Tokuyoshi adds some creative cocktails to the mix

by Melinda Joe

Special To The Japan Times

Japanese chef Yoji Tokuyoshi has been pushing boundaries with cuisine that reflects his philosophy of intercultural cross-pollination since 2015 — the year he opened his eponymous restaurant, Tokuyoshi, in Milan.

A native of Tottori Prefecture, the 39-year-old chef left Japan for Italy at the age of 26 to pursue a life in the kitchen and earned his chops working under Massimo Bottura in Modena at Osteria Francescana — which boasts three Michelin stars and ranks second on the list of the world’s best restaurants — for nearly a decade.

At Tokuyoshi, he weaves Japanese aesthetics and cultural references together with authentically Italian flavors to create a highly personal style of modern cooking. The intention, he says, is to play with perceptions and change the way guests experience the meal.

Now, Tokuyoshi is applying the same concept to its drinks list. Starting this month, the restaurant will offer innovative cocktail and sake pairing options, in addition to a wine menu.

“Our sommelier team made cocktails to match the food, and I thought the approach was interesting, something different,” he says.

Beverage pairing has been an integral part of the dining experience at Tokuyoshi from the outset. Each dish comes with a sip of fresh fruit juice, served in a dainty ōchokko (sake cup). The cocktail program is an extension of the juice pairings, augmenting the flavor possibilities and adding layers of complexity.

I had the chance to preview the new combinations when the Tokuyoshi staff took over Bella Vista restaurant in the Hotel New Otani in Tokyo for a special three-day event last month. The chef’s signature scarpetta — a plate splattered with five colorful purees and topped with pieces of seafood that guests use to scoop up the sauces — was paired with a green elixir called Mediterraneo Kachiwari. A savory and herbal blend of gin, olive juice and bay leaf, the cocktail was served in a clear bag with a straw — a nod to the custom of drinking iced beverages from plastic bags at Japanese festivals. “We wanted to bring a little of that fun atmosphere to the table,” says Tokuyoshi’s restaurant manager, Alfonso Bonvini.

An evocative mix of Suwa Izumi tokubetsu junmai-shu sake from Tottori Prefecture and duck consomme accompanied the tsukune (grilled meatball), which is made with minced duck and rolled in dried herbs. Served warm, the cocktail was distantly reminiscent of my mother’s Chinese chicken soup. The earthiness of the duck broth, together with the ricey sweetness from the sake, complemented the dish nicely.

Interestingly, the most ingenious match — presented alongside a plate of saffron-flavored pasta with sea urchin from Hokkaido — was also the most counterintuitive. My eyes narrowed in skepticism as Bonvini placed a paper coffee cup before me and described its contents: a vodka-based concoction of grapefruit juice spiked with sea urchin and bitter-gourd extract. On its own, the drink was pleasant but slightly disjointed, the sharp edges of its elements apparent on the palate. With the pasta, however, the cocktail tasted like a beach at sunrise. It was a moment of delicious alchemy.

If traveling to Milan is not on your agenda, you may be able to catch Tokuyoshi in Tokyo. Over the past two years, the chef has done several events in Japan and plans to make a return visit next year.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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