Chi-Fu is a French restaurant in every sense except the cooking. The maitre d’ and wait staff are besuited and seemingly straight-laced, the linens are crisp white, the wine list is long and, yes, there are the inevitable oversize plates on which chefs sparsely arrange morsels connected by a sprinkling of garnishes.
What saves Chi-Fu from being a stereotypical French restaurant, however, is that the fare is Chinese — or Chinese fusion — and the staff, despite their formal appearance, are as charming as they are friendly. Also, though French wines dominate, especially those from Burgundy, they are complimented by offerings from every wine-producing country in the world. And chef and sommelier Kei Tashiro is on hand to offer advice if the wine list or menu are a little overwhelming.
Chi-Fu is housed in an ex-noodle factory, an odd modernist-style building a short walk from Kitashinchi Station. The motif for the interior seems to be heavy curtains. Other than that, it’s extremely plain — white walls match the white tablecloths — with none of the usual trappings of a Chinese restaurant. I had a private room to myself, curtained off from the compact main dining room. What might have been a rather lonely lunch was improved by the company of Tashiro and his wait staff.
The fixed menu at Chi-Fu is poetic and oblique. Lunch opened with a dish named Roselle, which was succeeded by Tea and Wild Grasses before moving on to Lion Head. Each dish in this six-course lunch comes with an explanation so exhaustive it can sometimes seem more substantial than what’s on the plate.
Tea was a selection of appetizers, each prepared using different teas and served on Chi-Fu’s signature dish: a wooden, circular display shelf that resembled a miniature Ferris wheel or a big hamster wheel with shelves. These shelves held a petit chi-ayu (young sweetfish) from Lake Biwa coated in green tea, a hardboiled quail’s egg, the yolk infused with Pu’er tea from China’s Yunnan province, and hamaguri (clam) in miso paste wrapped inside a gelatinous sac made with Taiwanese oolong tea. The display shelf was inventive, but perhaps a bit of a novelty. The bite-size mouthfuls, on the other hand, married creativity with pleasure.
The spice levels at Chi-Fu are toned down — perhaps to be expected when both the chefs and clientele are Japanese. However, the flavor balance was tipped toward the Chinese palate in dishes such as Lion Head, a hearty Shanghai-style nikudango (meatball) of wild boar meat with black soybeans smothered with sherry vinegar.
Chi-Fu is best when it goes all in with the fusion, as with Wild Grasses: a beautiful green pancake made with yomogi (mugwort) and decorated with nama-fu (soft cakes of wheat gluten), crispy yuba (slivers of bean curd skin) and kogomi (ostrich fern), all piled on top of a layer of doubanjiang (spicy Sichuan bean paste).
This dish encapsulates every reason why China and Japan should sit down together to work out more wonderful dishes — as well as other things.