The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G.K. Chesterton

Friday, 18 July 2008

Iron Chef Sakai's La Rochelle, Tokyo

We are huge fans of the Japanese TV program Iron Chef, and we used to watch the old episodes that used to air every Saturday night on SBS in Australia. While we were amused by the exagerrated and theatrical English dubbing, we were at the same time amazed by the excellent culinary creations by talented chefs prepared under a limited amount of time. In the few years of watching Iron Chef, I was introduced to many gourmet ingredients and haute cuisine dishes which only fueled my foodie interests. It was only natural that after moving to Japan, one of the goals for our culinary experiences would be to dine at an Iron Chef restaurant. Our favourite Iron Chef was the charming Iron Chef French, Hiroyuki Sakai, who held an amazing winning percentage, and won the title "King of Iron Chefs" after becoming the victor of the show's grand final tournament involving all of the current Iron Chefs. Fortunately for us, Sakai's main restaurant La Rochelle is situated in Tokyo. The restaurant is named after the French city where Sakai spent some time as an apprentice. Did you know he also spent a year and a half in our hometown of Perth (Australia) when he was 19 to develop his skills at the Hotel Oriental?

La Rochelle is on the 32nd floor of the Cross Tower in Shibuya, and not suprisingly, it's a beautiful restaurant that is also quite popular as a wedding function venue. I tried booking a table at La Rochelle a couple of months ago for Rob's birthday, but the earliest they could fit my reservation in was last Saturday (June is a very popular month to get married in Japan and the whole restaurant was fully booked on weekends for weddings). The service was faultless which certainly contributed to an excellent dining experience. And more importantly, we were blown away by the quality, presentation and flavours of the food. Rob commented that this was the best meal he's had in a long time (and Rob doesn't use superlatives often). I'm inclined to agree!

We were greeted and ushered right from where we got off the elevator on the 32nd floor. We waited a short while in the gorgeous lounge area, perhaps to give us a chance to cool down and relax after coming in from the humid heat of Tokyo summer, and we were then ushered to our table in the main dining room. I love how we get to keep our own copies of the menu which saves me the effort of having to take note of the names of our food. I also love how there is a recipe included inside one of the menu! And I love the never-ending supply of warm fresh baguette slices placed on our empty bread plate by the attentive staff - never mind the doctor's advice at my last prenatal checkup to avoid carbs. Three types of seasoning were placed on the table for our perusal throughout the meal: olive oil, a type of red salt (we couldn't discern any particular flavour other than saltiness!) and a sweet black vinegar. The food were already seasoned very nicely, and we weren't quite sure how to use them so they remained untouched during our meal.

The plates had cute animal prints on them:

Unfortunately, Chef Sakai was away on business trip (he'd left only the day before), but there was a little statuette of Sakai in a showcase in the hallway between the lounge and the dining areas.

For the lunch service, there were three main types of courses offered, priced respectively at 4500yen (~AU$45), 6500yen(~AU$65) and 8500yen(~AU$85), as well as the option to go a-la-carte. After some consideration of all that was available to us, I settled for the 4500yen course menu, and Rob chose the 6500yen option. The 4500yen menu was titled Menu de Fumiduki, which I thought was cute because it employed both the French and Japanese language (fumiduki is the old, classical Japanese name for the month of July). This option is a 5-course meal, and as suggested by its title, the dishes changes every month to utilise the seasonal ingredients available for that month. The Menu Maestro (6500yen course) is a 7-course meal and uses more pricey ingredients. Both of these courses gave the option of choosing between two meat dishes. While we were eating our respective meals and tasting each other's, we couldn't stop marvelling at how fresh the ingredients were, and how amazingly flavourful everything was. You could taste that the chefs have used only very high quality produce.

Le menu du mois de Juillet 08

(Apologies for the crappy translation as I utilise my rusty French.)

