Hokkaido Heaven

Food & Drink - December 15th, 2006
Michel Bras restaurant

by Christine Cunanan-Miki

Because of the extravagance, it’s not often I recommend hopping on a plane for a good dinner. In the case of Michel Bras in the hills above Lake Toya in Hokkaido, however, a weekend trip is well worth it.

Our epicurean voyage began with a 90-minute airplane ride from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to Chitose Airport in Hokkaido after work on a Friday evening, followed by a two-hour drive via deserted highways, sleepy villages and finally narrow mountain roads. By the time we arrived at the luxurious Windsor Toya spa, home of the restaurant Michel Bras in Japan, we were too exhausted to eat.

The next day, however, put all qualms about traveling to what seemed like the ends of the earth to rest. We joyfully woke to scenic Lake Toya outside our window and the prospect of a wonderful dinner ahead. Fortunately, the Japanese outlet of this Michelin three-star restaurant from Laguiole, France proved an excellent place to replenish our resources.

To start, I ordered the “gargouillou” of young vegetables and herbs (¥5,460), a signature dish from France which, in the Hokkaido restaurant, is slightly revised to incorporate more local ingredients. This colorful dish is basically a warm salad containing at least 30 different kinds of herbs, vegetables, and flowers, (although our waiter said the number of ingredients sometimes tops 50 depending on the season and the chef’s inclination). My particular salad had a mix of greens, purple and orange flowers, a spray of yellow buds, some dark purple stems, slivers of cucumber, assorted seeds and ground nuts, and lashings of pesto, red pepper, and mayonnaise sauces. Here, in this deceptively simple hodge-podge of a dish, you will appreciate Monsieur Bras’ true artistry since each piece of vegetable or flower tastes flavorful and as fresh as if it was picked from the mountain slope that afternoon.

For my main course, I was encouraged to try another classic, beef slowly roasted in black truffle juice but, frankly, I was put off by the price (¥14,700). So I opted for the pork sausage with parsley (¥5,670), a more moderate Laguiole favorite that has also found its way to Hokkaido, and I was not disappointed. Although local pork was substituted for Aubrac pork here, it was meaty and spicy, but without any of pork’s usual oiliness. Few people probably order sausage for dinner at a fancy restaurant, but I was quite happy to be the maverick that evening.

Finally, being a chocoholic, I had to end my meal with Monsieur Bras’ famous chocolate coulant, a dessert he created and owns the trademark for. It is basically a chocolate cake with slightly crispy crust, which contains hot melted chocolate that oozes out when you break your cake with a fork. It’s not unlike variations you now find in other fine restaurants, although under different names such as fondant au chocolat because of proprietary issues.

Much has been written about this dessert and technique, which Monsieur Bras first unveiled in 1981, and which have since been imitated by others. Many food writers have rhapsodized that this coulant has been copied often but never equaled. Perhaps it was the pastry chef’s day off when I dined, but my cake was dry and the chocolate that was supposed to ooze out and enthrall me never quite made it past the exit. I’ve certainly had better versions in less hallowed surroundings before.

Otherwise, most of the food was wonderful and the service exceptional. The staff, many of whom come from outside Toya, have been well-trained to anticipate almost every need so that I had a replacement table napkin on my lap even before the one I was using had fallen and touched the ground. Details like these determine the second or third star, even for ordinary diners like myself. Now if they would only improve their chocolate coulant…

Start with the gargouillou of young vegetables (¥5,460) and order the slow roasted beef (¥14,700) if your budget will allow.

This restaurant (and hotel) is in the middle of nowhere but you’ll be lucky to get a seat without advance reservation. So be happy
with any seat.

At least ¥60,000 per couple for three courses and two glasses of wine each.

Michel Bras TOYA Japon
The Windsor Hotel TOYA Resort & Spa 11F
Shimizu, Abuta-cho,
Abuta-gun, Hokkaido
Tel. 0142-73-1159