I’d like to say one more thing about my food adventures in Japan before I get back to our regularly scheduled programming. Well, I’d actually like to say many things, but I’ll try to limit myself to just this one: Ristorante ASO.
I had the wonderful opportunity to dine at this Michelin rated restaurant courtesy of Tsumori-san. Simply put, this meal was fantastic. ASO is what I’d classify as modern Italian cuisine with its blends of recent advances in food science (stable foams and emulsions) and classically themed dishes to create novel and delicious meals. They are serious about making excellent food, but don’t take themselves so seriously that they aren’t willing to have a bit of fun. The combination of plating foods in interesting ways and involving the diner with the eating experience helps keep the atmosphere convivial and relaxed while still keeping a strong focus on the food.
Rather than detail every course, I’ll go over a few of the fun and interesting parts of the meal. The meal was set as an eight course menu with a wine pairing for each course. The cheese course isn’t listed on the menu.
Admittedly there was more than one instance where the waiter had to explain how the meal was intended to be eaten as the presentation could appear intimidating at first. As the first course was brought out to the table, I knew I was in for a treat and that the chef wanted to set some expectations for the coming meal. The first course was brought out with an inverted shot glass on the plate. On the top (the bottom of the glass, technically) were several tips of asparagus. Underneath the shot glass was a small salad of shaved asparagus. Two of the three promised asparagus preparations were already present, what was the third? I finished the asparagus tips and set my shot glass right-side up to begin the salad. No sooner than my glass was inverted, a waiter filled the glass with a refreshing asparagus soup. Each preparation was simple and straightforward with clear, pleasing flavor. The asparagus was front and center in each iteration, with other more subtle flavors taking minor roles. An exceedingly simple premise that I’m sure took quite a bit of patience and practice to develop and prepare.
In the photo above you can see a bit of the involvement needed on the diner’s part that I mentioned earlier. This part of the meal was a pasta dish, but the plate of seafood set in front of me left me perplexed. Notice that insulated glass container in the top right of the photo? That’s the pasta. Each diner who ordered the same dish combined the two together at the table. Involving the diners on a level more than just eating made us experience the food in other ways. How does the food combine? Does the food become more than the sum of the parts once combined? Would they have been appreciated as much separately? Was there a culinary reason as to the separate preparation? As you can see, many thoughts passed through my mind as I enjoyed the meal. Also, notice the foam on the top of the pasta–that dissolved into the dish to become a sauce.
Here is a prime example of the playfulness of the chef. When the meat course was brought to our tables, some of us were presented with miniaturized version of the meal! The staff quickly replaced the plates of tiny food with the full sized portions after the joke became apparent, but it was fun to see the chef keep humor in the meal as well. It makes me appreciate one of my continuing driving forces in cooking: To have a fun time with friends. Food isn’t just eating, it’s the experience of sharing a good meal with good people and enjoying oneself.
I’ll cut to the desserts now so I don’t get too long winded, but I’ll leave you with a few final thoughts at the end.
I’m a sucker for chocolate cake, so I had to order it for dessert. After such a meal, I knew that the pastry chef had to have his act together. But I wasn’t expecting this! It looks almost planetary; I expected other bits of chocolate to be orbiting it. I could hardly bring myself to destroy it–OK, after the first bite, I fairly easily destroyed it. It was even more delicious than it was beautifully presented. Different intensities of chocolate played off of each other, from the smooth melting bits of solid chocolate that were the orbits paths, to the gelato that was orbiting the outside, to the cake itself at the center.
This dessert looked wonderful in its simplicity. I’m a huge fan of the chocolate sculpture I ate, but simplicity is too often overlooked. Not in this dessert. Gelato. On ice. And salt. Three kinds of salt, no less. We were all amused by the presentation of the large block of clear ice but, frankly, what better way to keep ice cream chilled! The salt was there to play off of the sweetness of the dish as it can intensify and enhance flavors.
I’ve often thought that overly complicated presentations are interesting but can quickly become tiring. I’m a big proponent of simple meals that are excellently prepared. I too often have had a poorly cooked steak that would otherwise lack flavors if it had not been slathered in some kind of sauce. It is rare to find an excellently prepared steak with fantastic taste alone (unless you are in Argentina). The chef here kept it light and playful. His skill and uniqueness was not overlooked, but he knew when to indulge and when to keep things minimalistic. This balance of letting good food stand on its own and alternatively be enhanced by the chef’s preparations made for one of the best dining experiences I have had.
-I can’t say enough good things about this meal, but I have to limit myself somewhere–it’s making me too hungry!
-There was an amazing cheese course that was brought out as well. As someone who appreciates his cheeses, this was a wonderful addition.
-The wine paring was fantastic and the meal was capped with a great port. I’ll update this section in a few months with the names of some of the wines.
-There were three butters and an assortment of breads that were available. One of the butters was a smoked butter, which I had never seen before. It was surprisingly good and still makes my mouth water thinking about it. It didn’t seem to be everybody’s favorite as it could overpower some breads, but I enjoyed it.
-The bacon stuffed Brussels Sprout to the right was a great touch. Delicious.