Okuda, a new Japanese star in Paris

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Once you watch Japanese master Toru Okuda wield a knife, you’ll never want to touch one again. Precision. Care. Attention. Discipline. Perfection. Okuda – whose stable of Tokyo restaurants include both a Michelin three-star and Michelin two-star – has come to Paris. And we diners are the better for it. His serene, pale-wood, pottery-filled trio of dining rooms (a main floor counter for seven; a downstairs dining room for twelve; and a private room for four diners) transport you directly to Japan, with all the accompanying courtesy and gentleness one expects. There is only a single, multi-course kaiseki menu, and diners are presented with a simple printed list of the offerings as they begin their pleasant journey. I was lucky enough to be seated at the bar, with chef Okuda in front of me, demonstrating his amazing proficiency with a knife. It is hard to choose a favorite of the eight courses, but I guess I would have to say the soothing, delicate flan, rich with fresh crab meat and a perfect foil of warm autumn mushrooms (flan salé au tourteau, sauce épaisse aux champignons). It was course number two, and if I had to stop there, I would have been a happy woman. Brilliantly fresh tuna, paper thin slices of squid from the I’ile de’Yeu, and delicate white flounder (carrelet) arrive as a sashimi selection, seasoned with the most delicious seagreens, including an unforgettably bright-flavored fresh-water nori. Not that the dish needed embellishment, we were instructed to season one bite of the squid with the dollop of caviar set on the plate, and take a second bite paired with fresh wasabi that had been grated only seconds earlier. Mouth in heaven, mouth on fire! It will be a while before I forget his grilled bar – oh so perfectly cooked over a charcoal fire – just lightly smoky, falling easily into chopstick-worthy bites, seasoned with salt and sesame. And who would think to actually fry an avocado, transforming both the texture and flavor, making me think of a freshly harvested butternut squash, cooked to create an autumn-worthy purée. Morsels of charcoal-grilled French Limousin beef fillet from butcher Hugo Desnoyer arrive so tender you can eat them with a chopstick, while just about every dish leaves your palate with a clean, citrusy aftertaste. But the one dish that I will be making at home is Okuda’s spectacular dessert (photo) : It consisted of a peach compote, using no less than three varieties (a white peach, a pêche plate and the rare pêche de vigne) set in a glistening crystal bowl, surrounded by a fragrant and fruity-sweet sparkling peach jelly, and of course a perfect peach sorbet, garnished with pungent leaves of fresh mint.


Traditional Japanese kaiseki

7, rue de la Trémoille

Paris 8

Tel: +33 1 40 70 19 19

MÉTRO: Alma-Marceau

OPEN: Wednesday to Monday

CLOSED: Monday lunch and all day Tuesday

PRICE: 160€ fixed menu at lunch, 200€ fixed priced menu at dinner. No à la carte menu.


ATMOSPHERE: Smart casual

In Japanese dumpling heaven

Fans of those spicy, addictive Japanese dumplings known as gyoza, should make a beeline for this modern, streamlined bar set in the historic Passage des Panoramas. Find a stool and settle into a mini-feast. Chefs Guillaume Guedi and Shinichi Sato of the Michelin two-star restaurant, Passage 53 nearby, have an instant hit on their hands, offering simplicity at its best with their yuzu zest and chile pepper-spiced wheat flour dumplings, filled with the succulent ground pork loin from star butcher Hugo Desynoyer. The dumplings are seared right in front of you in a touch of oil in customized cast iron pans, sprinkled with a touch of water, then steamed, so one side is golden and crunchy, the other soft and soothing. Dip the cresent-shaped goodies into a citrus-rich ponzo sauce touched with grapefruit and orange and your palate breaks into a smile: The contrast of textures, a touch of spice, a hit of citrus makes for one happy diner. The only other offerings here include a tiny bowl of bean sprouts laced with nutty sesame oil, and a simple serving of white rice. There’s both Yebisu and Kirin beer to wash it all down. The bar is efficiency personified, with excellent service from a trio of young Japanese women. The décor is pure, understated Japanese all wood, grey stone, and glass, a perfect contrast to the passage, with its charming patina of age.

GYOZA BAR,  56 passage des Panoramas, Paris 2. Tel: +33 1 44 82 00 62.Métro: Bourse and Grands Boulevards.Open: evenings only, 6-11 pm. Monday-Saturday. Closed Sunday. Dinner: 6€ for eight dumplings; carryout available.

