Christine Cunanan-Miki finds an elegant enclave in Shinjuku
“This restaurant may very well be a great anaba (good, unknown spot)” my husband said, as we drove home one recent evening after dinner at Twenty One, the French restaurant of the Hilton Tokyo in Nishi Shinjuku. “Few people would think of coming all the way here for fine dining.”
And true enough, this elegant and modern restaurant with a rather odd name in a rather odd corner of Tokyo is full of pleasant surprises. The atmosphere is relaxing compared to the frenetic bustle of Shinjuku — or even of the rest of the hotel — and food is fancy but comfortingly good, and in a very down-to-earth way. The cooking at Twenty One may be beautifully presented haute cuisine, but almost every dish on the menu is made with ingredients you’ll be able to pronounce, and that probably occupied space in your refrigerator at one point or another. For instance, juicy pieces of lobster are paired with mozzarella cheese and balsamic vinegar, while paper-thin slices of raw tuna are drizzled with flowers and served with peaches.
I sampled their five-course epicurean menu (¥17,325), and was thoroughly delighted with everything that arrived. The warm soup of leeks, sour cream, and caviar (Veloute de Poireaux tiede, ¥1,250) was very original and it had just the right blend of creaminess and sourness, while a fillet of honey-coated snapper (Pave de snapper cuit meuniere, ¥4,830) was light, fresh, sweet, and perfectly paired with a tangy tomato tart. Meanwhile, few high-end French restaurants in France or Japan serve a plain beef fillet these days because it just seems so ordinary, but I’m certainly glad that Twenty One does. Their version of the quintessential filet de boeuf (Filet de boeuf en croute d’herbes, ¥9,500) comes perfectly grilled and resting on a delicious bed of bread crumbs, cheese, rosemary and thyme. It reminded me of a dish that is a great favorite among the locals in one part of Normandy, where generous slabs of beef are grilled and then doused with a Camembert cheese and herb sauce. A serious foodie in the little town of Cabourg introduced me to this and I was hooked. Afterwards I looked all over Paris for it, to no avail, only to find this similar but infinitely more refined version now in Tokyo!
The chefs behind this delicious no-nonsense cooking are Stephane Gaborieau, owner-chef of the Michelin-starred Paris restaurant Le Pergolese, and Andre Bosia, Twenty One’s new chef who arrived a few weeks ago from a stint in the Middle East. Mr. Gaborieau, who has been at the helm of several Michelin-starred establishments in France since 1995, was recently awarded the highly-coveted Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF). The MOF is an award bestowed by the French government on outstanding craftsmen after a rigorous and very competitive selection process, and MOF chefs (including legends like Paul Bocuse and Joel Robuchon) literally become demi-gods in this food-crazy nation. Meanwhile, Mr. Bosia, who worked with Mr. Gaborieau in Lyon, arrived in Tokyo with a strict mandate to follow the famous chef’s recipes and style to the letter — which he does so wonderfully that it’s almost like having Mr. Gaborieau cooking for you.
If you’d like to actually see the famous chef in action, Stephane Gaborieau will be in Tokyo from Oct. 21-29 to prepare seasonal specialties for the restaurant and to conduct a series of luncheon cooking demonstrations (Oct. 23-25). It’s not often that an MOF chef will let ordinary mortals like us in on his cooking secrets, so don’t miss out on this opportunity if you’ve always fancied trying your hand at proper French cooking.
WHAT TO EAT
Skip the appetizers and order the warm leek soup, which is pure bliss if you like sour cream. For your main course, try the grilled Yamagata beef steaks which come in a lean cut (Filet de boeuf Yamagata en croute d’herbes, ¥9,500) or in a larger and fattier sirloin (Entrecote de boeuf Yamagata, ¥12,700). And forget about dieting as it will be a Crime to skip dessert. The light chocolate sabayon with green tea ice cream (Sabayon leger au chocolat, glace au the matcha, ¥1,260) and the crispy waffle with strawberries (Gaufre croustillante aux trios fraises, ¥1,260) are outstanding.
WHAT TO DRINK
Splurge on two outstanding and very interesting New World wines. The Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2001 (¥16,000 per bottle) is complex and full-bodied, and has been dubbed Australia’s no. 1 Chardonnay. For reds, the Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve 2000 (¥13,000 per bottle) is one of the best New World Pinot Noirs I have had in a long time, comparable to many top French red burgundy wines. But start your meal with a refreshing glass of Voss sparkling mineral water from Norway (¥1,470 for 800 ml), which is so light it’s almost like drinking air!
WHERE TO SIT
Apparently, the regulars fight over the tables right across the open kitchen counter, with a great view of the action. Chef Bosia’s stainless steel kitchen, by the way, is probably one of the quietest in Tokyo. We heard nothing like the clanging of a frying pan or the dropping of a fork the entire evening.
HOW MUCH DID IT COST
Budget at least ¥30,000 for a dinner set menu for two and several glasses of wine.
WHO GOES THERE
There were several Japanese couples and a lady in a gorgeous kimono who seemed to be a regular.
WHO TO ASK FOR
Most of the restaurant staff speak English, but ask for Namise-san if you’re looking for a particularly fluent waitress.
Hilton Tokyo 2F, 6-6-2 Nishi Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Tel. 03-3344-5111 extension 325