Friday, February 13, 2009
Tapas, the Molecular Bar, is located on the 38th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Tokyo. Containing merely seven seats, the experience is that of gastronomic intensity that is completely sensorial, not just taste-oriented.
We went with friends and used all seven seats. The scenery was fantastic. The bar was a corner part of the hotel?s main restaurant and had floor-to-ceiling windows under which the Nihonbashi section of Tokyo glittered brightly at our feet. But beyond the bar, we were soon too entranced with the food and the experience to notice anything else.
Our chef (and entertainer, information source, etc?) for the evening, Jacob, told welcomed us and gave us a few instructions. He would prepare each course, about twenty in all and give them to us one at a time. He would then instruct us on how to eat them and answer any preparation or scientific questions we might have. Luckily for us, he was half American and had trained at the Cordon Bleu institute in Santa Barbara, California. There is always one English speaker and one Japanese speaker as the chefs behind the bar.
For the first treat, Jacob poured Japanese plum wine out of a large beaker into tall shot glasses. He then spooned a little bit of yuzu foam on top. Yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit and he pureed it and foamed it. It was very sweet, but an interesting feel ? liquidy and foamy at the same time.
As a small snack, we got shaved, deep fried beets, curled into a little ball, which was sweet and crunchy and if my eyes were closed I would have mistaken it for a potato chip.
The next snack was a puree of olive, infused with lectin and beaten. It looked like a ball of soap suds on the tiny plate. It sort of dissolved in the mouth with a puff and a hint of olive flavor. He instructed us to hold our breath as we put it in our mouths so we would taste it and not inhale it.
From there we went on to caramel popcorn. Seriously. They creamed corn and balled it in liquid nitrogen. Then they dipped the formed balls in caramel.
We had manchego cheese ice cream in the shape of a test-tube wrapped in the thinnest possible slice of dried apple. Manchego is a stinky cheese - sharp and strong, which was the perfect foil for the sweet apple.
For the next course, Jacob showed us a rack of large test tubes full of Konbu (seaweed) dashi (soup stock) mixed with sodium algenate. He jiggled the rack and the drops fell into the enclosed bottom, which was calcium chloride. The dashi formed little round balls that Jacob called caviar. The ?caviar? was a side dish for the sashimi tuna and soy sauce that he had been chemically solidified into a square. Instead of the usual bit of seaweed on the side, there was a piece of spinach that had been pureed and re-solidified on a baking tray and picked up to resemble seaweed. We were instructed to use our chopsticks to put the square of sashimi on top of the square of soy sauce and to put a piece of the mock-seaweed on top of that - along with the "caviar" if we could get it. Again, if we closed our eyes, it tasted like the most succulent of regular sushi combinations, but it was stronger and more solid in texture.
We had a "red" plate comprised of pureed tomato, which was actually yellow, a tiny bit of crab and a roasted red pepper. Keep in mind that each plate was no larger than my hand and had a tiny bite for each taste.
The next course was in a small bowl: an oji (porridge) base, seared squid and then risotto made of squid ink. Jacob topped this with the zest of the Japanese fruit sudachi. Jacob noted that with squid, you have to cook it either 4 minutes or 4 hours - anything in between creates that chewy feeling that most of us are used to. But this squid melted in our mouths - and no wonder - he seared it in front of us with a small blow-torch!
Following that course was beef : it was a roll of Japanese wagyu beef that had been rolled in edible charcoal. They sealed it in a vacuum bag and boiled it for six hours at a controlled temperature of 53 degrees Celsius. It was the most tender thing I've ever eaten ? we didn't even use a serrated knife to cut it.
In a tiny demitasse cup we had what they called "hot-cold" which was hot chestnut soup with a dollop of cauliflower puree "sprayed" on top.
The one rib off the rack of lamb that appeared next came with a warning: beware of squirting! When preparing it, they butterflied the rack and then put the marinade on the inside. They then used food glue to put it together before grilling. We had to stab it to let a little of the juice flow out before truly cutting it.