Back in Paris, chez "Aida"

Chef Koji Aida’s evening procession of pure Japanese tastes is a mix of subtle and explosive maneuvers that arise from his steady hand and a magical teppanyaki grill. This austere retaurant set on a quiet 7th arrondissement street near the Bon Marché department store may not be for everyone. Some will find flavors too subtle, or will consider the ceremony more of a side show, even what some call “the Benihana experience.” But to my mind, lovers of pure Japanese food and artistry should do themselves a favor and reserve for an evening’s pleasure. The restaurant is small, with room for just nine at the counter, four in a private room, and two spots for tableside dining. There is a single, set menu that offers a steadied procession of creative, ultra-fresh offerings. In a single dinner, Aida manages to cover extensive ground, with fish, shellfish, meat, eggs and plenty of herbs, spices and vegetables woven into the combination. On my last visit we had a treasured spot at the bar, right in front of the spotless stainless steel griddle.  I will never forget – and will forever try to imitate – his plump, soft-cooked egg yolk set in a clear glass vessel (photo), topped with a seaweed and bonito broth laced with bits of black winter truffles. A beautiful work of art on its own, the dish offered lovely textures, mouth pleasures, color, aromas. Other favorite memories of the 11-course meal include a palate-opening tartare of veal and oysters bathed in tangy, golden bits of gelatin; and a stunning dish of mackerel rolled around a mound of sushi rice then wrapped in rectangles of nori. The chef deftly toasts the seaweed, then takes a blow-torch to the prepared rice and mackerel bundles, an explosive taste that was luxurious in the mouth. The meal has a clear rhythm, a “wow” taste followed by a subtle one. After the mackerel came a tiny taste of glistening, line-caught seabass (bar de ligne) escorted by a dab of freshly grated wasabi horseradish. Alongside, a bit of crunch and freshness came in the form of finely shredded cucumber and radish salad. Who would have thought to deep-fry a naked scallop, but here a duet of fried coquilles Saint-Jacques are sliced in half to display the scallop’s amazing progression of textures and colors, raw to crisply cooked. A simple mound of fleur de sel on the side served as a singular seasoning. Beef tenderloin – from none other than Paris’s star butcher Hugo Desnoyer – is seared on the hot griddle, then cut into bite-sized cubes and sauced ever so lightly. What should have been the star of the meal came out just a bit too dry for my palate: Aida worked like an orchestra leader constructing his showpiece, a studied mix of grilled lobster, lobster roe, sushi rice, eggs and gentle seasoning, all gathered into a perfect mound on the griddle and delivered to diners in the signature hand-crafted pottery. Nothing is left to chance here, and for some that may lack drama. I love the place, and after the finale, clementine sorbet with a touch of clementine puree, I walked out into the night feeling fresh and oh so light.

AIDA, 1 Rue Pierre-Leroux, Paris 7, Tel: +33 1 43 06 14 18 (call after 2 pm for reservations) Métro: Vaneau Open: Dinner only Monday-Friday. Closed Saturday & Sunday.

www.aidaparis.com (in French and Japanese) Email den55@freesurf.fr

Dinner: 160€ omakassé (tasting) menu (210€ truffle menu, in season)

