On his latest visit to Tokyo, the famed chef told us about a few of his favorite Tokyo spots, and let us in about what he loves about the country.
Sitting at a corner table at his eponymous cafe in Tokyo’s posh Omotesando district, Chef Dominique Ansel is getting curious glares from customers, who are probably wondering if it’s really him. It’s a busy Saturday afternoon at the first floor bakery, where a long queue of people is excitedly waiting to get a taste of Mr. Ansel’s famous sweets, and it’s even busier on the second floor cafe, where we sit to chat a little about sweets, and a lot about Japan.
Mr. Ansel’s story is now well, history: it all started out with the Cronut, a croissant/doughnut hybrid created in 2013 at his New York location that immediately sold out and found itself on Time magazine’s “25 Best Inventions” that year, drawing crowds and commotion. While the flaky cult item still has customers lining up in New York and Tokyo, they keep coming back to the bakery for other must-try items, such as the Chocolate Chip Cookie Shot and the gooey-yet-crispy Frozen S’more.
Mr. Ansel is in town for just a few days, this time to celebrate the bakery’s first anniversary. The Tokyo branch opened last summer, bringing from New York not only the celebrated Cronut, but a plethora of seasonal creations made from local ingredients. “In the past year, we introduced over a hundred creations using local ingredients,” he says. “Just yesterday I went shopping at Tsukiji Market, and I was amazed by the vast selection of local products.” A few of these local products find their way into this summer’s newcomers: two distinctly Japanese ice cream flavors, which just made their debut.
“We just released them today. Actually, I just thought them up yesterday, as I was shopping,” claims Mr. Ansel. The first flavor is an amazake ice cream, based on the traditional sweet rice drink often served at festivals. “I just discovered amazake on my last visit, and thought it would be a very interesting ingredient for a dessert,” he adds. The amazake ice cream is covered with a bit of freshly grated ginger, flavored with Maldon sea salt, and sugared Zanthoxylum piperitum – the fragrant green plant commonly known as sansho in Japan. The combination of the sweet amazake and biting ginger and sansho is a delectable balance of flavors, and refreshing on a hot summer day.
The other ice cream flavor, caramel and sweet corn, will most likely be this summer’s superstar item. Although the mere mention of corn in ice cream left me a tad suspicious, all my concerns melted away as I tasted this sweet concoction. “We cut off the sweet corn, and infused the bits in caramel,” explains Mr. Ansel. The result is simply heavenly, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
Looking for a Flavorful Fusion
It’s not the first time that Mr. Ansel has experimented with typically Japanese ingredients. The chef is known for his creativity and innovation, and his philosophy is about quality, not quantity – hence the limited production of his items. Just a few months ago, he collaborated in New York with Korean-BBQ master Deuki Hong to create a (very) limited-edition Korean French Dip Sandwich. When asked if he would like to recreate this experience in Tokyo, Mr. Ansel said, “Absolutely! I would love to come back and do similar collaboration with Japanese chefs. In fact I have met many of them, and they all have such interesting ways of working. I would actually love to work with a Japanese chef.”
Mr. Ansel has long been drawn to Japan: “I’ve always felt close to the culture … I guess to us, it is amazing. In New York City, where I live now, I often eat Japanese food; there are so many talented chefs there too, some of the best in the world.” While he admires the perfectionism and dedication of Japanese chefs, it goes beyond their attention to detail. “What I love about Japanese cuisine is its simplicity, and the focus on quality. They don’t overwork flavors, or mix them up. When I eat at a restaurant, I never think, ‘oh this isn’t so good, or this is bland.’ It’s always amazing, whether it’s at a Michelin star restaurant or a hole-in-the-wall type of place. Also, they don’t skimp on quality or even portion size,” he adds.
Tokyo Top Favorites
Mr. Ansel is now a Tokyo regular. “Every time I visit, I stay in a different area. My favorite neighborhood is definitely the one around the cafe, Omotesando. Especially the little back streets, away from the main shopping strip. It reminds me of New York City’s SoHo.”
So, where does a world-renowned chef like to eat in Tokyo? I asked Mr. Ansel to divulge a few of his top picks for food:
“First of all, I love yakiniku! We went to this tiny place, which was filled with smoke, it was delicious.” (He didn’t take note of the name, but honestly, what tiny, smoke-filled yakiniku place isn’t completely amazing?)
“I also like kaiseki ryori, the traditional Japanese multi-course dinner. I tried it in a few places”
He then tells me he finally had the chance to eat at Sukiyabashi Jiro, the famed sushi counter. “It was a short meal, but unforgettable,” he says, showing me a photo he took with the famed Ono Jiro himself.
“I also like [Jimbocho] Den, and their signature fried chicken,” he says, referring to the Dentucky Fried Chicken dish.
Mr. Ansel happily adds a few more places: Maisen in Aoyama (tonkatsu), Harajuku Gyoza Lou (a classic), and Tamawarai, a Michelin star soba joint off Cat Street. And finally, any guilty pleasures from the convenience store? “I always pick up boxes of matcha cookies from the convenience store, you know, the sandwich kind with a cream filling,” he laughs.
Mr. Ansel confirms to me that a London branch of the cafe is set to open later this year, in the district of Belgravia. “All the branches are completely different, and just like the ones in New York and Tokyo, we will offer local creations.” The Tokyo branch is obviously thriving one year following its opening, and Mr. Ansel only has wonderful things to say about his growing team.
When I exit the bakery, it’s late afternoon, and the queue is still long. It’s one of those hot, early summer days, but visitors are keeping cool in the line with what look like Frozen S’mores, handed out for free in recognition of their patience (Ansel has been known to pass out cups of hot chocolate to customers in line on very cold days). Between the consideration Ansel shows to his customers and the endless culinary inventions that he keeps coming up with in the kitchen, it’s no wonder that he keeps food lovers on their toes – and coming back.