At first, the concept behind Spice Lab Tokyo, which seeks to marry the cuisines of India and Japan, sounds like an intriguing but improbable proposition. Indian cooking, with its pantheon of spices, relies on the kaleidoscopic layering of flavors, while the Japanese kitchen emphasizes simplicity. How can one balance the maximalist complexity of Indian recipes with Japanese cuisine’s understated grace?
For executive chef Tejas Sovani, 34, the answer is straightforward, but far from easy: The task requires time, effort and — above all — patience. It’s a lesson he gleaned during an apprenticeship at restaurant Noma in Copenhagen five years ago.
“At Noma, there may be hundreds of trials before a dish ever makes it to the table. I learned to never give up, and that’s helped me put the cuisine (at Spice Lab) together,” he says, explaining that the training taught him to consider food culture from various perspectives.
After Denmark, he returned to India later that year to helm restaurant Amaranta in Delhi’s The Oberoi Gurgaon, where he gained praise for his innovative take on Indian fine dining, before relocating to Japan last year to lead the team at Spice Lab. His experience at Noma, Sovani says, prepared him for his new role in Tokyo by teaching him how to cope in an unfamiliar environment.
“The concepts and ingredients seemed so foreign and difficult,” the soft-spoken and unfailingly polite chef recalls. “Initially, I felt discouraged, but I knew that I had to face my fears.”
This ability to overcome uncertainty came in handy when he moved to Tokyo, where he encountered cultural differences and a language barrier. But Sovani’s more daunting challenge was introducing a new category of cuisine in one of the world’s most demanding markets, where there is not only an expectation of quality, but pre-existing ideas of Indian food as something that is primarily casual.
“Guests come and expect it to be completely Indian, but when they hear the story, they realize it’s very different. They relate to the Japanese ingredients and understand that it’s a global cuisine,” Sovani says, noting that the curries and naan typically associated with South Asian restaurants are intentionally absent at Spice Lab.
He credits the restaurant’s success to the support of its international team — in particular, sous chef Akira Himukai, who provides valuable insight as a Japanese chef. Before launching, Himukai spent a month in India studying the food culture, and he and Sovani experimented with Japanese techniques and ingredients from Japan.
“Balance is incredibly difficult because the approach is totally different in both cuisines. If you try to bring out the flavor of the ingredient, then you might lose the impact of the spices; but if you push the flavor of the spices, you kill the natural flavor of the ingredients,” Himukai says.
Continuous trial and error is the key to Sovani’s recipe development. Dishes start with an idea taken from Indian regional cuisine or culture — for example, street food in Mumbai or Ayurvedic holistic medicine — and incorporate seasonal local ingredients, along with elements from the Japanese kitchen, such as miso, or the technique of marinating seafood between blades of konbu kelp.
“So many dishes have bombed completely,” Sovani says with a laugh, describing an experiment of spiny lobster flavored with sweet miso and tomato, then topped with sea urchin and caviar. “It was like a crowded street in Delhi. That might work in India, but not for this audience.”
On a visit to Spice Lab in September, the first bite — tomato gelee with pickled cucumber and salted kelp, crowned with a sliver of deep-fried curry leaf — demonstrates the principles of universal deliciousness: a balanced mouthful of umami and acidity, with a hit of spice and fat from the curry leaf. Another dish of mustard-marinated ayu (sweetfish) served with a smear of tade (water pepper) herb paste, inspired by the cuisine of Kerala on India’s southwestern coast, is an unexpected and delicious riff on a classic Japanese summer delicacy.
In October, the autumn menu explores other regions and traditions of the Indian subcontinent. A plump grilled prawn, resting in a pool of chili- and coconut-scented bisque, pays homage to the former French settlement of Pondicherry and the area’s interpretation of bouillabaisse. Roasted guinea fowl brushed with savory-sweet teriyaki sauce, alongside maitake mushroom and a sauce enriched with warm spices and ground sesame seeds, reimagines the game meat-heavy royal cuisine of northern India. Sovani’s classical French training ties everything together with a ribbon of finesse. In a nod to Japanese food culture, the meal ends with rice: Clay pot-cooked biryani is steamed with a fragrant medley of mushrooms and accompanied by three sauces.
Apart from a handful of chefs — such as Gaggan Anand of the now-closed Michelin-starred restaurant Gaggan in Bangkok — few have attempted to combine Indian and Japanese cuisine, but Sovani makes a convincing case for it. Spice Lab celebrates its first anniversary in November, and the restaurant is sure to develop in ways that further challenge perceptions of Indian food.
“The word ‘evolution’ is very important. Cuisine has to adapt so that it can survive,” Sovani says. “Ours is a restaurant that is very much of this time and of this place.”
Gicros Ginza Gems 10F, Ginza 6-4-3, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061; 03-6274-6821; spicelabtokyo.com; open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. (L.O.), 6-9 p.m. (L.O.); lunch from ¥2,900, dinner from ¥8,800