First-class Chinese cuisine – with first-class views to match
Last Friday night, after an intense week of work, Naoko and I headed off to Conrad Tokyo, a five-star hotel located in the ultra-modern Shiodome district of the city. Part of the Hilton Group, the hotel’s signature Chinese restaurant, ‘China Blue’, has won numerous awards, with the restaurant interior looking every bit as enticing as the food.
26 floors up, the hotel’s ambience is calm and inviting. Tall ceilings and soft lighting give the interior an ethereal glow, further heightened by a hypnotic gas fire burning in the hotel’s bar. China Blue is is situated right at the end of the lobby – the restaurant having its own grand entrance down a glowing corridor. The first thing that strikes you as you walk through the restaurant is the elegance; blue velvet booths sitting proudly underneath cubist hanging lanterns of the same colour. The setting is opulent, with huge floor-to-ceiling windows designed to bring Shiodome’s neon skyline right into the restaurant.
Our Couple Course Menu (二人世界) literally translated as “the world of two” and was a series of courses arranged to give us a taste of traditional Chinese cuisine in a modern setting. Fusion menus can sometimes lack any solid direction, but all these courses were unmistakably Chinese in origin and not something you would find in Japanese restaurants. In fact, some of the ingredients on offer I had never eaten at all before.
As if to emphasise this, the first dish put in front of us wasn’t even listed on the menu at all – a pre-dinner snack no doubt intended to prepare our palettes for the meal to come. Marinated jellyfish together with a small serving of cubed beef in Chinese spices started us off slowly and was a curious beginning to a meal that would feature lots of different – at times unusual – flavour combinations.
Just as our appetizers were being served, Tokyo’s neon nightscape was beginning to show its full glory: Odaiba’s Rainbow Bridge twinkling in the distance outside alongside the many expressways snaking their way to the horizon. Meanwhile, inside on an elegant narrow plate, two flavourful dumplings sat either side of what looked like crispy pork. This middle dish was in fact mushrooms cooked in such a way to mimic a meat dish. It was cleverly done, but more importantly, tasted just as good.
Next up, a potage of soy sauce and sea cucumber, admittedly had me nervous. On paper this course sounded confusing and even slightly intimidating, but the reality was quite the opposite: a rich soy sauce base that almost tasted comforting. “It feels like I have tasted this somewhere before” we both said to each other, yet unable to pinpoint the homeliness of the flavours. The sea cucumber – a marine creature you may not have even heard of, let alone seen – was cut into slithers alongside bamboo shoots of the same narrow width. More texture than taste, I feel the sea cucumber was there to add to the dish, not dominate it. For me, the broth itself was the star of the show, complimented beautifully by elegant (and delicious) lily buds that sat delicately on top.
The third course was stir-fried crab meat, shrimp and scallops in a chili sauce. Unlike the previous courses which I had never heard of or tried before, this was an instantly recognisable Chinese dish and so was under pressure to deliver. Thankfully it was given an added boost by the freshest of ingredients (Tokyo’s famous Tsukuji fish market is a stone’s throw away) and a tangy punch through the sauce. I particularly liked the visual: a wide, flat bowl that had a deep cavern right in the middle.
No ‘Couple Course’ menu would be complete without a few dishes that could be shared between us. A dish of tender ‘China Blue style’ rib eye steak was cut into shareable pieces, adorned with a colourful shredded vegetable dressing. The light from the neon outside and the candle on our table only increased the vibrant look of the dish, one that was difficult to stop eating. Served after this was a traditional plate of braised Chinese mushrooms steamed in paper for us to share.
By this point in the menu we were both feeling full – hoping that the ‘dessert of the day’ would be something light to round off the meal nicely instead of finishing us off completely. Thankfully the chef must have read out minds and so we were presented with a delicate bowl of annin tofu (杏仁豆腐 / almond tofu) with a raspberry sauce. Light in texture, this final course allowed our palettes to refresh and reset after a meal of so many flavours.
Chinese restaurants are plentiful in Tokyo – standard mom-and-pop shops serving ramen and subuta (sweet and sour pork). Our visit to China Blue, however, showed us that high-end Chinese cuisine does indeed exist in the city – with an opulent setting that perhaps cannot be matched.
Follow in our footsteps: