A new restaurant taking its earliest baby steps. A young chef, as yet unknown, but already with an impressive resume under his belt. And an extensive tasting menu spanning a dozen dishes of considerable complexity.
The venue: Elan, in Harajuku’s revamped Gyre building. The chef: Ryoma Shida, lately of the elegant, always excellent Esquisse in Ginza. The occasion: Shida’s very first dinners in his own restaurant. Needless to say, as the hors d’oeuvres begin to arrive, expectations are running high, albeit spiked with a certain tension.
First up, to prime the taste buds, a shot glass of warm potage served over crisp, finely diced nukazuke pickled vegetables. Next, to further open the senses, a light blancmange made with renkon (lotus root), adorned with colorful morsels of uni (sea urchin), “petals” of starchy yurine (lily root) and dabs of kinkan (kumquat) compote.
Raising the ante a notch, a small patty of minced suppon (turtle) nestled in a consomme of the same meat, with ginkgo nuts and pureed shungiku (garland chrysanthemum) greens on the side. As a sequence, this is an opening statement of both confidence and subtlety. The whispers of anticipation begin to blossom into murmurs of approval.
It is the following dish, though, that erases all doubts. A small, pan-fried package of shirako (cod milt), lightly browned on the exterior and bursting open to reveal the rich, warming creaminess inside. Accented with a confit of citron and topped with a single leaf of lightly bitter urui, an early spring herb gathered wild in the Japanese uplands, it is served with a thick sauce of vin jaune.
Outstanding in execution, presentation and the assured balance of flavors, it amounts to only a couple of bites. But this is the moment of reassurance, the point at which it becomes clear to all present that the rest of the meal — courses of fish, langoustine, a superb main dish of roast Kyoto Nanatani duck, a small but impeccable cheese plate, and a succession of desserts and petit fours — will unfold with finesse.
It’s no surprise that Shida is spreading his wings. He hails from an impressive lineage. As a trainee, he snagged a spot at the fabled three-Michelin-star Maison Troisgros in Roanne, France. Then after stints at L’Osier (in Tokyo) and Hotel de Crillon (Paris), he joined the opening kitchen crew at Esquisse in Ginza, under chef Lionel Beccat — himself an alumnus of the Troisgros family.
From there, he worked his way up through the ranks for seven years, helping Beccat gain two Michelin stars of his own and eventually rising to sous-chef. In 2015, he represented Japan in the S.Pellegrino Under-35 Young Chef competition. Now, still just 32, he has a kitchen of his own to run.
Needless to say, there are plenty of echoes of Esquisse in Shida’s cuisine — and indeed of Troisgros. This is evident in the way he incorporates typically Japanese ingredients, such as burdock and sansai (wild mountain vegetables), into dishes that lie firmly within the French canon, all the while reflecting the changing seasons.
He prefers to work with Kaga yasai, the heirloom vegetables grown in the area around Kanazawa, delivered directly from Ishikawa Prefecture to his restaurant. This is not due to any personal allegiance to the region — he himself is Tokyo born and bred — just his preference for their quality and consistency.
At the same time, though, Elan is half the size of Esquisse with just 22 seats in its intimate dining room. And his tasting menus are, initially at any rate, more affordable. But the biggest point of difference has to be the decor and setting.
Ever since the Gyre building opened in 2008, dining has been the focus for its fourth floor. But last autumn it underwent a remarkable overhaul. Under the direction of architect Tsuyoshi Tane, it has been opened up and given a homogenous interior of earth-brown walls, offset throughout with thick banks of shrubbery.
Elan occupies one corner, discreetly screened off from its neighbors on this floor. Eatrip Soil, a retail offshoot of chef/food writer Yuri Nomura’s rootsy restaurant of the same name, specializes in artisanal food and ecological products. There’s also a casual all-day dining area, called Eureka, and a capacious cafe/bar/event space (known as Funklein), which instead of tables and chairs boasts a ziggurat configuration of timber cubes to squat on.
It’s a strange and unexpectedly alternative space to find in the swish heart of Harajuku, especially with the designer brands on the lower floors. Most surprising of all, and equally gratifying, is that it includes fine dining of the caliber of Elan.
Set menus at ¥15,000 & ¥20,000; major cards accepted; some English spoken