Earlier this year, Signature Restaurant at Tokyo’s frankly beautiful Mandarin Oriental Hotel was the hottest culinary ticket on the planet. Rene Redzepi and his band of Merry Men from Noma had decamped from Copenhagen for the ultimate residency, following discussions with the hotel’s GM Anthony Costa.
Costa’s vision was perfectly timed and the Noma stint was a revelation, bringing in global gourmands and gastronomes for clam tart and, most famously, shrimp with ants that Redzepi found in the Nagano forest, north of Tokyo. Along with 60,000 other hopefuls I was out of luck in wangling a seat.
One aspect of the residency somewhat overlooked was the hugely positive impact on the many staff working at the Mandarin before, during and since. They were already some of the most accomplished staff in the city, even before the experience of working alongside arguably the world’s most famous restaurant. A recent lunch at Signature – now back in its former physical incarnation as a Michelin-starred French restaurant – shows that excellence and innovation continues to pervade everything they do.
There are 12 outlets to eat within the hotel, three of which have Michelin stars. At Signature the man in charge is Chef de Cuisine Nicolas Boujéma, who must be at least six foot four. How his hands manage to produce and oversee intricate cuisine is beyond me. From the off, everything carries a lightness of touch and deftness, perfectly in keeping with the Japanese aesthetic of less is more. Incidentally, Boujéma was formerly executive chef at Pierre in Hong Kong and seems to have taken on Gagnaire’s philosophy of “tourné vers demain mais soucieux d’hier” i.e. “facing tomorrow but respectful of yesterday”.
Amuse-bouches include a tiny sliver of fresh celery with anchovy paste, a goat cheese/chorizo explosion and caviar with radish perched on a crisp pastry:Luckily the light outside the 38th floor window overlooking the city improved for the next, marinated sardine with cucumber and toast is simplicity itself, a combination of flavours and textures.The bread was indecently good, not least the come-and-get-me shine on the milk bread brioche:A gelée of stewed rabbit with herbs was then the perfect reminder of the season, flawless French technique delivering the first gentle notes of game amidst carrot purée.Salmon next to bright orange ikura (roe) reminded briefly that we were in Japan, not France, served alongside sour beetroot and surrounded by the single most amazing cherry wood smoked butter sauce, something that I would frankly eat with absolutely anything.The peak was reached with a breathtaking spin on that old French classic ‘canard à l’orange’, the braised leg meat of Challans duck offset by sweet Japanese mandarin and on a bed of Savoy cabbage. The Celt in me emerged to declare the ‘pommes soufflés’ some of the greatest rendition of the humble spud I’ve ever encountered. The Quavers of your culinary dreams.Lunch was perfectly balanced both in volume and speed of service, while a special note to the accompanying glass suggested by the quietly-confident trilingual sommelier, a peppery 2004 Syrah.To finish, Abinao dark chocolate 85% ice cream with raspberry and a meringue flavoured with Okinawa pepper called ken-oki.There followed dainty petits fours to round off a simply exemplary demonstration of French cooking, but what was especially remarkable was the price of lunch – it runs 5,500 yen for four courses, i.e. HK$350 or US$43. For this level of supreme talent, service and ingredients, it has to be one of the most compelling lunch propositions available anywhere in Asia, let alone Japan. The Hong Kong restaurant industry should take serious note.
2-1-1 Nihonbashi Muromachi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 103-8328, Japan
Tel: +81 (3) 3270 8800