Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

Alter Ego: Synergy and creativity, from Italy to Japan

by Robbie Swinnerton

Contributing Writer

In Italy, they say, all roads lead to Rome. But in Tokyo’s Jinbocho district there’s a quiet pedestrian alley that now faces squarely toward Milan and the innovative restaurant there run by Japanese chef Yoji Tokuyoshi. The reason? Alter Ego, his eagerly awaited first project back in his homeland, is up and running, and it’s brilliant.

Tokuyoshi’s path to this point has been long and circuitous. In 2004, he set off to Italy eager to imbibe as much culinary wisdom as possible. Almost by chance he ended up at Osteria Francescana in Modena, where he worked under chef Massimo Bottura, now world-renowned but then little-known. After the best part of a decade, he left to set up his own self-named restaurant, winning a Michelin star within a year for his refined but idiosyncratic take on Italian cuisine.

Finally, after 15 years away, he has now made his move in Japan. But Alter Ego is not merely a clone of his operation in Milan. For a start, he himself will not be in the kitchen. The chef in charge here — indeed, you could say Tokuyoshi’s alter ego — is Hidehito Hirayama, his right-hand man for the past three years.

Nor is the food identical, although it springs from the same exciting spark of inventive genius. Together the two chefs have developed a range of new recipes for Alter Ego’s seven-course omakase tasting menu. Some will change with the seasons, while others are intended as year-round signature dishes.

Among the latter is a pizza — not the real thing but a deconstructed homage complete with miniature pizza delivery box — that kicks off dinner. Another specialty is marinated jumbo shiitake that magically evoke the texture of premium abalone, albeit with less chewiness. And to close, you will be treated to freshly made Sicilian cannoli stuffed with whipped cream.

There are plenty of other standouts on the current menu. Who knew that freshly sliced premium prosciutto makes such an outstanding foil for lightly marinated sashimi-quality tuna? And right now Hirayama is serving some superb roast duck — wild, net-caught fowl — which he pairs with creamy shirako (cod milt).

While winter still rules, you may be given handmade fresh ravioli stuffed with wild boar and bathed in suppon turtle broth. You can also expect a rice course that beautifully blurs the distinction between risotto and Japanese tamago kake gohan (hot rice with raw egg).

What makes Alter Ego even more worth knowing, though, is the location. It occupies the premises that were formerly home to Den. Tokuyoshi has brightened up the interior, but the layout is untouched: The same inscrutable entrance; that same counter where you sit looking right into the kitchen; and the same sense that you have arrived somewhere more than a bit special.

Those who remember this iconic setting will not be disappointed. Everyone else can just look forward to a synergy between food and place that promises to be just as magical for Alter Ego as it was for Den.

Dinner from 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. (two sittings); set menu from ¥15,000, wine pairing ¥6,000; Japanese menu; English spoken