Thursday, July 20, 2006

Food With Mojo: the Molecular Tapas Bar

This is food with mojo. I'm not talking Texas side-of-steer barbecue mojo, nor am I talking habanero-induced neuronal apoptosis mojo. I'm talking about a chef with I'm-in-complete-control-of-your-sensory-experience mojo: the Molecular Tapas Bar at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Tokyo.

You'll find pictures on Mayumi's blog.

This was way more money that we needed to be spending on dinner as we stare at a life of postdoc penury, but it was a combination belated fortieth birthday, thesis defense, and upcoming tenth wedding anniversary dinner, and it was worth it (we had originally hoped to spend part of this summer in Europe, but things haven't all gone according to plan). We probably don't get to go back to the Molecular Tapas Bar until one of you with a large expense account comes to visit, in which case you need to let me know at least a month in advance, so I can get reservations.

The evening started with a stroll through the Ginza, including a stop for sangria (for Mayumi), ice tea (for me), olives and cheese at an open-air Spanish bar. The bar is just a couple of doors from a cheese shop we like, but we were just browsing, since there was a long evening and no refrigeration in front of us. They have fantasic cheese, with prices to match, starting at about eight hundred yen per hundred grams (about thirty bucks a pound) and going to several times that, with photos and biographies of the cheesemakers posted alongside fantastic blues and various wonderful, stinky cheeses imported from obscure corners of Europe.

The evening air was perfect, and clouds provided a spectacular sunset as we wandered down the street, ogling the people who can afford to shop in the Ginza's Prada, Mikimoto, Louis Vuitton, Apple Computer, and other emporia. Mikimoto has opened a new building with oblong, rounded windows at a cant, and an exterior color that seems to have been chosen by a committee determined to find just the right shade of elegant pink that would appeal to the largest number of unapologetically feminine shoppers. Louis Vuitton is redoing the exterior of their building, and went to a great deal of trouble to create a scaffolding that doesn't give the appearance of a construction zone. It's white-painted I-beams, with a high ceiling and lighting better than the interior of many stores, giving the sidewalk out front the feel of a mall.

When we arrived at the hotel, we had a little trouble finding it. The hotel is in the top half of a 38-story building, and not well marked at street level. We entered the elevator, and were joined by a group of men in black suits and white ties, and a woman in a formal kimono: guests at a wedding. One white-haired gentleman looked up at me from a stature that started some twenty centimeters below mine and was further compromised by his state of inebriation. "Where you from?" he asked in thickly-accented English. "California," I replied. "Ah, Kariforunia, hai, hai," he mused. He gestured vaguely at his companions. "Wedding." "Hey, are you speaking English?" someone asked him, to much tittering from the rest of the group. He waved his hand in front of his face as if shooing away flies, in that Japanese no-no-no gesture. "Katakana da yo. [I'm speaking in katakana.]" (Katakana is the Japanese syllabary used to spell out foreign words, and pronunciation probably bears as much resemblance to real English as our approximation of Chinese does to the real thing.)

The lobby of the Mandarin Oriental is on the 37th and 38th floors, with floor-to-ceiling windows and somewhat vertiginous views. The lobby is well done, elegant and modern without being intimidating. First stop was the facilities, and in the men's, you perform your business looking out and down, which is a tad disconcerting.

The Molecular Tapas Bar is through the cigar bar. They ask you to be early, since all six people at each of the evening's two sittings will eat the same food at the same time. Dinner was scheduled for 8:30, and ran two hours. You sit at a combination sushi and liquor bar, with two chefs in front of you, a bartender in the background, numerous waitresses hovering nearby, and at least one sous chef schlepping material to and from a kitchen when ordered by the chef with the wireless headset.

The meal started with a kampai (toast) of a small shot of beer topped with whipped Yakult, a viscous yogurt-based drink. (I had ordered the alcohol-free meal when I made our reservations, but that must have gotten lost somewhere.) Then, the food began: twenty-two courses approximating what was printed on the fixed-course menu, with a couple of surprising and delightful deviations. Sato-san, our lead chef for the evening, explained everything, and fancies himself a comedian. He looked at me and asked (in Japanese), "Are you okay with Japanese?" "Yes," I replied. He turned to the rest of the diners and said, "I'm okay with Japanese, too."

The experience is two parts Tokyo, one part "Iron Chef", one part Harold McGee, and one part Terry Gilliam. We were served various gases in several forms, and food from test tubes, syringes, and pressure vessels. Ingredients were mostly identifiable, including numerous vegetables, a couple of types of fish and some beef, but combined in startling ways.

The first courses, some form of extruded and deep-fried risotto and crispy floss of beet, could conceivably show up in a California restaurant. After that, as they say, when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. Next up was a bottomless test tube with orange material inside: ikura (salmon roe) and passionfruit. Tip it back, suck on the tube, and a burst of flavor hits you, salty and sweet and unexpected. This course was fantastic, my favorite of the meal.

