Tokyo Restaurant Review: Tapas Molecular Bar

There’s nothing like some serious molecular gastronomy to soothe one’s creeping jet lag after flying for 18 hours. From the moment our wheels touched down at Tokyo’s Narita Airport, I was on a foodie mission to make my reservation time at Tapas Molecular Bar. The Michelin-starred eatery is housed inside the main bar at Tokyo’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel (opened in 2005.) Designed to resemble a small sushi bar, there are only eight seats and two seatings (6:00PM and 8:30PM) per evening.

The young Chef de Cuisine, Japanese-American Jeff Ramsey, is part mad scientist, part circus ringmaster. In two hours time, he leads diners through a fairytale-like culinary journey where nothing is as it seems. Common culinary elements are re-imagined in a veritable, theatrical experience of eye-popping colors, alien textures and sensational flavors. It’s not Japanese, though some cultural notes are present throughout the multi-course affair. On the menu, the titles of each course are as ambiguous as their appearance, leaving plenty of room at the bar for one’s imagination.

Apple and Manchego. Served on a bed of woven gold wire, this crispy, dried apple cigar is wrapped around a frozen sorbet of Manchego cheese.

Amaebi. The title refers to the Japanese name for “sweet shrimp” but this dish is much more than shrimp on a platter. Here’s where Ramsey’s mad scientist emerges. The giant syringes below are filled with a black seaweed/uni mixture and released as droplets into a calcium chloride solution which binds them, creating the shape and texture of caviar.

These black bubbles of flavor are added to the sweet shrimp dish, with “sea grapes” seaweed and macro-tomatoes. Yes, those tiny red dots are actually whole tomatoes.

Caesar Salad. I have no idea how this egg-shaped, bite-sized snack reproduced both the flavor and texture of a Caesar Salad. Chalk this one up to the kitchen mysteries.

Tilefish, Powdered Aromas. This is a minimalist take on shabu-shabu, Japanese hot pot. A frothy, hot broth is poured into a bowl. Thinly sliced tilefish sashimi is presented on a plate with three different spices. With chopsticks, diners plunge the tilefish intothe hotpot (bowl of soup) to cook it, then drag it through various spices (lemon zest, pepper). After the fish is eaten, the “powdered aromas” are added to the remaining soup to be consumed.

Emperor’s New Mojito. The height of the evening’s theatrics comes into play. In a new, alcohol-fueled version of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” this course tells the story of a drink that does not have to be seen to be believed. The cocktail is shaken and poured, but the glasses remain empty. It’s only after sucking on the metal straw that the mojito finally bursts into the mouth in all of its minty-lime glory.

Xiaolongbao. This is Chef Ramsey’s signature dish for good reason; it is spectacular. Xiaolongbao are Chinese soup dumplings, so using the title on a lamb dish is unusual. The meaning of the title becomes clear upon taking a bite of the lamb chop, as a juicy, flavorful “soup” bursts into the mouth. The trick is in the preparation. A meat-based gelatin cube is first placed inside the lamb chop and resealed before cooking. The result is phenomenal. The lamb is accompanied by a new, green peach.

Wagyu. The dish is simple: dry-aged wagyu beef of outstanding quality, cooked in a vacuum bag, achieving uniform color and texture throughout.

Miso Soup. This deconstructed soup is presented on a single, white spoon. A ball of broth served with tiny white balls of tofu jelly. It’s meant to be eaten in one bite, resulting in the illusion of traditionally prepared miso soup.

The dessert course is an assortment of sweets, including dark chocolate bites, cappucino puffs and sour raspberry fizzes. It’s enough to make Willy Wonka go wild.

Fruits. The evening’s pièce de résistance is tucked just behind a line of lemons, limes and oranges. This is the miracle fruit. Maybe you’ve seen it on an episode of CSI, maybe you know someone who has tried it. Once placed in the mouth for a minute, this tiny red fruit scrambles the taste buds, rendering all sour food sweet. Really sweet. The effects last up to ninety minutes. Once difficult to eat, limes and lemons turn to candy in the mouth. My beer tasted like Ginger Ale. Though gimicky, this course is all about the fun of food, and a perfectly sweet way to end the culinary experience.

Once the meal is complete, move to a seat in the bar/lounge overlooking Tokyo’s spectacular skyline. Order up a glass of champagne (Warning: it’s going to taste like Sprite for the next 90 minutes), kick back, and enjoy the view.

Tapas Molecular Bar is located on the 38th Floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel
2-1-1 Nihonbashi Muromachi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Visit the website here

2010 Mileage Total: 98981

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