Spring brings new beginnings. It also ushers in restaurant openings galore. This year, few are likely to be as radical and impressive as the rebirth and reinvention of Florilege.
For the past five years, the creative modern-French cuisine of owner-chef Hiroyasu Kawate has been one of Tokyo’s best-kept culinary secrets.
At his bijou restaurant, hidden deep in the residential backstreets of Aoyama, he has built up a devoted following among local gourmets while remaining largely ignored by out-of-towners.
That now looks set to change. Not only has he moved to a more accessible location, in the basement of a new development in Jingumae, the restaurant has a totally different layout and he’s reworked his menu substantially.
What is striking about the new Florilege is how spacious but sparse it feels, and how theatrical. In place of a plush, intimate dining room with classic tables and linen cloths, you sit at a bare metallic counter running three sides of a huge open kitchen. Now you get to see Kawate and his crew preparing dinner, and smell it, too.
He has always offered substantial multicourse meals. But he has evolved that concept here into a heavyweight three-hour-plus dinner tasting menu comprising 13 dishes (six at lunch), all beautifully presented, many outstandingly inventive and some brilliantly memorable.
The current menu (it will change every two months) opens with a series of appetizers: a cube of frozen chickweed mousse; white asparagus, both a charcoal-grilled spear and also as a light, sponge-like foam, topped with a sphere of creamy Bearnaise sauce; and a thick, warming potage imbued with the rich aroma of sea urchin.
From here, you transition into more complex creations. Black fritters of squid; an amazing combination of bamboo shoot, hamaguri clam and delicate pasta flecked with jade-green wakame seaweed; and deep-fried cubes of turtle jelly dusted with matcha green tea.
One of the standouts was lightly seared trout with a dip of vividly bitter chicken liver, accented with a deep green sauce of watercress. And then there was the slow-cooked suckling pig: morsels of tender pork with perfect crackling, served with refreshingly tart green strawberries.
This is French cuisine with a strong Japanese sensibility. Save for a few seasonings (and most of the excellent wine cellar), everything is sourced inside Japan. This is a point of pride for Kawate — to support local farmers and the rural communities that are producing such superior ingredients.
It’s hard to fault his cooking, and certainly not his warmth and enthusiasm. But there are, inevitably, times during the three hours when the pace drops or you just want to tune out the conversations on either side of you.
The wine pairing (¥8,000) is a good mix of orthodox and less obvious bottles. But the alternative pairing, featuring herbal cocktails, infusions of spirits and beer, and even smoked wine, ends up detracting from the food.
Overall, though, this new Florilege is a brave and exciting departure. Kawate is still in his 30s and his cooking is only getting better. Undoubtedly, he will continue to set the bar ever higher.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.