Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

Esterre: Terroir, pedigree and the backing of a French superchef

by Robbie Swinnerton

Contributing Writer

Location is everything, as the saying goes, when it comes to opening a restaurant — and it’s no less true in central Tokyo than anywhere else in the world. But that’s only one reason why Esterre, the beautiful new French restaurant unveiled last month in the ultraluxury Palace Hotel Tokyo, has so much going for it.

First, it boasts one of the prettiest settings in the city, with picture windows overlooking the walls and leafy precincts of the Imperial Palace, down along the broad avenue that just last month carried the new emperor’s ceremonial motorcade. There’s more to it, though: The site now occupied by Esterre commands considerable cachet.

The Palace Hotel, in its original 1960s incarnation, boasted one of Tokyo’s pioneering temples of haute cuisine, the legendary Crown Restaurant, which helped introduce a generation of Japanese diners to elevated, albeit fusty, French gastronomy. But the hotel, redeveloped and reopened in 2012, has now retired the classic name, with Esterre taking its place.

To launch this new era, the hotel turned to French superchef Alain Ducasse to oversee the Crown’s successor. Not only has he brought in the lighter, contemporary style of cooking that is now his calling card, he’s inspired the name itself. In the Occitan dialect of southwest France, from where Ducasse hails, Esterre means “Mother Earth.”

This theme is echoed in the dining room decor, designed by Shinichiro Ogata’s renowned Simplicity studio using organic materials — wood, paper, textiles, mud — and earthy hues to express a “back to mother nature” ethos. It also dovetails with the Ducasse philosophy of incorporating the local terroir — premium produce from small-scale organic farmers and line-caught seafood from independent fishermen — into the cuisine.

Pret-a-porter deluxe: A dish of tuna, avocado and kumquat from Esterre's menu, designed by French chef Alain Ducasse. | COURTESY OF ESTERRE
Pret-a-porter deluxe: A dish of tuna, avocado and kumquat from Esterre’s menu, designed by French chef Alain Ducasse. | COURTESY OF ESTERRE

Chef Martin Pitarque Palomar, formerly in London at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, is the man brought in to put this into practice. Without relying on fireworks or over-elaborate presentation, his cuisine is eminently satisfying.

One great dish to look out for on his current menu is a lovely confit of chickpeas and slivers of eel, topped with glistening caviar. Another standout is his suzuki (sea bass sourced from Akita Prefecture, in northern Japan), which he serves together with autumn squash and an intriguing milk curd infused with the aroma of hay.

Throughout the meal there are many Ducasse points of reference. Early on, a bread trolley is brought to your table so you can watch as the loaves — a choice of sourdough campagne or a heartier seed bread — are sliced in their curious, squat wooden boxes, then served with butter churned inhouse. And your final coffee is accompanied by chocolates freshly made at the Ducasse chocolaterie in nearby Nihonbashi.

While service is as polished as you’d expect at a hotel of this caliber, there is none of the fuss associated with the highest level of Michelin-starred restaurants. As Ducasse himself has put it, drawing on fashion terminology: Esterre is “pret-a-porter deluxe” rather than the “haute couture” of his high-end flagship restaurant in Paris. That should be perfectly good enough for most of us.

Palace Hotel Tokyo 6F, Marunouchi 1-1-1, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-0005; 03-3211-5317; bit.ly/esterre; open daily 11:30 a.m.- 2 p.m. (L.O.), 6-9:30 p.m. (L.O.); lunch from ¥6,500, dinner from ¥15,000; nearest station Otemachi; nonsmoking; major cards; English menu; English spoken