Certain foods are like certain songs: they transport you to another time and place. Foie gras always reminds me of Belgium — specifically a wedding I once attended outside Brussels. It was the bride’s wish (and command) that all 200-plus guests would eat foie gras, and from that time I’ve always associated this (sometimes controversial) food with Belgium. But perhaps no more.
For lunch at Difference (pronounced in the French manner), the second course on the menu was a banana-shaped chocolate bar on a stick, served on a pot of ice cubes and vinegared water. Inside the nut-encrusted chocolate bar — which looked like something you might eat at a summer festival — was foie gras. I didn’t quite know whether chef and restaurateur Yoshiaki Fujimoto was signaling an early end to lunch or trying out a new twist on death by chocolate, but it certainly challenged expectations.
Difference is unabashedly French in style, with its heavy, white linen tablecloths, its lace curtains and its pair of maitre d’s, who both wear white gloves and may well be competing to see who is more soft-spoken. The standard of service, as you might expect, is impeccable. Lunch and dinner are both fixed courses and, as stated on the website, they are lengthy affairs — don’t count on going anywhere for two to three hours.
Lunch opened with a tiny but cleverly presented starter: grilled eggplant on a bed of crumbly katsuobushi (dried skipjack tuna) served on a dessert spoon. This was quickly followed by asari (Japanese littleneck clam) on a cube of creamy tofu. Like many French restaurants, the servings at Difference are small and delicate, but presented on enormous plates. Next was the highly original foie gras on a chocolate stick — Choco Bar, as it was called on the menu. As I mentioned, I’m not sure if something so rich warrants being wrapped in chocolate, but perhaps Fujimoto wanted to be playful with an ingredient that often courts controversy. The chocolate and foie gras compete rather than complement each other, but its a dish that will lodge itself in your memory.
Lunch then proceeded in a more orderly and seasonally appropriate fashion with ayu (sweetfish) accompanied by a potato croquette, which was topped with a sprinkling of bonito flakes and a mixture of plum and perilla sauces instead of a breadcrumb crust. The fish was followed by a pan-seared shoulder of pork served with sweet tomato and octopus, and accompanied by a slice of warm baguette served with unsalted butter and a line of rock salt. Fujimoto has an eye for adding details such as this — it’s a pleasure to observe and indulge in his food.
More foie gras was to come, this time sauteed and accompanied by fresh wasabi — a better combination than chocolate. A serving of sauteed chicken was wrapped in squid and accompanied by kinmedai (splendid alfonsino). Shinshu pork from Nagano Prefecture — served almost raw — came with sea urchin blended with cheese.
Thankfully dessert was lighter, yet delightfully refreshing: Delaware grapes, celery, mascarpone espuma and cocoa.
At Difference the food is intense, rich and original.
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