Congratulatory bouquets were arrayed in profusion outside the entrance to Sincere last month, marking its opening in the quiet residential backstreets north of Harajuku. Sometimes those auspicious flowers — sent by well-wishers at the start of any new venture — can seem like mere ritual gestures of support. But here they represented a true celebration: the return of chef Shinsuke Ishii.
After a year in the wilderness he is back in action, and it has been a long and frustrating wait for him. At the beginning of 2015, he was in charge of the kitchen at one of Tokyo’s most popular — and hardest to book — French restaurants, the brilliant little Bacar. But following its sudden closure in March 2015 (due to its owner’s ill health), Ishii was in limbo. Now he has a restaurant and a kitchen to call his own. And what a great location he has found.
Looking out on a quiet basement-level patio, the dining room is spacious and comfortable, especially if you’re sitting at the plush banquette running the length of the back wall. The tables are all oriented so that as you eat, you look toward the substantial open kitchen, where Ishii puts on quite a show.
He has so much more space than before — but, then again, he needs it. Instead of running things virtually single handed, he now has a team working under him. Most notably, he has a talented dessert chef, Keisuke Oyama, who previously worked at Hidemi Sugino. That has left him able to focus on the other areas of the menu.
One reason for Bacar’s enduring popularity — it became known as the restaurant you could never reserve because regulars gobbled up all the seats — was Ishii’s exceptional cooking. The other was that it was superb value for money. Here he continues that laudable policy, although with no a la carte options. The menu features 10 separate dishes, from the opening amuse-bouche to the final petit fours with your coffee, and it still comes in under ¥10,000.
Dinner earlier this month opened with oyster meuniere, a single half-shell beautifully garnished with seaweed crisps and baby-leaf shungiku (edible chrysanthemum), then segued straight into one of his most impressive dishes: Five Tastes of Tomato. He uses tomato water, strained so it has nary a fleck of red, in five different forms, including frozen, espuma foam, as a rich mousse and in crisp, clear candy form, with a light pepper tang. A superb opening.
While a couple of king prawns cooked at the table, he served his trademark seafood parfait, packed with shellfish and sea urchin on cauliflower mousse and a base of ratatouille. This was followed by a gorgeous salad, with a warm dip richly imbued with crab tomalley, like a bagna cauda from the ocean floor.
As a main dish, it would be hard to beat his cute, fish-shaped pie case filled with kinmedai (splendid alfonsino). But he managed to top it with a great dish of roast Okinawan agu pork. After that, Oyama’s desserts gave the meal an arresting visual coda.
The comparisons with Bacar are inevitable, but not useful. Ishii’s cooking is even better than before. It’s less fettered by price considerations and emboldened by the freedom of his new kitchen. The long wait is over.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.
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