I don’t normally write restaurant reviews but travellers have to eat and gorging my way around Japan I was gob-smacked to encounter nothing but flawless food, even in train station cafes.
But in a small cul de sac in Tokyo’s Roppongi district near the Roppongi Crossing intersection, a gastronomic revolution has quietly taken root which could change the way Japanese approach their eating habits.
Roppongi is home to a number of foreign embassies, boutiques, cafes, seedy bars and even seedier nightclubs. There are also cultural facilities including the world-class Mori Art Museum and National Art Centre, high-end shopping and dining complexes such as Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown and one of Japan’s most unusual restaurants.
Chefs who go to extremes to source fresh organic and ethical produce are nothing new in Australia and Europe but in Japan this is practically unheard of and at Roppongi Nouen (Roppongi Farm) which opened in 2010 you can not only trace the seasonal food on your plate to its source, but you can also see photographs of the fields where it grew and the carefully selected farmers who grew it.
Sometimes the producers turn up at the restaurant as guest speakers to showcase the quality of their produce, explain their techniques and see how their labours of love are being received. This is no opportunistic gimmick; the experimental restaurant is staffed by younger members of rural families from small to mid-sized farms around the country which supply most of the ingredients used in the kitchen and by other youngsters simply dedicated to healthy, sustainable farming and to help take over the agricultural reins in a rapidly aging society.
It seems they’re on the money; Roppongi Nouen is going gangbusters and has become so popular the owners expect many competitors will follow their lead.
At the entrance was a mud-caked ploughing machine; inside, were earthy, rough-textured walls of hand-packed coloured mud made with soil sent from across Japan. I was met by American Justin Potts, partner of assistant chef Miyuki Iwasawa who, with chefs Yasuhiro Higa and Masahiro Hamaguchi, were in the open kitchen catering to a small and almost full house.
A la carte was an option and the venison jerky and nabe (hotpot) of hamaguri (clams) with bamboo shoots and asparagus spears cooked in stock with freshly harvested green tea leaves seemed kind of irresistible.
I resisted and went for the degustation-style Seasonal Extravaganza Course for 5,200 yen. What followed was not just an extraordinary parade of unique flavours and textures that could have come from Sydney’s Tetsuya’s but a fascinating insight into modern Japanese culinary culture and geography.
First came a small shot glass half full of chilled “real” amazake, a custardy non-alcoholic sake, faintly sweet with a mild sake flavour and made with koji (steamed rice with special yeast spores) by a family of specialists at Kojiya Honten in Oita Prefecture who have been producing the stuff for more than 300 years.
A fresh vegetable medley consisted of cauliflower, heritage Toscana violet tomatoes, Swiss chard, Russian kale and 20-day-old daikon (radish) augmented with a dipping salt brought in from Nagasaki. Crisp and sun-ripened, each different flavour was discernible.
Three more small servings on a plate followed including tomato tofu made with Cindy tomatoes from Abe-san’s (Mr Abe’s) Green Art farm in Ibaraki Prefecture and Okinawan goya (bitter gourd) combined with iwashi (sardine) tempura. Crammed on a single spoon, the third offering was a mixture of mizu eggplant, skipjack tuna sashimi, fresh ginger, perilla leaf, okra and myoga (wild Japanese ginger). It was a single mouthful but what a mouthful.
The rest went into a blur of smoked pork from Kanagawa with spices and Japanese mustard from Fukui, summer corn rice cooked traditionally together in an earthenware pot and a curious soup of contrasting slippery winter melon and crisp junsai, a sort of water lily hand picked by Ando-san (Mr Ando) from Akita Prefecture.
The splendid finale came in the form of a homemade gelato packed with cinnamon-like perilla in a chilled sweet azuki bean soup topped with tiny purple perilla flowers. Where that was sourced I had no idea but it was slightly grainy, not too sweet and simply stunning.
Roppongi Nouen has astonishing avant-garde country food, a chic, friendly atmosphere and a mouth-watering appreciation of what passionate, innovative young Japanese chefs can create before your eyes.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, yes I paid for it.
Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2013 (Copyright Agency Limited)