“Cooking here is like being on a boat,” chef Jerome Quilbeuf jokes. He’s not wrong. The tiny kitchen at Gracia, Quilbeuf’s pocket-sized restaurant that opened late last month, would be considered tight anywhere, even on a yacht.

There’s nothing unusual about chefs in Japan operating in kitchens the size of closets. Indeed, Tokyo has a whole parallel universe of tiny counter restaurants, ranging from sushi to kappō (traditional Japanese cuisine) and elegant “dining bars” serving French, Italian and other cuisines.

Now add Gracia to that number. In homage to Catalonia, the region he called home until moving here, Quilbeuf terms his new restaurant a “gastrobar” — serving the kind of casual fine dining embraced in Barcelona, especially in its upmarket Gracia district. This is the perfect showcase for his pedigree.

For over a decade, Quilbeuf worked for the renowned Catalan chef Carme Ruscalleda, first at her three-Michelin-star Sant Pau and later as executive chef of its two-star Tokyo outpost. Now he finally has his own place in the recently launched Eat Play Works building in Hiroo. It may be a lot more easygoing (and easy on the wallet) than his alma mater, but he’s not compromising on the quality of his ingredients.

First-class fish: Smoked bonito served with a delicate ajo blanco (white gazpacho) | ROBBIE SWINNERTON
First-class fish: Smoked bonito served with a delicate ajo blanco (white gazpacho) | ROBBIE SWINNERTON

Having taken your place at the seven-seat counter, do not fail to start your meal with an order of jamon: Joselito Gran Reserva is the finest cured ham in Spain. Made from acorn-fed Iberico black pigs and matured for at least 36 months, it also pairs perfectly with Gracia’s premium cava.

From there, allow Quilbeuf and his trusty assistant, Seiichiro Otaki (also a Sant Pau alumnus), carte blanche to rustle up a selection of starters. Perhaps one-bite deep-fried croquetas of gambas (shrimp) adorned with jalapeno mayonnaise; maybe a plate of patatas bravas (spicy fried potatoes); and most definitely some slices of pan con tomate (lightly toasted bread rubbed with tomato).

The seafood is first class. Witness the smoked bonito served with a delicate ajo blanco (white gazpacho) along with bite-sized chunks of peach. Its light yuzu koshō (yuzu citrus, chili pepper paste) piquancy is as precisely modulated as the finesse with which it is plated.

But Quilbeuf’s signature dish is a more down-to-earth creation. A bocadillo sandwich made from Iberico pluma — a rare cut of tender, lean pork — that’s briefly seared on the plancha, arranged between slices of toast and topped with Tasmanian seed mustard. It’s brilliant, satisfying and could well give Tokyo’s much-hyped wagyu katsu (beef cutlet) sandwich a run for its money.

Close the evening with a slice of the unctuous, rich tonka chocolate tart or, better yet, Gracia’s classic Basque cheesecake and you will leave well replete, already making plans for a repeat visit.

In the meantime, keep your eye on the multitalented Quilbeuf, who also owns a pizzeria in Barcelona. In the next couple of months, he will be opening not one but two pizza restaurants — the first in Yokohama, and the other in Tokyo’s Yurakucho area.

Set lunch from ¥3,500, dinner menu from ¥6,000 or a la carte; major cards, cashless only; English menu; limited takeout options; English/French/Spanish spoken

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.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.