Arriving at erba da nakahigashi, you might think you have stumbled across a plush, exclusive Japanese restaurant, rather than one serving Italian cuisine. The walls leading down to the basement premises are finished in lacquer and the dining room has no tables, just a compact open kitchen with a wooden counter. There are only eight seats, each set with chopsticks.
This is a classic kappo-style restaurant, the type where customers sit and watch as the chef prepares course after elaborate course of exquisite washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine). But there is one reassuring clue that the cuisine is modern Italian: the large, handsome bacon slicer in bright Ferrari red standing in the center of the counter.
This intersection of influences is fitting. Chef Toshifumi Nakahigashi, the man who operates that equipment, carving slivers of the finest San Daniele prosciutto, hails from Kyoto, where his father runs one of the city’s most respected restaurants.
The younger Nakahigashi chose a different path. At the age of 18, soon after graduating high school, he set off for Tuscany and spent a year at the renowned Ristorante Arnolfo before moving to Paris to hone his skills at French superchef Alain Ducasse’s flagship restaurant.
After returning to Japan, he worked at Italian restaurants in Kyoto and Osaka. But when he finally took the plunge to open his own place, he moved away from his roots again, opening in Tokyo’s Nishi-Azabu district in January. His cooking is undeniably Italian in flavor and inspiration, but his 14-course omakase tasting menu is clearly presented with Japanese precision.
The name — erba is Italian for “grass” — is also a homage to his father’s Japanese restaurant, Sojiki Nakahigashi — sojiki literally means “grass eating,” reflecting the role that wild plants play in the restaurant’s meals. The younger Nakahigashi has an equal focus on the vegetable kingdom, using up to 60 different kinds of vegetables, herbs and flowers in each meal. Many of these have been sent fresh to Tokyo by friends who are farmers outside Kyoto.
The hunters who supply the venison, wild boar and fowl that form the centerpiece of his meals are also longstanding connections. They forage in the hills near Kyoto for wild plants in spring and for mushrooms in autumn. And the elegant ceramics that he serves the food on are made by an old friend in the Kiyomizu pottery district.
For one of his signature dishes, Nakahigashi pulls out a retro coffee siphon. In the top chamber, he places dried vegetable peel, roots and offcuts that would usually be discarded. Underneath, he heats up a minestrone broth made from ham and Parmesan scraps until it bubbles up and is imbued with the vegetables. He serves this flavorful soup with lightly steamed vegetables or pours it over delicate handmade ravioli.
As with any Japanese meal, the final main dish is rice. Here, that means a delicate risotto, which Nakahigashi masterfully adorns with premium uni (sea urchin) or other seafood. It is the perfect summation of this meeting of very fine food cultures.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.