Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

Signature: New chef leads with bold opening gambit

by Robbie Swinnerton

Contributing Writer

It always feels special taking the elevator up to the Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo, and even more so as you disembark on the 37th floor. That opulent bar; that view across the city, with Mount Fuji on the horizon; that sense of having left behind the mundane, quotidian world far below.

Now there’s another reason to make that ride. Signature, the hotel’s flagship French restaurant, is undergoing a radical makeover. Not that you’ll notice immediately; the dining room remains untouched. What’s changed is on your plate: Signature has a new, young chef and he’s shaking up the menu.

Luke Armstrong is still in his early 30s, but he’s already packed a lot into his career as a cook. He arrived in Tokyo late last year from Bacchanalia in Singapore, where his accomplished modern French cuisine won a Michelin star within six months of his becoming head chef.

Young face, experienced hands: Still in his early 30s, Luke Armstrong has become the new head chef of Signature after stints at several one-, two- and three-Michelin-starred restaurants around the world. | COURTESY OF SIGNATURE
Young face, experienced hands: Still in his early 30s, Luke Armstrong has become the new head chef of Signature after stints at several one-, two- and three-Michelin-starred restaurants around the world. | COURTESY OF SIGNATURE

Before that he was in London, working at Pied a Terre (one star) and The Ledbury (two stars), and later at Oud Sluis (three stars) in the Netherlands. That pedigree is obvious from the outset in the finesse he brings to his cooking. Equally on display is his enthusiasm for seafood, which was nurtured from a young age growing up on the ocean in Perth, Western Australia.

“My passion is wild food,” Armstrong declares. “I’m not so into foraging, but I love game. And I’m passionate about sourcing wild fish direct from the various ports as they come into season.”

At dinner recently, the meal opens with a creamy-dreamy, light-as-foam mousseline of bafun uni sea urchin and Champagne, seasoned with sea water and adorned with Kristal caviar. As a second appetizer, he sends out fruit tomato topped with elegant dabs of elderflower cream, emulsion of mizuna (Japanese mustard greens) and a small spoonful of citrus gelee, all bathed in a gazpacho broth.

It’s a great opening gambit, but immediately eclipsed by the course that follows. A fillet of kinmedai (splendid alfonsino), the skin beautifully crisped, paired with aori-ika squid, sauteed leek and another small spoonful of caviar. It looks simple on the plate, but it tastes outstanding.

Nothing fishy about this flavor: Armstong dry-ages his fish for three to four days before cooking it at high heat, as with this fillet of amadai (tilefish) sourced from Yamaguchi Prefecture. | COURTESY OF SIGNATURE
Nothing fishy about this flavor: Armstong dry-ages his fish for three to four days before cooking it at high heat, as with this fillet of amadai (tilefish) sourced from Yamaguchi Prefecture. | COURTESY OF SIGNATURE

How does Armstrong get that firmness of texture and concentration of flavor? His secret is to dry-age the fish at 1 degree Celsius, usually for three or four days, and then to cook it fast, a mere half minute or so over high heat. After a decade or more of being subjected to flabby sous vide fish, the intensity of taste and texture comes as a revelation.

Ditto with the beef dish that follows. It’s a roasted fillet of A5 wagyu from Hokkaido, which he prepares in a similar way to the kinmedai, although it is dry-aged for considerably longer. On this occasion, he pairs it with a fricassee of mountain vegetables with a Madeira sauce.

And here lies the other key facet of Armstrong’s cooking: his sauces. He changes them daily, making fish consommes fresh each morning, then reducing his meat sauces for dinner during the afternoon. It’s laborious work, especially in a restaurant with 70 seats — compared to just 28 at his last post in Singapore — but one he takes pride in.

He is also very hands-on when it comes to the wines, working closely with Signature’s new head sommelier. Before, the cellar was heavily weighted toward French vintages. These days you’re likely to find your dishes paired with English sparkling wine, Aussie chardonnay, even Georgian amphora wines, not just the classic Burgundies and clarets.

It has taken Armstrong six months to get the menu the way he wants it, and his kitchen crew up to speed. And now, finally, he’s made his official debut. Hopefully this is just the first step, though: Signature’s decor is still rooted in the past, and will need a major facelift to keep in step with its new cuisine.

Meanwhile, Armstrong says he’s only just getting going: “I get out of bed in the morning for cooking. I love it. I’m obsessed by it. Right now, my work is about having a full restaurant, getting to know the people, our clientele. But my ambition is to have three Michelin stars one day, and to be on The World’s 50 Best list.”

Don’t bet against it.

Lunch from ¥5,900; dinner from ¥15,900; English menu; English spoken

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