Shinobu Namae really has carved a piece of serenity right in the heart of Tokyo; A pressure relief valve for those predisposed against this great and greatly hectic urban jungle. Judging by hypespacez’ series of blog posts across the years, this city garden has recently undergone a facelift to emerge as an ultra polished concrete fortress of zen.
The interior design is impressive, even by Japanese standards, a sign of the success that 7 year old restaurant enjoys. Due in no small part to exposure the World 50 Best list has brought to L’Effervescence, of which plaques, brochures are to be found its reception room, alongside books written by Namae-san’s mentors. It currently sits as Asia’s 16th and World’s 95th…. whatever that means. Gastro-tourist friendly – English speaking, online booking forms and widespread online presence – I suppose is what it really means.
Namae san’s approach to food intrigues because this is a Chef seemingly at one with nature. Or more precisely, has chosen to fully embrace the terroir of his homeland, through the medium of classic and occasional modernist technique. In fact, it seems idiosyncratic that he has his restaurant in Tokyo, rather than to be closer to his produce. Maybe Tokyo doesn’t confine his sourcing to one of the four islands.
His background might reveal the monkish nature of L’Effervescence, as he had cut his teeth with Michel Bras in Hokkaido (as well as in Honten in Laguiole) – an incredibly breathtaking location inside Hotel Windsor, that gifts its diners an epic view of Lake Toya. It must have been five soul-nourishing years spent cooking up there. After that he jetted off to Bray to work in Heston’s pastry section at The Fat Duck, in 2008, a time when Heston had perfected his perfect Black Forest Gateau.
The restaurant opened in 2011 and a star was quickly awarded a year later. Then the second came in 2015, and so here we are at the start of 2017, with L’Effervescence as the 7th best in Tabelog’s Tokyo rankings.
We visited during a Tuesday, for lunch in early November 2016 and were served by L’Effervescence’s Maitre d and resident Frenchman, Zacchari Touchane. A name you might be familiar with, as Zac revealed to me at the end of the meal, that he is ex-Bincho Soho, the delicious little yakotori in Soho which had (sadly) now closed its doors. Isn’t it just a small world.
3 menus were offered, 2 appeared to be lunch concessions, thematic with plenty of titles/subtitles, ¥7000 for 4 courses plus amuse/petit fours and a longer 5 course for ¥10,000 (which must be taken by the whole table).
If you pay careful attention to the longer menu, there are a bunch of top ingredients there, spiny lobster, uni, aged pigeon, which explains the premium. However, we decided to go with one each of the ¥7000 sets (because they allow it) as a way to maximize exposure to all of Namae san’s cooking.
0. Sake with red wine
1. Amuse / Awakening
Porcini mousse, kujo neji (scallion) foam, kawahagi tartare, with mead and apple sorbet.
A tasty little beginning here to open proceedings. A touch of yuzu, I hazard, to go with the deliciously crunchy textures of the kawahagi fish. The cold acidic sorbet with the earthiness and warmth of the porcini mousse, umami, freshness, yes, all of it works together very well.
2. Starter (Pathway Menu)
Reminiscence – Tribute o Olivier Roellinger
Barracuda, pumpkin, dried carrot, green yuzu vinaigrette, nepture spice
The tribute to the great chef (who ran Le Relais Gourmand in Brittany) is in the spices, here recreated with 💯% Japanese terroir. I normally require some googling before writing this stuff all up, but here, Zac explains much of it in fine (some would even say too much) detail, taking minutes of your time per dish. Not a problem with this course as it is a cold dish, but well. You see how it can be a chore.
A swipe of everything gives your palate a nice work-up, from the buttery barracuda to the pickled carrot that provided both texture and acidity, which I really enjoyed. The spices started out as something complex, but then quickly devolved to something that seemed to my untrained palate like acidic sancho pepper and not much else. It is tasty and works well with the sashimi, but is just a little lost on this layman’s palate, I’m afraid. Though I do applaud the hard work behind its composition.
