Although I do not necessarily agree with some of the restaurants chosen for the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant list, Narisawa is one that I can get behind. The Satoyama-inspired cuisine that Yoshihiro Narisawa serves at his sleek Tokyo restaurant is nothing short of a great experience deserving of the restaurant’s accolades. From the 2 Michelin stars to the San Pellegrino Restaurant list naming it the 2nd Best Restaurant in Asia and 8th in the world. The cuisine is elaborate and inventive.
Some of the dishes had such long names and explanations that I had to ask the waiters to repeat them more than once. In fact, I even asked one waiter if I could record his explanations so I could remember for this review. He was definitively proud of working at Narisawa, perhaps even slightly pretentious when reciting each dish. But who could blame him considering the incredibly intricate and ingredient-rich dishes. The restaurant is just that kind of place that inspires you to go back home and experiment with low temperature cooking and forest foraging, as my review of Narisawa below will let you believe.
Arrival and booking at Narisawa
You can book online or call. I would recommend doing so at least two weeks ahead as Narisawa can be quite busy, especially in the evening. The restaurant only has 8 tables in a small square room with an open kitchen concept. You can observe the chef and staff through a glass window. On the restaurant floor there are almost as many servers as there are tables.
Narisawa is located on the ground floor of an office building in a relatively quiet neighbourhood. The decor is an Instagrammer’s paradise where each table has a focus light perfectly illuminating the centre. The tables are far apart enough from each other for you not to hear other guests’ conversation. There is so much going on at all times, in such a confined space, that it feels like you’re alone. For such a small fine dining place, I found the buzz around comforting.
The decor was simple, sleek and in straight lines, with white table cloths, shiny steel and clear glasses. We sat down to a table that was practically empty except for a glass tile with the Narisawa letters engraved on it.
The Satoyama menu
Narisawa only serves a set menu so you don’t have to make a decision. You sit down and get what is on the chef’s specials for the day. You may replace it though if you have any allergies or alternate preferences.
The menu came printed on a little booklet made from rice-paper and tied up with hemp string. It included an explanation on the Satoyama Scenery landscapes and Narisawa’s sustainable and beneficial cuisine philosophy. As Japan is a highly mountainous group of islands, the sea and the forests are never too far from the cities. In fact, the country is 70% covered in forest, something one could forget when in the middle of crowded Tokyo. The Satoyama Scenery refers to this landscape of forests reaching out to the sea that most Japanese people grew up by.
Although the menu does change with the seasons and with what can be found in the forests and rivers, there are staples that have been served for the last few years, namely the Essence of the Forest, the self-raising bread and the beef. They were perhaps some of the most creative and innovative of chef Narisawa’s dishes and perhaps the reason why he keeps serving them. Narisawa defines his style as “innovative Satoyama Cuisine” and after reading about it and experiencing it first hand, this spirit clearly comes through.
To prove it, the menu specifies the origin of each ingredient and covers various provinces and parts of the country from Okinawa to Hokkaido.
Narisawa also had an impressive sake and wine list, but given that my friend Edwin and I were no Japanese wine or sake connoisseurs (and that I had not had any alcohol for over a month) we thought it would be a good idea to ask the waiter for a sake recommendation that would pair well with the menu. Unfortunately, most of the restaurant’s sake bottles were 1,8l which was evidently too much for just the two of us. Therefore, the sommelier recommended a bottle of local wine called Sake Erotique from Obuse Winery in Nagano, a very small winery that produces wines from local Japanese as well as European grapes (mostly German like Muscat). The wine was indeed a great recommendation for the food. Light, fruity and cooled down to the right temperature, it could not have been a better companion to Narisawa’s subtle and delicate flavours.
The set menu consisted 13 dishes and at the end I was pleasantly full, not stuffed like in other fine dining restaurants. There was no room left for more bread although I loved the Bread of the Forest dish and moss butter to match.