Hors d'œuvre: Salades de gombo et concombre en gelée marine de saumon et moule et hamo (Okra and cucumber jelly with salmon, mussel and pike eel). I thought it was an interesting combination of the neba neba (aka slimy) okra and the crunchy cucumber in a smooth terrine-like gel, and eating it was like having a textural party on my tongue (if that makes any sense). I also enjoyed the taste and texture of the seafood ensenmble, where the smoked salmon was used as a circular case to hold the mussel and the battered and deep-fried pike eel.

Soup: Soupe gaspacho andalouse (Gazpacho). This chilled soup was very refreshing and tasty. It was served with tomato jelly and small pieces of fruits like orange, grapefruit and kiwi fruit.

Poisson (fish): Omble chevalier meunière beurre blanc au citronnelle (Japanese char fish (a type of trout) meunière with white wine butter sauce. The fish was simply pan-fried, and the beurre blanc sauce complemented the fish very nicely.

Viande (meat): I chose the Longe de veau grillée etuvé de navet ruby porto & purée sauce porto blanc (Grilled veal and red port-braised white turnip with white port sauce). The veal was perfectly cooked, tender and juicy. The turnip was nice, but I must admit that I thought it was an odd vegetable to serve with veal.

There is one more course left (dessert), but I will write about that after describing Rob's meal.

Menu Maestro

Hors d'œuvre: 9 kinds of small appetizers. True to its name, there were indeed nine types of appetisers served. The dish was seafood-based including prawns, salmon, crab and a few others that Rob had forgotten due to the sheer number and variety of different ingredients. He did have one thing to say about all of them though - that everyone of them was good! He enjoyed the flavour and freshness of the ingredients. I did get to try a couple, and I was particularly impressed with the firm crunchy texture of the prawns which indicated the utmost freshness.

Seafood: Scampi with organic vegetables bagna cauda style. The scampi was super-fresh, and Rob enjoyed the variety of very fresh and tasty vegetables. He's not a fan of tomatoes, but his eyes lit up when he ate the segment of tomato and exclaimed how good it was (he regretted not giving me a taste of it because I love tomatoes!). The dipping sauce was wonderful! It was crab-flavoured and was really good with the baguette.

Poisson: Grunt fish soute with macadamia nuts and tomato sauce. The fish was beautifully cooked, and once again we marvelled at how well the Japanese know how to prepare fish without overcooking it. Succulent and juicy, it was a delight on our palates.

Soup: Chilled Corn Soup. Sweet, refreshing and bursting with flavour.

Viande: Barbarie wild duck wrapped with pie and orange sauce. The perfectly crisp pastry and the wild duck were accompanied by a gorgeously smooth orange sauce. The sauce was so good, in fact, that we were unashamedly mopping up the remainder with the fresh bread.

Avant dessert (pre-dessert): Passionfruit mousse. It's my first time encountering a 'pre-dessert' dessert. The mousse was slightly frozen which gave it an interesting texture.

Dessert Course

For dessert, our waitress wheeled a dessert cart to our table and asked what we would like to have. To Rob's delight, the waitress informed us that we could have as many types as we'd like. So, naturally, we said that we'd like to try all of them, and she kindly accommodated our request.

Thankfully the slices and servings of each dessert were quite small so we could eat most of the plated dessert before feeling like we'd eaten too much rich sugary food. My favourites were the Chocolate Orange Cake and the Nut Mille-feuille.

First plate contained the Chocolate Orange Cake, Peach Cake and Macerated Grapes; the second plate held the Nut Mille-feuille, Strawberry Sorbet, Passionfruit Meringue and a Cheesecake of some flavour that I can't quite recall:

There was also mint jelly and a pudding which are not pictured.

After consuming the carb- and fat-laden plates of dessert, one of the waitstaff came by our table and informed us that we could have our tea in the lounge area where we could take our time. And that was what we did. We enjoyed the view from the windows of the 32nd floor and reflected on the excellent meal we'd just consumed. We were very happy with the quality of the food, the impeccable service and the beautiful decor. La Rochelle comes highly recommended from both of us.

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