Served on the top of an upside down shot glass he gave us a disc of frozen orange which we were to insert into our mouths "like a cd".
On a tiny plate, we received a bit of lobster topped with potato foam on a bed of lobster bisque. Jacob drizzled the combination with vanilla oil for smell as well as for taste. A real treat for all of the senses.
The next course was wildly confounding! Jacob smeared a plate with pureed avocado. Then he used his handy blow-torch to sear some pineapple and then some unagi (sea eel). He laid the pineapple and unagi not-quite-piled on the plate. He announced that it was a miso dish without the miso. Eaten together, indeed the combination of flavors mimicked the sweet/salty/savory taste of miso-infused fish, but there was not a drop of miso on the plate. Eaten separately each food tasted like itself, but in concert was a different taste altogether. Wild!
Jacob placed a wide spoon with a ball on it in front of each of us. He had used the sodium amalgamate into the calcium chloride trick with miso soup, but instead of balls, he produced a wrapper, in which he wrapped real miso soup. So we used the spoon to place the ball in our mouths and the miso soup exploded out of the solid miso-soup ball/wrapper.
The next course was the trickiest one: Jacob had taken the alcoholic drink, a Blue Hawaii, and frozen it with liquid nitrogen. He spooned it into a bowl for each of us and gave us a spoon. Before we got it though, he gave us the warnings: try not to let the spoon touch your mouth. Do not leave the spoon in the dish or it will freeze and stick to your mouth. Put the food in your mouth and chew quickly: swallow. don't let it sit on your tongue or it will burn. It was frightening and fascinating at the same time. A true magician with food, Jacob showed us not only how it was done, but he was also able to take a few bites (after warming his mouth with hot tea) and make the smoke of the liquid nitrogen come out of his nose!!! Practice, he said. It was much more of a feel than a taste. Crunch crunch crunch - freeze - swallow! Hurry!
And then came dessert. We got a shelf-full of them. One was chocolate air, one was a gummy made of olive oil and rosemary. There was one spoonful of a ball of New York cheesecake. And there was a "snowball" of cotton candy, made not of sugar, but of cappuccino. Incredible!!
But then there was the last last very last course: fruit. Jacob gave each of us a small plate of citrus wedges - lemon, lime, grapefruit and orange - with strawberry halves sprinkled in. But then came the directions. First, we had to eat half a strawberry. Then we had to bite into a lemon or lime. Bitter, right? That was the test. Then he gave us a teeny tiny dish with a little fruit on it called literally a Miracle Fruit. It was grown first in Africa but now there are other places to get it, including Japan. We had to take the fruit, which was looked like an oval cherry, and pop it in our mouths. Then we had to separate it from the pit IN our mouths and roll the pit and the fruit around in our mouths for a full minute. He literally put a timer on the bar; you'd be surprised how long a minute is when you?re trying to hold something in your mouth.
When the minute was up, we had to swallow the fruit and spit out the seed. Then Jacob instructed us to bite the lemon or lime again. INCREDIBLE! It tasted completely sweetened - almost candied, or more like an orange. It turns out that Miracle Fruit contains a glycol-protein that alters the palate by coating the tongue. The affects last anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours depending on the metabolism of the person. So we literally ate all of the fruit on that plate including the lemons. The strawberries were like eating a stick of strawberry flavored sugar!!
So that was the end of it. When we were chatting during and after the meal, Sora (tri-lingual and ever my guide for Japanese things) noted that frankly, English has a surprisingly small number of words with which to describe food. She said that Japanese has a few more, but not nearly as many as Korean. That also, was interesting to note - think about how you'd like to describe your food next time you eat it! Though each course was small, we left feeling satiated - but not overly full. It was the perfect amount of food and variation of tastes. It was a treat for all of the senses and a never-to-be forgotten night.