2. Starter (Ocean meets Land Menu)
Hide & Seek
Makogarei (flounder) with kabosu sabayon, shottsuru brown butter, maitake, saltwort
Or Japanese turbot. Every element on the plate has propensity to hide, the fish hiding on the surface of the seabed, mushrooms hiding behind trees, saltwort – a seaweed that hides on land and not on sea… you get the picture. Exposition galore. This is a hot dish, going tepid by the time we finished with the explanations. I guess food temperatures are not much of a concern to this Chef.
Fish and mushrooms are beautifully roasted, with added umami from the brown butter and sabayon which was ace. There is a touch of citrus zest on the fish, which brings freshenss to the butter that I find very appealing. The handful of saltwort seems only quickly cooked, and so retained its fibrous texture and I thought it somewhat interfered with the rest of the textures. I suppose it is a kind of samphire, its fineness is perhaps close to agretti. I swept most of it aside. The dish truly lived up to its name, partially enjoyable and also partially frustrating having to seek it out.
3. Starter (Both menus)
A Fixed Point – 4 hours cooked Tokyo turnip, parsley, basque ham & brioche
Namae san’s signature dish.
Tokyo turnip sous vide for 4hrs, then finished in a butter baste in the pan. With brioche, dried basque ham bits and parsley purée.
The centre is softened by the long cooking process, presumably at low temperature as it seems none of the water content is lost. It’s totally bursting with its own juices, “root” water so to speak, full of natural flavour (PS: this changes as the turnip’s natural water content presumably fluctuates with the seasons). I think this sealing effect is also enhanced by the pan finish, the entire vegetable is piping hot from surface to centre (Interestingly, they cut in half, prior to roasting in the pan. I would have thought moisture loss doing so, but what do I know). This is the best part of the eating – the sensation of juices bursting and the taste of the pan-roast.
Personally I could do with a touch more seasoning, or even whole slices of ham, but I understand that would negate the point of eating natural flavour. IMHO, i think this would also benefit from light smokiness. A few minutes in a green egg perhaps.
The essence is simple, and the humble turnip does eats well. However, if I wasn’t told this was a signature dish, I wouldn’t think it to be a particular stand-out. So why the fascination with it? Maybe this dish best represents his style – Respecting Japanese terroir through a blend of modernist and classic technique.
If I had to compare, then I think it just falls short when you put this next to other magicians who also transform vegetables, but with better wands. Others like Ledbury’s clay baked beetroot and L’Arpege’s myriad of vegetables.
For mains, we were presented a set of Laguiole knives, and asked to choose our own, each with different kind of hilt. Subtle and slick touch.
4. Mains (Pathway menu)
From an idea of an apple pie #20
Salmon, salmon roe, amaebi-shrimp, mushroom sauce with seasonal salad
Not so much Ronald McDonald’s, as this 20th iteration now looks more like a pithivier. Namae san apparently has an obsession with McD’s hot and piping pie, and this course is something he has evolved over the years, adding more and more to it along the way. I wonder if the remnant of the apple pie is in the little touch of sugar in the pastry.
43 different elements make up the garden salad, with a mushroom sauce, might I suggest this is Namae san’s homage to Bras’ Gargouillou. Very satisfying eating your way around the plate, savouring each piece of foraged nature, undoubtedly put together with considerable thought and effort.
The best of the meal is undoubtedly the pithivier, where the kitchen shows its true quality. Spinach wraps around salmon and this holds a centre of salmon ikura and tiny ama-ebi shrimp. The pastry is cooked through while the roe is only warmed and retains its glossy transparency. This is very convincing work and most of all, a delicious pie to savour.
4. Mains (Ocean meets land)
Akaushi beef leg roast, parsnip, smoked mussel, fig, wild fennel
Yet another long exposition accompanies this dish, about the mountains meeting the sea, but one where I found to be totally disconnected with reality. It’s abundantly clear that the dish has been oversold on the story front, as this is little more than a dressed up sunday roast using a cheap cut of beef, to meet lunch concession margins.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good rump, especially one that has been properly dry aged. It will burst with bags of flavour and can be brilliant in the right hands.