“Bread of the forest 2010” Kinome and citrus fruits
As the date indicates, this is a dish that has been a feature on the menu for years. The live wheat bread was left at the table as we arrived, although we only ate it later. Meanwhile, it served as great decoration, wrapped with leaves and tree branches. After the Satoyama Scenery dish, the bread had risen and the waiter cooked it on the table for exactly 12 minutes over a hot stone. The result was two small bread balls cooked to a slightly chewy texture, courtesy of the kinome protein. It also had a citrusy flavour. The best part of the dish had to be the butter it was paired with. Covered with black olive powder and green moss, it made for a great companion to the bread. I very much enjoyed the trick and the taste and only wished there was more of it.
Satoyama scenery and Essence of the Forest
This dish is a great representation of Narisawa’s Satoyama philosophy and perhaps the most famous of his dishes. The dish came on a wooden slate covered with a variety of hand picked mixed herbs and greens. This lay on a bed of home made fermented soy bean yogurt and powders. As it was made with spinach and matcha green tea powder, it was an earthy green. We had to eat the dish with our hands, as if we were foraging in the forest, trying to scoop the tiny powder and particles with our fingers and a small wooden spoon. It was rather unstylish if you ask me.
They served the Forest with a small wooden container where they boiled chestnut and cheddar to retrieve the Forest’s flavour. The dish also came with a lacquered magnolia leaf, served with a piece sumi, charcoal in Japanese. They made the sumi with a sweet onion that had been covered in a black powder then deep fried, giving it the appearance of a piece of charcoal. It was tasty and gimmicky.
Sea snake and taro potato from Okinawa
The snake was a bit of a trick here. They caught and dried the snake and then you cold choose to see it or not. I chose to check it out and grab some pics. The flavour of the soup was rather subtle with only the slightest tinge of chicken broth and vegetable. I could not taste any snake, but then again, I wouldn’t know what snake is supposed to taste like. They cooked the snake meat for 6 hours at 96 degrees in a convection oven. A lot of effort went into an incredibly light dish that was probably sophisticated but escaped me.
They served the snake broth with fava beans on a delicate leaf with matching purée that had a pleasant texture. It came with a squid ink cracker and caviar. Although I dislike the taste and texture of caviar, finding it too fishy, I thought this was a nice morsel. The dish was one of the strangest combinations I could have ever thought of – caviar, snake and beans – but it was interesting.
Botan shrimp from Hokkaido, Water shield from Hiroshima
The next dish was fresh raw shrimps, served sashimi style, with dashi-and-garlic-seasoned salad greens. There was also citrus fruit on the side. Dashi is a common Japanese dressing sauce made of kombu seaweed and dried tuna that is used in several dishes. The water shield plant leaves were reminiscent of Japanese gardens, and gave the plate a lovely aesthetic, as did the edible flowers in bright orange and pink. This was a delicious dish and as incredibly subtle as the rest of the meal. The perfection most likely lies in turning rather strong and pungent ingredients into delicate flavours. It was as delicate as a Geisha’s kimono.
Wild eel from Fukui, Mango from Miyazaki
This was one of the most normal dishes on the menu. It reminded Edwin of the eels that he used to eat and catch in Ireland. Not being a big fan, I must say the combination of the fatty fish with the creamy sweet mango did the dish justice. It was very nice, a bit more flavourful and less subtle than the other dishes. But then again, it was eel, hardly a refined fish in my mind, but Narisawa managed to elevate it. Or maybe it was the setting and the pretty plates.
“Gion Festival” eggplant from Kyoto
No doubt the prettiest of the dishes, the Gion Festival eggplant looked unreal. After being in Tokyo for a few days, I had become accustomed to finding jelly creations all over. It seems that Japanese people love jelly-based desserts and can make beautiful things with it. This dish was incredibly handsome to look at and almost a pity to eat. Made with an eggplant base and topped with some pretty small pink, white and purple edible flowers it was as delicious as it looked. The soft and flavourful eggplant kept with the general subtlety of the menu.
