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Tapas Molecular Bar | Tokyo | Jun ’13 | “pure whimsy and fun”

8 Sep

Address: 2-1-1, Nihonbashimuromachi | 38F, Mandarin Oriental Tokyo, Chuo, Tokyo Prefecture 103-8328, Japan

Telephone: +81 3-3270-8188

Back in June, when I was traveling for 2 weeks in Japan, I had a very pleasant tour through some of Tokyo’s finer restaurants. The previous night played host to a traditional yet arch-modern meal in RyuGin, and now I was swinging  to the other end of the spectrum with pure molecular wizardry on display at Tapas Molecular Bar. I found out about Tapas Molecular Bar thanks to Adam Goldberg, who highlighted this as one of his favorite places in the city.

The restaurant: My understanding is that Tapas Molecular Bar (TMB) was set up by Jeff Ramsey, originally sous-chef under Jose Andres at Washington DC molecular restaurant Minibar. However, as of 2012, Jeff Ramsey has left the kitchen, and it is now being helmed by Chef Koichi Hashimoto. Hashimoto-san was in the kitchen when I was there, and there was nothing but a glass box, containing the ingredients to be used in our dinner (dramatic foreshadowing) separating us 7 diners and Hashimoto and his British assistant chef Aaron Cardwell. The mise-en-scene (prior preparation) had already been assembled before our arrival.

Pre-meal, I was treated to a fantastic view over Tokyo in the bar area.

TMB is not an original act. It was highlighted in Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine as one of the prime offenders in copying ideas wholesale. Many of the dishes from reports in 2010 seem to have been copied from Minibar by Jose Andres in Washington DC, and I counted at least one dish on the night that was recognisably another restaurant’s (Mugaritz’s stone potato). My impression thus is that the chefs are skilled executors rather than creative forces in their own right.

The people: Two international East Asian yuppie bankers to my left, and a well-heeled Houston family of 4 to my right.

The environs: Nihombashi is a very upscale area, with swanky hotels and glitz restaurants, right north of the Ginza district. Right on the ground floor is the Tokyo HQ of fine-fruit purveyors Sembikiya. In Japan, fruit is considered a gift item. I have heard it speculated that it is because in Europe, the hard water led to fruit becoming a necessity as a vessel for clean water content, and Japan’s soft water made fruit unnecessary as a water vessel, and thus fruit acquired a luxury position. This reasoning sounds like fruitcake to me (luxury fruit in Japan is an at most two centuries old phenomenon, see this BBC article on Sembikiya, which traces back its history only to the 19th century, and soft water would be a fact of Japanese agriculture for millennia.)

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“dear me, if that isn’t a gold durian…”
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Spectacular views over Tokyo

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the menu

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Cherry Bonbon

Cherry with a bonbon liquid bomb of liqueur inside, coated with jello on the outside.

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Stone Potato (5/5)

Four stones, but only one is a potato. Chorizo sauce in a industrial-looking tube, and salt on a rock plate.

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I picked the right one!

This is a very labour-intensive carnival piece. Each potato is baked with flour water brushed on top, 3-4 times each to get the desired stoney effect. For pure whimsy this dish was a home-run. This dish is the infamous stone potato of Mugaritz restaurant in Spain.

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Chefs and their alginate.

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The alginate beads are used to form a pea risotto, with a bit of ham mixed in. It was a decent combination, and the value of the dish lay primarily in its theatrical creation. Green-pea with sodium(?) alginate  is dropped into calcium chloride(?),  which causes spherification to happen. I was expecting a skin to form on the pea, but the alginate forms the beads without any membrane whatsover.

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Fromage Blanc, Flower and Butterfly (4.25/5)

A very pretty plating, but somewhat lacking in cohesion of tastes: the butterflies were made of sugar, the vinaigrette made of raspberry, and the foam a honey rosewater concoction, on top of some fromage blanc.

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Spring Landscape (4.75/5)

Lightly tempura-battered veggies, made to look like an enchanted forest, crumble of black garlic (which has a natural taste of wolfsberry, as I later found out) and onion, naturally fermented. A delicious combination

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Green Laver, Razor Clam, and Yuzu (3.75/5)

I did not have a strong impression of this dish; the yuzu was in the foam.

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foreshadowing with a syringe2013-06-05 05.45.00

Smoked Egg (4.5/5)

Liquid smoke piped into a jar, with an onsen cooked egg (low temperatures). This dish was quite nice, and smoked eggs was something I would later have in two forms in Singapore, at Jaan (the best onsen-style smoked confection, Julien Royer’s 62 degree, 55 minutes smoked egg), and David Pynt’s smoked quail eggs. This dish was naked and unadorned, and I felt it missed something that would make it perfect [I would later be enlightened by Julien Royer that what was missing was charred Jamon Iberico and potatoes]. The biscotti spoon to eat with added a touch of whimsy, but little tastewise.

