by Christine Cunanan-Miki

For fine French food served in old-fashioned Japanese style, there’s no better place than Apicius, one of Tokyo’s most respected restaurants. Here, in a wood-paneled dining room reminiscent of those found in luxury cruise liners from the last century, Japanese captains of industry have wined and dined everyone over the past two decades: from VIP clients and valuable contacts, to wives, mistresses and even favorite geisha or Takarazuka stars. All this happens—with utmost discretion, of course—in the basement of a tired-looking Marunouchi building accessed via a rather dark and nondescript stairway.

At the bottom of the stairs, however, you will find a restaurant that might have been a museum—or perhaps it is a mini-museum that just happens to serve good food. There’s a Rodin sculpture by the entrance, and original works by Goya and Chagall in the lobby and salon. The dining room itself is lined with large oil paintings by Utrillo, Buffet, and still more Chagall. In spite of the restaurant’s formality and all the precious art around, however, one feels strangely at home. This is all due to the charms of Matsumoto-san, the restaurant director, and his staff, who are properly reserved, extremely knowledgeable about food and wine, and yet disarmingly friendly; and all of them—there are about as many waiters and sommeliers as there are guests—inspire confidence that an evening at Apicius will progress seamlessly, comfortably and deliciously.

Meanwhile, the cooking is classic French flavored with restraint, served with simplicity, and laden with such choice ingredients that extra seasoning is unnecessary.

To fully sample the talents of the chef, we ordered the signature dishes that have made Apicius famous. Our first course, a vegetable cream mousse layered with caviar and sea urchins, has been winning diners over since the restaurant’s opening 24 years ago. The mousse resembled a mound of vanilla ice cream, and it swam in a clear gold gel of cold beef consomme that melted instantly in the mouth, bursting with flavor. Next, a hot consomme of turtle soup arrived, accompanied by Parmesan bread sticks for dipping. The cognac-colored soup, flecked with tiny cubes of gelatin taken from the rims of the shells of turtles from the Ogasawara islands, was so thick and sticky that the sommelier recommended a glass of 25-year-old sherry to drink it down. Yes, you read right: we had sherry with our turtle soup and this unlikely combination worked very well.

For the main course, slices of wild duck, almost rare, were arranged on our plates like sashimi on beds of blood-red sauce, and accompanied by two pureed sauces of chestnut and celery. This dish used no other flavoring, which made me appreciate the big difference between the mildness of domesticated duck meat and the heavy, smoky flavor of wild duck. This may not be a dish for everyone, but if you like game, Apicius’ signature wild duck dish is a must-order.

One of Apicius’ famous desserts, chilled peach soup with chocolate mousse, came decorated with pistachio nuts and bits of red peach that resembled a Hallmark greeting card design. We sipped spoonfuls, expecting to be drowned in sweet syrup, and instead were disconcerted by the refreshing coldness of absolutely pure peach flavor. It was like we had stuck straws into juicy Yamanashi peaches and drank the contents up. With such a light flavor as a background, you would think chocolate would be more of a burden. However, as with the other combinations we had sampled so far, this strange mix was a big winner.

Start with caviar and sea urchin covered with a vegetable cream mousse (¥5,880) and the hot consomme of turtle (¥2,940). Even those who are not keen on turtles should try this delicacy once, and few places are still serving this.

The restaurant has a superb wine list to suit any palate and budget. Yet this is clearly a restaurant for big spenders. The tables around us were all opening bottles of the fabled Domaine de la Romanee-Conti (DRC) wines, which ranged in price from ¥65,000 to ¥1.2 million.

Lots of very important Japanese and a handful of old-time foreigners who still remember when Apicius was one of the few decent fine dining French restaurants around.

¥45,000 will cover the cost of a multi-course meal and several glasses of wine for two.

Sanshi Kaikan Bldg., B1
No. 9-4 1-Chome, Yurakucho,
Tel. 03-3214-1361