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During our HYPEBEAST Road Trips Japan stay at the stunning Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo, Japan, we took part in a tasting menu at its celebrated Tapas Molecular Bar, situated in the Oriental Lounge on the 38th floor.
Over the course of two hours, the talented chefs prepared a seemingly never ending assortment of dishes for us to devour as we sat in front of them along an eight seat, sushi bar-type setting. Using molecular gastronomy – food science – they created new textures and unusual flavor combinations that both excited our imaginations and jump started our palates.
To understand the basis behind Tapas Molecular Bar is to understand molecular gastronomy. Its style of cooking is often referred to as “modernist” or “experimental cuisine,” or as elBulli’s own Ferran Adrià – the man who created “culinary foam” and five-time winner of Restaurant Magazine’s Best Restaurant in the World – puts it, “de-constructivist.” Simply put, when cooking with molecular gastronomy, it alters the physical appearance and chemical structure of food by using technical innovations such as liquid nitrogen, sous-vide and various chemicals. And often times, what you see is not what you get.
Our evening began with an aperitif, a sake bellini, which was quickly followed by our first course of caramel popcorn. Sweet corn ice cream was flash frozen with liquid nitrogen and quickly dropped into a metal tube coated at one end with a thin layer of liquid caramel. The resulting fragile but crunchy coating was a great start.
It was quickly followed by a caprese salad. Re-imagined from a simple Italian salad comprised of slices of mozzarella, tomatoes and basil, our version appeared before us as a freeze-dried cherry tomato topped with a sphere of liquid mozzarella and a basil skin.
“New Soba” took a traditional Japanese dish to new heights as we slurped one long gelatinous noodle squeezed out of a pressurized tube topped with dipping sauce foam, which coated the strand with each suck.
Several “water” themed dishes came next. “Beach” was a very visual and delicious dish, with small dehydrated Japanese anchovies toasted and ground to mimic sand, while thick clam juice foam and a mussel poached in white wine, played its part as spume. It also came with an edible, but unpalatable, clamshell made from charcoal powder. “The Underwater Forest” was a tall shot glass filled with a creamy uni (sea urchin) flan topped with seaweed from Okinawa and a dense kombu broth to look like a mini kelp bed. A bowl of squid consume, with a tender piece of tentacle, and an orb of ink made from spherification — where liquid is mixed with a powdered sodium alginate and creates a caviar-like effect when dropped into a brine bath — represented “Deep Sea.” A squid ink cracker and a dollop of aioli accompanied the dish.
When we got to “Mountain Stream” we were on a roll. All previous plates had been properly demolished and this would be no different; but as the components of the plate were being assembled, we couldn’t help but take a moment to appreciate its simple beauty. Comprised of a whole river crab and an Ayu (a fish found in very clear water), it perfectly deep-fried in semolina, and served with an herbed vinegar and sake jelly placed on a bright green nasturtium leaf, green tea salt and sudachi (Japanese citrus) foam. This plate was almost too beautiful to eat, almost.
Unfortunately, our food joy came to a quick halt when the gazpacho arrived. Although their rendition of this simple chilled tomato soup was clever – a frozen tomato juice globe, filled with tomato jelly, on a bed of “soil” made from black olives and breadcrumbs – it fell flat. The “soup” was under seasoned, the thickness of the icy shell was inconsistent and difficult to break, and the soil overpowering. For one of our dining companions in particular, who we specified several times did not eat olives; this dish was a definite no-no and received no absolution.
I had hoped the next dish would offset our last, but alas it did not. “Smoke” used an aromatic accompaniment where gases are trapped in a service device, in this case, smoke in a preserving jar, as a dramatic garnish to highlight its chicken oysters with gooseberries. Regrettably, the smoke seemed to be the highlight of the dish. The chicken was a bit chewy, the flavors didn’t seem to marry well, and towards the end, it just tasted acrid.
Thankfully the meal was redeemed by their interpretation of Chinese xiaolongbao (soup dumpling). This was not your average dumpling. In fact, there was no dumpling! Instead they took a tender Australian lamb chop seasoned with Indian cumin and curry and injected full of rich, savory juices, and served alongside a Japanese peach and yogurt. The chefs requested that we eat it in one bite and once we complied we were rewarded with a flood of deliciousness engulfing our taste buds. It was ridiculously tasty.
Our last savory course was “Wagyu,” and it had my mouth watering. A prime cut of Japanese beef was marinated in miso, mirin and sake and cooked sous vide -in a water bath at 53 degrees for six hours. It was finished off by caramelizing it with a blowtorch and vanilla salt and came with a charcoal bread roll filled with Parmesan mousse. Served cold, the dish was a delight, but in my humble opinion, would have been better if served warm.
“The chefs requested that we eat it in one bite and once we complied we were rewarded with a flood of deliciousness engulfing our taste buds. It was ridiculously tasty.”
Dessert, like most of our previous courses, was full of fun and novelty. Our first sweet treat was a mint meringue swirled around in liquid nitrogen; it was less of a dessert and more of a magic trick as our fellow diners began shooting smoke out of their noses like an angry bull in a Tex Avery cartoon.
We got everything from a dessert soup made from shiso, lemon sugar and a Tonka bean twill to a medley of separate dishes – the NY cheesecake coated in a cookie crumb, cappuccino cotton candy, olive oil gummy, raspberry gummy, and chocolate orange with pop rocks – served all at once.
The finale to our 17-course meal was a medley of citrus slices –lemon, lime and orange – a piece of strawberry, and a miracle fruit resting atop a glass pedestal like a crown jewel. Miracle fruit is scientifically “magical” as it inhibits your sour and salt receptors in your taste buds so your brain can only detect sweet, but after a rollercoaster meal, sucking on a lemon slice was not exactly what I had in mind to close out our culinary escapade.
The meal’s biggest downside was inconsistency. The experimental nature of molecular gastronomy left us with several dishes that were mind-blowingly good, while others fell flat. That and the fact that our dietary restrictions were forgotten were their only oversights. After all, the food was still good and the service was excellent.
All in all, this was a memorable gastronomic experience and one I would recommend. But maybe the second seating would be best, as the chefs will be less inclined to rush and you can enjoy your meal without a 2-hour countdown looming over your head or a worried look from the chefs if you go H.A.M. on your Instagram as you attempt to hashtag every ingredient on your plate. It must also be noted the menu changes every month so the likelihood of you receiving the same dishes might be slim.
HYPEBEAST Road Trips aims to take you across the world and provide you insights into some of the lesser known cultural institutions relevant to our culture. Follow cultural connector and creative Toon fan, Simon Wainwright, Nicole Fung of That Food Cray !!! and writer Joy Yoon (who authored The Best Things to Do in Los Angeles: 1001 Ideas) as we examine and experience some of the most interesting entities across fashion, food, design and art through our HYPEBEAST Road Trips.We’d like to thank TUMI, Mandarin Oriental Tokyo, Onitsuka Tiger and Aoi Kyoto Stay for their support of this opportunity.
“The experimental nature of molecular gastronomy left us with several dishes that were mind-blowingly good, while others fell flat.”