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(off-menu) Prawn Bisque (4.5/5)

Blowtorched bisque (made of crab shell), and prawn. A sherry jelly for palate cleansing. An interesting take on the skin that forms on thick soups like bisques, I have never had a blowtorched soup before!

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Baby Pork Hazelnut (5/5)

This was an inverted xiaolongbao (soup dumpling). Here the pork (topped with shaved hazelnut), would form the outer covering for a soup within. How did they do it? I asked Aaron, the assistant chef. It turns out that they bake the chop, after they stuff a gelatin cube into the pork, and then cover it up with meat glue. The pork tasted superb, and the mechanics of the dish were sublime.

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the magic levitating spoons with their ingredients foreshadowing the different courses

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Warm Sizzling Beef (5/5)

Wagyu, already tender, is tenderised above and beyond, by being cooped up in a pressurised container with nitrous oxide for 6 hours. This also gives it a sizzling effect on the plate. It is not because it is red hot, but because of the gaseous behaviour of nitrous oxide.

The Edible Art on my plate is silkscreen printed mayonnaise, coloured with bamboo charcoal. Superb execution, bravo, bravo, bravo!

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(off-menu) Vegetable Soup

A rather-forgettable bland vegetable combination, but perhaps a good palate cleanser after the excitement of Warm, Sizzling Beef.

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Osuimono (4.75/5)

Osuimono is the other basic Japanese soup: the main alternative to miso soup when you’re making 1 soup-1 dish. At its best, osuimono is a very light broth: it should never be weighed down with too many ingredients, too much salt or – and this is a common mistake – too much soy sauce.

The basic ingredients are water, dashi, soy sauce and sake, but there’s a lot of room for variation with what you put into it. Dropping a beaten egg in it, for instance, works wonderfully. For this recipe, however, I used a filet of sole, some spring onion and lime rinds.

Kanoko’s Kitchen.

The threads of the meal come back to weave a narrative. Earlier, Chef Hashimoto syringed green stuff into an alginated soup. We now find out that the soup is osuimono, a classic Japanese clear fish-soup, with syringed kombu inside. This round spoonful of osuimono, perhaps best captures what is classic and modern about Tokyo cooking in one picture.

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Green Tea Puff (5/5)

Our friend liquid nitrogen makes its first appearance on the Tapas stage. But why is this little green tea macaron-shaped pastry, doused in liquid nitrogen for about 5-10 seconds, called a “puff”?

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the answer: because you keep it in your mouth and it starts puffing out of your nose!

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Egg (5/5)

Mango gelatin, and sweet white stuff in a white chocolate egg. A nest made of pastry. An incredibly plated dessert, it well-satisfied my sweet tooth.

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The array

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Japanese Paper (4/5)

Flattened candy floss, with flowers in between.

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Strawberry Milk (3.75/5)

The photo smells (faintly) of milk, and the crumpled paper display is made of strawberry. Taken together, this dish smells like strawberries & cream. The smell was a bit too faint on the photo to really make that association, however.

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Choco-banana (4/5)

Now with pop-rocks inside! Everyone is doing pop-rocks now, it seems to be an in-thing. I’ve had it variously, besides in Tokyo, in Singapore’s Jaan, Singapore’s Andre, and Singapore’s Saveur.

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Cherry Blossom

Can’t really remember what this tasted like. Underneath the cherry-blossom….

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The real Choco-Banana? (3.5/5)

Banana-“rice” krispies, bound with chocolate. Quite ordinary.

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Fruits (5/5)

Miracle Fruit, on the right, contains miraculin, which makes sour things taste sweet for 2 hours. We were promptly given lemons and limes.

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Tapas Molecular Bar is an incredibly fun restaurant (some would say amusement park). I would not hesitate to go back when I am next in Tokyo. It was deeply impressive that the pair of Chef Hashimoto and Aaron Cardwell were able to create all the dishes for 7 people without any help during the 2+ hours I was there, which speaks to a very disciplined mise-en-scene preparation process that preceded us diners coming in.

Memory: Stone Potato, Baby Pork Hazelnut (inverted xiaolongbao), Warm Sizzling Beef (Nitrous Oxide), spherified Osuimono, Green Tea Puff (the magic dragon), Egg (white chocolate and mango gelatin), Miracle Berry and Fruits.

Verdict: 18/20

Other great write-ups of Tapas:

  1. http://tomostyle.wordpress.com/2010/04/07/tapas-molecular-bar-tokyo-japan/
  2. http://www.alifewortheating.com/tokyo/tapas-molecular-bar-revisited
  3. http://www.alifewortheating.com/tokyo/tapas-molecular-bar
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