, the wait staff and the well-dressed clientele. It is very Japanese.

1F Akasaka Tower, 1-2-7 Moto-Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-5786-0881; www.tokyo-toyoken.com; open 11:30 a.m.- 2 p.m. (LO), 6-9 p.m. (LO); closed Mon.; lunch from ¥3,800, dinner from ¥5,800, also a la carte; major credit cards; Japanese menu; English spoken. Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.

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