Conger pike from Aichi, White peach from Kumamoto
Strangely, we got more eel. Yet it was a different type this time and came with another type of fruit, a white peach. It was equally good, although less adventurous than the rest of the menu. Conger pike is a traditional Japanese dish which is most likely why the chef included it on the menu. As a result, it was uneventful.
“Luxury Essence 2007” langoustine shrimp from Shizuoka
Much like the previous shrimp dish, the langoustine was as subtle and delicate as can be. Served with an almost imperceptible broth and some green peas, it was an easy to eat and enjoyable dish. Although equally as luscious, the Essence was subdued. With only the mildest of flavours, one had to almost guess the taste.
Rock oyster from Mie
Like caviar, I do not enjoy oysters in general, but this oyster was exquisitely delicate (I am sure you are starting to see a theme develop here). It came fried and in a soupy foam that made it an ideal companion. How the chef managed to keep its freshness without the oyster’s fishy ocean smell is a trick I should ask him.
“Sumi 2009” Kobe beef from Hyogo
Perhaps the star of the dinner (after the strong Essence of the Forest starter) was the Kobe beef. Although I will shamelessly admit that the meat at the Ninja Akasaka was more flavourful and fatty, hence tastier. What made the beef at Narisawa interesting is the chef’s collaboration with a Japanese university to find the right temperature to cook meat. Turns out that the ideal method and temperature for perfectly cooked beef is sous-vide at 60 degrees.
The second sumi of the night was the beef. They cook the meat for 25h at 55 degrees to achieve the perfect medium rare state. The waiter brought the charcoal powder-covered piece of meat to the table next to a piece of charcoal for comparison. It was only when the waiter sliced the meat into two pieces that we saw the pink red interior which was, as expected, cooked to the right medium rare point. Strangely, the real charred leeks were not poisonous and did not kill us. I would have thought that eating charred vegetables was not good for you, but in this case, I gave it a go. The taste was, of course, mild and subtle. Narisawa has shared his recipe for the charred beef online.
Pickled plum from Shizuoka
I don’t like pickles and I am not such a huge fan of plums, although they are both common elements in far east cuisine. But when the dish came through I was mesmerised at the bright crimson red of the plum, the jelly and the overall glass. It was so pretty it looked like a Lladro figurine. And it tasted beautifully too. The pickle texture was imperceptible, so the flavours of the plum came through and it was a great end to the meal.
Green tea from Fukuoka, black sugar cane from Kagoshima
No Japanese meal is complete without a bit of green matcha tea and so this is what we got to enjoy.
Lemon from Shizuoka and Honey from Fukuoka
The very last piece was a lemon mouse and ice cream type of dessert that was quite nice but could not equal the genius plum dish in taste or look. I was still lost there in the perfection of its colour.
The service at Narisawa
I alluded to it at the beginning but the staff at Narisawa had clearly been there for a long time. One of they waiters said he had been working there since 2009. This tenure is quite impressive for a restaurant employee, but then again, Narisawa is a dream place to learn how to manage a restaurant.
Three waiters attended to us. Two were foreign, American and French (and also spoke perfect English) and the third was local. We had good conversations with them and it was clear that they perfectly understood every element and detail of the menu and the restaurant. They were not reciting or repeating, they knew well what they were talking about. When I asked, several times, about origins of ingredients, locations of places, meanings in Japanese and the like I always got the direct and correct answer.
Narisawa review – The verdict
While our bill came to $350 per person with wine, I thought was a reasonable amount considering we were in the world’s most expensive city. This is in particular comparison to my Enoteca Pinchiorri experience a month before. It was exquisite, innovative and creative and you could tell each dish required a lot of effort and love. A meal at Narisawa is an experience, a short but intense trip to Japan’s deep culinary roots and traditions, one worth every penny.