I was hoping for the kitchen to flash its two star qualities, but alas, this wasn’t that. The beef was surprisingly chewy, rubbery, surprising because wagyu tends not to be. Perhaps it needed dry aging, seeing as to how it is uncommon in Japan, it would have helped to tenderise the cut. To top it off, there was a distinct lack of maillard reaction, which leads me to think perhaps the problem was with the cooking. Was it low and slow or sous-vide? I don’t know. It just wasn’t great.
Akaushi is Japanese brown, a small cow with heritage strains from Swiss Simmentals. The grain and chew does remind me of Dexter beef.
Don’t get me wrong, beef and mussels are a stellar combo that works, where I first learnt of at Brunswick House. The smoked mussels puree was fantastic.
Not so with the dried figs though. It doesn’t pair at all to beef, and fennel just makes all of it worse. Sadly, the dried fruit also sucked up all precious and little jus, with hardly enough puree on the plate to compensate. So you end up choking on rubbery beef and overpowering herbs. This is terrible. This is such hard work.
Rump, matsutake, a jug of gravy, bowl of potato puree would have gone a long way. What was the point of this dish? Yes, I felt the scorching sun and the cracked earth. Where is the joy of eating? A little too much dreaming here. The worst beef dish I’d eaten in all of 2016.
5. Pudding (Pathway)
Simple and profound
Pear and Bostock, pistachio, cardamon cream
And then we shift gears. Here the story is a completely different one. After the rubbish rump, Zac gets serious with this dish, this is all about getting back to basics. Fundamentals, and my god is it great.
The pear is sweated out, retaining its natural texture, but softened by heat, with a touch of caramel brown on its surface. The hot to the cold of the pear sorbet with an brioche that exudes class. It’s expertly done, a primal tarte tatin. Balanced selection of flavours, perfectly executed. Certainly profound.
5. Pudding (Ocean meets land)
just like a journey to that island
Chocolate tart and acacia ice cream, lemon thyme, macadamia nut
The magic continues with this more technical dessert – a chocolate tart with its textures re-constituted by way of ‘sponge’ that is seemingly made from frozen chocolate. Think Aero bubbles, but frozen and melts when you eat it. Intriguing. Amazing. The rest of the elements, from the honey ice cream, tuile to the chocolate crumble bring a shade of enhancement to tasting of chocolate. Fantastic patisserie.
Rie Otani is the pastry chef, combining with Namae san’s Fat Duck training to turn out absolutely top class puddings.
6. Petit fours, green tea, peanut milk
Matcha and World Peace
Zac broke out his matcha wheeler and got going on his Way of Tea, slowing down, taking the time to whisk in the bubbles into our cups of green tea. He told us he was a year into his tea ceremony training. Very respectfully done. Yes, this is World Peace. I may not have been 100% on how the meal began, but I was very happy with how it ended.
We paid ¥19272 (£151.66) for two people. All the effort that has gone into this meal has not gone unnoticed of course and I do think this represents good value for money.
It isn’t quite as theatrical as The Fat Duck, but it is very atmospheric and I can see why the Bib thinks it worthy of 2 stars. The entire experience – which has much to do with the attention during service – is very slick and your soul does feel mended after a meal here. Quite the feat as we are right in the centre of Tokyo. Are there places where this gastro-therapy is more encompassing? Yes I think, and I think specifically of Shi Yang by the mountains of Xizhi in Taipei, an elevated location surrounded by mother nature, where the air is purer.
On the cooking front, I thought that one menu (the Pathways one) was clearly better than the other. Overall, my opinion is the cooking here is just under two stars. Or put another way, I think I might have enjoyed the ¥10,000 menu more, given the glamour ingredients on it.
But maybe glamour is only one of several aspects to L’Effervescence. Japanese gastronomy celebrates its premium terroir, and by doing so, rejects a bunch of quality that mother nature also provides. Perhaps that is the difference here. The respect for Big Blue is all-encompassing and the reason why Shinobu Namae is rightly celebrated for it.
Modern French + Japanese Terroir
Lunch : ¥7000 or ¥10000 pp + drinks
Dinner : ¥18000 pp + drinks
2-26-4 Nishi-azabu, Minato-ku Tokyo,106-0031
Tel : 03-5766-9500
Metro : Omotesando