Throughout the entire meal, Mayumi took pictures of every dish, the utensils, the staff. At first I was vaguely concerned that it might annoy some of the other diners, but no, four of the six of us were taking photos constantly -- two using cell phones, one with a small digital camera, and Mayumi with her digital SLR. And the chef/comedian tried to get into every picture, with a "V" sign up. Japanese people are born with some gene that makes them tilt their head to the side and make a "V" (peace sign) whenever someone points a camera at them. You can take pictures of practically anything in this country and no one will blink, and these days a decent fraction land on someone's blog.

Up next was cotton candy. Well, cotton candy foam, which is even more like eating air than regular cotton candy (the chef would prove to be fond of his Williams-Sonoma hand whipper). Then, glass noodles topped with parmesan cheese. Correction: glass noodles made from parmesan cheese. How on earth did they make them transparent? They certainly retained that characteristic parmesan flavor. This was followed by probably my least favorite course of the meal, the uni (sea urchin) with apple, maccha (green tea strong enough to take the enamel off your teeth, the kind they use in the tea ceremony) and twenty five-year old balsamic vinegar. The uni had a strong flavor, and I'm sure it was good uni, it's just not tops on my list.

(The staff wasn't actually in complete control of our sensory experience; our elevator acquaintance was seated about three meters behind us at a bar table, and was still riffing on the America theme.)

One of the most fascinating dishes was pink gazpacho soup, served over a chunk of watermelon and garnished with...something. He's dipping it out of a styrofoam cooler with clouds of vapor coming out. It looks like very fine bread crumbs, and it creates clouds of vapor when it's in the soup. Explanation: olive oil frozen using liquid nitrogen! Now there's an easy way to spiff up a dish! Oh, and tasty, too.

The unagi (eel) with pineapple and whipped avocado was nothing spectacular. Good thought, though. A couple of well-done but mundane dishes (including miso soup mousse and beet ravioli that Mayumi referred to as the first time she had ever had a positive experience with a beet) were followed by more air, a palate cleanser of sorts. Large tumblers are placed on the bar, with metal straws in them. The bartender comes over and shakes a cocktail shaker, which rattles, runs through her whole mixing routine, then pours air into each of the tumblers, which are then passed out and we are encouraged to drink them. I suck on the straw. A burst of cold sherbert with enough liqueur in it to give it a real punch blasts into my mouth. (This was the one time I regretted not having pushed the non-alcohol thing, but even so, it was an experience.) (Part of the cleverness of this one is the surprising delivery, but I assume the menu rotates often enough that, even if you get the chance to try the restaurant, something else will have taken its place.)

The carrot caviar was created using numerous syringes, dribbling drops of carrot juice into an acrylic container filled with some liquid (which I think he said included calcium) that caused the juice to congeal and take on the texture of caviar. Vegan caviar!

The sizzling beef was beyond amazing. The chef brought out a pressure vessel something like a stainless steel seltzer bottle. He bled off the pressure with a blast, retrieved a roll of beef, sliced and served it. The beef sizzled! Not because it was hot, but because it was outgassing -- a cow with a MAJOR case of the bends. Put a bite in your mouth, and you can feel it fizzing in your mouth. The meat is spongy and moist, cooked just right and very tasty.

The desserts are like something from Willie Wonka. First up is one titled "Blue Hawaii" on the English side of the menu and "kuuki-gori" on the Japanese side. It's a pun on "kake-gori", or shave ice; "kuuki" means "air". It is blue, and it is indeed air: dry ice apparently misted with some blue flavoring. Clouds roll out of the dish. Put a spoonful in your mouth, and clouds billow out of your mouth! I remember as undergrads we drank mad scientist-like glasses of Coke foaming and steaming and boiling thanks to chunks of dry ice, but the thought of shaving it and eating it directly apparently didn't occur to us, I'm ashamed to admit.

Several more desserts follow, including one that looks like a sunny-side up egg and bacon but isn't, one candy wrapped in cellophane that you eat cellophane and all, and a microscopic cake in a glass bubble. Finally, it's time for the fruit course.

A tray with two strawberries, and two slices each of grapefruit, orange and lemon is placed before me. I'm suspicious. Just fruit, from these guys? We're instructed to eat one strawberry, then a slice of lemon, which of course is sour. Then we are each given a magic fruit, a berry of some sort with a large pit, which has a mild, fruity flavor. We are told to keep that in our mouths for a full minute (he uses an egg timer), then return to the next slice of lemon. It's sweet! The magic fruit has changed our perception of taste (I told you, these guys manage the entire sensory experience). Return to the strawberry, and it's almost too sweet to eat. Better eating through chemistry.

I found out about this place through a column in the Daily Yomiuri in which the writer used it as evidence that Tokyo has gotten its mojo back, like in the days of the Bubble. An evening in the Ginza and dinner at the Molecular Tapas Bar would certainly convince you that you're in a wealthy, bold country. The food was very good, but it's the presentation and delivery that really makes it a unique, almost science fiction-esque experience. All in all, we got our money's worth. We'll use these stories for a very long time. And if any of you come visit, I'll be happy to serve as interpreter while you add to your own personal stock of food stories :-).

I know I promised you a report a while ago, sorry to be so long getting it written up!

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