There has never before been a tasting menu quite like it. The first dinner presented by wagyu beef grillmaster Kentaro Nakahara, yakitori supremo Yoshiteru Ikegawa and sushi maestro Takaaki Sugita was unprecedented in so many aspects.
All three are among the finest chefs in their respective fields. Their restaurants range from very hard to impossible to book — Sugita’s nine-seat counter in particular is reserved solid through next spring. And it would be virtually impossible to imagine them leaving their kitchens to collaborate, either in or outside Japan.
And yet here they are, launching the first of four landmark dinners with starters of ankimo (monkfish liver) and thin rolls of sardine and green shiso perilla leaf in nori prepared by Sugita; golden tsukune (balls of minced chicken) freshly grilled by Ikegawa; and Nakahara’s signature tartare of rich, creamy coarse-cut wagyu topped with a raw quail’s egg.
These are just some of the 14 dishes, paired with both sake and wine, at the opening event, which is held at Pakta, chef Albert Adria’s restaurant, in Barcelona. To make it even more special, the appetizers and desserts are by Adria and his team. Memorable indeed.
The following evening they do it again, this time in the more upmarket setting of the Mandarin Oriental Barcelona. The menu here is even more elaborate, with even more guests, 75 in all. But the chefs are given the run of the hotel’s capacious kitchen, as well as the efficient in-house waiting staff. And they pull out the stops.
Among the highlights: slivers of pale pink wagyu sashimi, garnished with real gold leaf; nigiri sushi of toro (tuna) and kinmedai (alfonsino), with Sugita again the focus of attention at the front of the dining room; and delectable momo (chicken thigh meat) rich with the smoky aroma of Japanese binchō charcoal.
It requires more than just superb technique and professionalism to produce meals of this caliber. Nothing can be left to chance, so the chefs have brought considerable supplies with them.
Nakahara’s prime ingredient is wagyu, a breed not comparable to any in Spain. So he arranged for almost 50 kilograms of his succulent marbled meat to be delivered to Barcelona. Ditto with the seafood: Sugita is used to working with pristine-fresh fish from Tokyo’s Tsukiji market. So he packed his cases full of sardine, squid, conger eel and more, carefully cleaned and pressed using the traditional curing method known as kobujime.
Ikegawa, on the other hand, is happy to take on the challenge of using local chicken. But he needs his skewers and proprietary seasonings, his charcoal and the large white fan he uses to keep the coals glowing. Above all he needs the right grill, so he has carried his own from Japan — excess weight be damned.
With the two Barcelona events wrapped up successfully, the next destination is sunny Ibiza. While it’s best known for its raves and party people, there is a growing gastronomic scene on the island. It also has a small but vibrant morning market, the Mercat Nou.
The variety of fish on display is impressive. Much of it is landed each day from nearby waters and Sugita is keen to snap up some gambas rojas, the famous local shrimps. His eye is also taken by the Mediterranean katsuo (skipjack). But there is a way to get your seafood even fresher — directly off the fishing boats.
The first venue, Sa Nansa, specializes in seafood and has all the right connections. The shrimp are delivered just as Sugita gears up for service. He shells them and forms them into dainty nigiri, with two of the firm, sweet shrimp pressed onto each portion of sushi rice. Simply dabbed with sauce, they are one of the best things he serves on the entire trip.
Meanwhile, Ikegawa has set up his grill by the pool, wafting smoke to the night sky as he readies his skewers of quails’ eggs and ginkgo nuts, along with legs of local Ibiza chicken — “much more flavorful than the mainland fowl,” he proclaims.
As for Nakahara, he has somehow obtained a large can of caviar, to supplement his wagyu sashimi. Decadent certainly, but so is life in the Balearics.
The final event takes place at Lamuella, a relaxed, spacious restaurant up in the hills of central Ibiza. The meal is buffet-style, with guests wandering between the bar and the counters where the chefs are dispensing their specials. Ikegawa has his yakitori grill set up outside again, fanning the charcoal in time to the beats of the dance music. Sugita is handing out nori rolls and slices of squid stuffed with sushi rice. And Nakahara has managed to keep back enough beef to replicate the 100 percent wagyu patties he serves at his Tokyo burger stand, Henry’s. Demand is insatiable.
Later, as the crowd moves to the dance floor, Nakahara installs himself behind the turntables and shows he also has flair as a DJ. The drinks flow, the work is over and the party has begun. The trip has not been without its moments of tension — but it’s been a big success. Even before the chefs head home, they are starting to talk among themselves about doing it again next year.
The second installment of a two-part series. To read the part one, please visit http://bit.ly/2sTy57g.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5