The Guilo Guilo show

Smoked Mackerel Sashimi Guilo Guilo 7 11

One can wait weeks to be one of the chosen few that gather around the 20-seat rectangular bar that makes up the small Montmartre Japanese restaurant known as Guilo Guilo (pronounced Gee-low Gee-low). We joined the believers the other night for the 7 pm (first) seating and like everyone had a ring-side seat for the show. Slight and elegant chef Eiichi Edakuni holds court (he even calls himself Le President), directing the multi-course meal like an orchestra leader. The rest of the cheery, agile staff scurries about in very tight quarters, clearly organized and motivated. There is no  written men and no choice, just a set 45-euro menu each evening. Ours included some real highs, lows, and a few ho-hums. Tops on my list was the elegant, memorable cold-smoked mackerel (photo), strips of that fabulous fatty fish garnished with a nori sprinkle and piled on a bed of a fine julienne of shiso and black radish.  (It was so satisfying that our neighbor asked for a second serving at the close of the meal.) I also loved the orginality of the crunchy corn and shrimp tempura, refried counterside, arriving hot and crisp. Another dish with happy, bright, intense flavors came in the form of what they called « Japanese bœuf Bourgignon » a tiny bowl of rice topped with a rich beef stew showered with spring onions and nori. There is something wonderful about a roomful of strangers all eating the same food, like a picnic, a festival, a communion of souls. Several of the offerings lacked punch and character, including a rather bland tofu and crab soup, essentially a deep- fried bundle floating in a delicate broth ; and an underwhelming turbot rolled in a sesame coating. If you go, don’t bother with famed foie gras sushi, which most diners order for an 11-euro supplement. The restaurant goes into Benihana mode as the chef tosses cubes of foie gras in flour, sautes and sauces with fanfare, transforming them into bite-sized morsels to set upon a mound of sushi rice. The result is rather mushy, tasteless, and fatty, flavors I could have done without. Guilo Guilo offers an extensive sake menu, including  an intriguing bubbly sake.

GUILO GUILO, 8, rue Garreau, Paris 18. Tel: +33 1 42 54 23 92. Métro: Abessess. Open : dinner only. Closed Sunday and Monday. 45-euro menu. http://www.guiloguilo.com

Quick bites, Japanese-style

Domburi Izakaya Isse 7 11

Always in the mood for  Japanese food, I walked into Izakaya Issé on the rue de Richelieu, hoping for a quick, flavorful, inexpensive and light lunch. And that’s just what I got, in the name of domburi, the Japanese bowl of rice covered with a diverse assortment of fish, shellfish, meat or poultry. The salmon and avocado domburi (photo) was just what I had in mind: strips of bright-flavored salmon, chunks of avocado with a personality, delicious well-cooked rice topped with just a touch of soy. The sprinkling of crunchy nori strips was as welcome as the frosting on a cake. Equally worthy was the domburi topped with carefully grilled eel and fine strips of omelet. At lunch, the tiny 20-seat diner offers four different domburi, priced at just 12 to 15 euros, with a small selection of desserts. The dinner menu features an assortment of brochettes, salads, vegetables, and sashimi. Wash it all down with sips of sake, choosing from a selection of more than 50 offerings.

IZAKAYA ISSE, 45, rue de Richelieu, Paris 1. Tel: +33 1 42 96 26 60. Métro: Palais-Royale ; Pyramides. Closed Sunday and holidays.

12 to 15 euro lunch; Dinner a la carte, about 35 euros, not including beverages. www.isse-et-cie.fr

Toyo, a calming zen moment

Toyo Shrimp and Radish Rectangle

Some eight years ago the designer Kenzo discovered Toyomitsu Nakayama cooking in one of the many Japanese eateries along Rue Sainte Anne in Paris’s first arrondissement. He quickly hired Toyo away as his private chef. Toyo had a fine time with that, but a year ago decided to go it on his own.  I figured that what’s good enough for Kenzo’s palate might be good enough for mine, and I was not disappointed.

Toyo’s clean, sleek, quiet little restaurant on a hard-to-find street in the Montparnasse neighborhood in the 6th arrondissement is a gem. I arrived for lunch famished, and in a bit of a tizzy from a stressful morning. Within a few moments I felt calm, relaxed, unhurried. Everyone in this spotless restaurant works with a sense of elegance and precision. Toyo is there in the open kitchen, cooking on his griddle and induction plaques, creating a cuisine that’s not Japanese and not French, but completely his own.

The streamlined 35 and 45 euro lunch menus offer just enough choices, and the series of small plates make for a fun way to witness Toyo’s talents. He offers tiny rectangles of perfectly cooked merlan (whiting) showered with flakes of salty bottarga (dried, salted mullet or cod)   set upon a bed of giant cepe mushrooms. The dish was not only beautiful, but rich, complex, and comforting. A star of the meal was the single seared shrimp leaning against a delicious rectangle of white radish,   the texture of polenta and made up of a delicate blend of grated radish, mushroom broth and soy. (Photo). For dessert, a stunning green tea ice cream topped with a warm red bean broth set me on my way out the door, floating in a sea of calm.

Toyo, 17, rue Jules Chaplain, Paris 6. Tel : +33 1 43 54 28 03. Closed Sunday and Monday.  Métro : Vavin.