It’s common knowledge in the culinary world that Tokyo holds more Michelin stars than any other city: 234 to be precise. Contributing to this number, 12 restaurants have 3-star status, the highest accolade you can get. Delving deeper still, out of these 12 restaurants, a select few have been awarded three stars every single year since Michelin Guide Tokyo’s conception in 2008. Quintessence – a French restaurant headed by owner/chef Shuzo Kishida in Shinagawa – is one of them, and I was lucky enough to eat there a few weeks back.
Often labelled as one of the toughest restaurants in the world to get a reservation at, my girlfriend surprised me with a reservation and gained about a million brownie points in the process. No easy task, to get a table you have to call exactly two months in advance of the date you want to go, and then it’s down to luck.
While a French restaurant at its core (Kishida was an apprentice at Pascal Barbot’s three-star L’Astrance in Paris), Quintessence is also unmistakably Japanese with its minimalist philosophy and dedication to locally sourced Japanese ingredients. But it’s not just the food that takes on a minimalist approach. The restaurant features no decor, no paintings, no music. Once seated we were shown a menu that basically told us there was no menu. We would be served what the chef was cooking that day. 12 courses comprised of six appetizers, a fish and a meat course, followed by four desserts.
A strict no photo policy in the main dining area meant our cameras stayed in our bag. And so while this post won’t have any photos, there are many available on Google should you be interested. This post is more for myself than anyone else – a brief account of the course, and a few thoughts now that a few weeks have passed.
It may sound strange, but the first thing that struck me about Quintessence was the amount of waiting staff there were. I don’t think I have ever seen so many in relation to the amount of guests. It shows the dedication they have to personal service. Each time a dish was brought to the table it was described in detail by the server, slowly and considered. Servers were somehow formal yet personable at the same time: it truly came across that they knew these dishes inside out, and that they weren’t just rehashing a prepared speech.
During the course of the meal, the staff were always present but never intrusive. Plates were cleared away quickly and it genuinely felt like there was an equal amount of time before the last plate was taken away and a new one was served. (I didn’t time it to the second, but I wouldn’t be surprised.) Dishes were brought to the table by two waiters in unison who put the plates down on the table at exactly the same time, with the same sweeping movement. Even the butter for the bread was precisely cut in a perfect square of uniform depth. Nothing – and I mean absolutely nothing – gets left to chance at a restaurant of this level. And so, before the meal had even begun I was taking all this in and really enjoying the experience.
With no menu to read from, a short description of the following dishes comes from memory and what was explained to us by the servers. My account of the dishes will no doubt be cruder than the official descriptions offered by the restaurant, and I am certain that I have forgotten ingredients. But here we go.
The first dish – barracuda seasoned with fennel, sitting on top of an almond cookie – was definitely the weakest. This was a confusing start to our meal that left us both silently wondering to ourselves what was going on. Usually when something is bite-sized you expect it to pack a punch, but this wasn’t the case here. All I could taste was the strange, crumbly nostalgia of a digestive biscuit (UK folks will know these biscuits well.) I have to say that after this dish the rest of the meal was admittedly incredible, and so I think it would have been better if they had left it out entirely. Thankfully the second appetizer got things back on track: a chilled crab and tomato soup topped with cream cheese and herbs.
The next dish was one of the restaurant’s two signature dishes, those that are served with every course no matter when you visit: goat’s milk bavarois, simply served with golden-green olive oil from Provence, lily bulb scales, macadamia nut slivers, and a light seasoning of sea salt. This combination was unlike anything I have tasted before, and it was incredible how that little bit of salt could lift all the flavours and bring them together.
Next up was fresh uni (sea urchin), grilled aubergine and mushrooms. I’d only ever had uni once before and it was bad stuff from conveyor belt sushi, so I was always a bit apprehensive about it. Thankfully, the uni on offer here was totally different and I breathed a sigh of relief. Despite having no real strong flavour in itself, the uni was helped along by aubergine that had been marinated in a vinaigrette.
Quintessence’s chef, Kishida, has always maintained that the philosophy behind his cooking lies in three processes: one, the quality of the product: two, the cooking process; and three, the seasoning. As such, most of the dishes served at his restaurant are deceptively simple in appearance, but packing more flavour than you ever imagine they could. When a small dish of what looked like Irish champ was served (potatoes with scallions) it totally blew me away with its homeliness and taste. This was ‘peasant food’ elevated to a level I had never tasted before, and I remarked that I could eat a plate of this every night, forever.
The next two dishes were seafood – prawns with sun-dried tomato and rosemary/thyme (unbelievable), followed by grilled white fish with green beans that was slightly underwhelming, partially because in retrospect I don’t remember eating it. (It mustn’t have left much of an impact.) The meat course that followed definitely left its mark, however – lamb served with a rum jus and sweetcorn fritter. The server explained that the lamb had been cooked for one minute, then left to rest for five; cooked for another minute, then left to rest for another five. This process was repeated an astonishing thirty times before the meat ended up on our plates. The lamb was tender and the rum jus was something I had never tasted before, let alone imagined working at all.
Eight courses down and it was time for a quartet of desserts, each with its own flavour, texture and story. A pink and green plum sorbet first cleansed the pallet, followed by coconut flavoured mousse served with pistachio nut oil and espresso syrup. This was one of my favourites, the presentation making it look like a splash of balsamic in olive oil. The melon and lychee macaroon that was served next was a bit too sweet for me, but the final dessert – the second of the restaurant’s signature dishes – was borderline perfection: meringue ice cream. The chef prepared meringues in advance only to pulverise them and make ice cream with the resulting dust. A thin mist of sea salt was then sprayed over the ice cream to create a salted caramel-like flavour effect.
All in all, the experience lasted three hours but it went by in a flash. Since it was a surprise, I didn’t even know that I was going, and so after I left the restaurant I was still somewhat in a daze: both at the quality of the meal, and also at my girlfriend’s generosity. Three-star Michelin meals don’t come often, and so I made sure to savour every moment.
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