Nanto, Toyama Pref. – If you are among those who believe that anticipation of a great meal is half the enjoyment, then you will love the journey to L’evo. Chef Eiji Taniguchi’s remarkable restaurant lies high in the mountains, a two-hour-plus drive from Toyama City through forests, past lakes and up narrow winding roads until it feels like you can go no further.
For the location alone, it is absolutely worth the adventure. Built on a craggy outcropping, L’evo looks up a narrow canyon towards a massive rock wall deep in the Hida Mountains. Surrounded by verdant forest in summer and covered under a thick blanket of snow in winter, the only sound to be heard is the constant rushing of the fast-running Toga River along the valley floor.
For guests, it’s the ideal setting for a tranquil gastronomic getaway. But for Taniguchi, it’s the realization of a long-held dream, an expression of the strong affinity he feels for this rugged region of Japan.
Born in Osaka into a family of chefs, Taniguchi trained in French cuisine first in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, and then for a spell in France. Back in Japan, he was picked to helm a restaurant inside a new riverside resort in the countryside of Toyama Prefecture. From the moment he arrived in 2010 he was smitten, not so much by the setting — though the backdrop of the snow-capped Tateyama mountain range rising up behind the coastal plain can be stunning — but by the quality of the local ingredients available to him.
By 2014, Taniguchi assumed ownership of the restaurant, updated its name to Cuisine Regionale L’evo, from the French word for “evolution,” and created the launchpad for the innovative dishes that have become his signature. Over the following five and a half years, he won plaudits, awards and a Michelin star. However, he was already planning his next step: not just moving to a new location, but creating an auberge where his guests could stay and fully immerse themselves in nature.
Taniguchi says he already knew where he wanted to set it up. “I first found this place six years ago, when I was on a foraging trip for sansai (wild edible plants),” he says. “I started serious planning about two years later.”
The second iteration of L’evo, which opened in December 2020, stands on the site of an abandoned hamlet once populated by foresters and hunters. In its place, Taniguchi has created a new settlement built in a simple, contemporary architectural style that blends unobtrusively into the surroundings.
He says he had two goals for the project. “First, it was important not to destroy the natural setting. And second, I wanted to create a dining room people will be excited to enter.” Mission accomplished on both counts.
The six low-slung buildings include three “cottages” for overnight guests, each of varying size and degree of luxury. Off to one side there is also a sauna, where in winter guests can dive straight into the snow outside in proper Nordic mode. But the hub of this compact complex is the restaurant.
Although only three groups (of a maximum four people) can stay at the auberge each night, the dining room can fit up to 26 for both lunch and dinner. Besides the four counter seats that look into the spacious, spotless open kitchen, there are also two small private chambers that boast the finest vistas on the entire property.
Taniguchi draws from the full gamut of local seasonal ingredients. The steep, forested mountainside offers game, wild plants and mushrooms. The waters of Toyama Bay are one of the most fertile fishing grounds in all Japan. The many rivers nearby provide freshwater fish. And from the lowland plains he sources his noodles, organic vegetables, sake and condiments.
From the opening “Prologue” of finger foods to the final dessert, all are beautifully represented on an intricate 13-course menu that is studded with standout dishes.
Cuts of gando (a local term for yellowtail) sashimi are served in fine slices of scarlet aka-daikon radish, together with generous scoops of sturgeon caviar that Taniguchi cures and prepares himself.
Slivers of meat from a tsukinowaguma (Asian black bear), lean at the end of its hibernation, are encased in a nikogori gelee prepared from a consomme of the same meat, along with zenmai ferns and uni (sea urchin).
Tiny, one-bite firefly squid, landed from the depths of Toyama Bay, are briefly seared over a wood fire and served in an umami-rich soup prepared from their own juices.
Fresh wheat noodles, a traditional Toyama specialty known as ōkado sōmen, are immersed in a broth thickened with local goat cheese and accented with an oil infused with the deep-green, floral bitterness of foraged fukinoto (wild butterbur buds).
One of the most brilliant offerings is Taniguchi’s signature L’evo chicken. The young fowl, a Plymouth Rock crossbreed, are raised according to the chef’s specifications by a farm in the hills. Housed in spacious conditions, though not totally free-range due to the constant presence of foxes and other mountain predators, they are fed on a custom mix of rice fermented with rice bran and sake lees from the nearby Masudashuzo brewery, famous for its Masuizimi sake brand.
Taniguchi takes the chicken breast and leg meat, combines it with glutinous rice moistened with bear fat, then packs it back onto the bone and wraps it inside its skin. Slowly grilled over the wood fire, the meat develops a profound flavor to match the smoky aroma. Served with a lightly piquant mustard sauce, it is a high point in a meal with numerous peaks.
There is still plenty more to follow: cod from Toyama Bay grilled over the wood fire and daubed black with squid ink; a wedge cut from a whole red turnip that was cooked long and slow inside a salt crust and served with a foam prepared from sweet kijōshu sake; and medallions of local nihonjika deer that Taniguchi breaks down himself and ages for a month. This is a feast that more than repays the long journey into the mountains.
Taniguchi calls his approach at L’evo “avant-guard regional cuisine.” And certainly there is no one cooking the foods of this region of Japan with similar breadth of skill and imagination, least of all in such a pristine location.
But his influence and impact extend well beyond the culinary field. From the outset, Taniguchi has also championed local architects and artisans. The furniture, tableware, pottery and glasses he uses are all produced by hand within the prefecture.
Several courses are served in beautifully textured wooden bowls, or on platters with jagged edges held together by metal staples. Straddling the cusp between art and craft, these are the work of Shimoo Design, a husband-and-wife team who have developed a range of highly distinctive products that meld roughness with refinement. The pair’s studio is also responsible for the dining tables, with their vividly grained surfaces and concealed under-table drawers.
Slide your drawer open and you will find the day’s menus printed onto a slip of shike silk backed with washi paper. This prized material is made from threads obtained from rarely found “double cocoons.” It is now produced in only one place, the historic community of Johana in the nearby mountains, where sixth-generation weaver Noriko Matsui has revived the traditional cottage industry.
By promoting local ventures and commissioning local artisans, Taniguchi is also setting higher standards of agricultural practice and drawing guests deep into mountainous regions that would otherwise be rarely visited. In short, he is breathing new life into a region which, in recent decades, has been steadily losing its population and pride in its traditional culture.
Despite being open for less than half a year, the 2021 Michelin Guide to Toyama Prefecture, published May 19, awarded L’evo two stars, along with a Green star in recognition of Taniguchi’s sustainable practices. It is more than fitting for a destination restaurant that is undoubtedly worth a special trip.
The Japan Times Cube’s annual “Destination Restaurants” selection showcases the abundant food culture on offer outside of Japan’s major cities.
Tanoshima 100, Togamura-Taikanba, Nanto, Toyama 939-2518; 0763-68-2115; levo.toyama.jp; lunch from 12 p.m., dinner from 6 p.m.; closed Wed.; set menu ¥22,000; takeout not available; nearest station Johana; nonsmoking; major cards accepted; English menu; English spoken
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