Crossing the threshold into Toru Okuda’s (7 Rue de la Trémoille 75008,Paris;tel.01 40 70 19 19) newest venture in Paris is like stepping into a hidden corner of Japan. Famous for his Michelin-starred Tokyo restaurants Ginza Okuda (2 stars) and Ginza Kojyu (3 stars), Okuda’s first international address is a stone’s throw from the Champs Elysées. Over a dozen Japanese craftsmen were brought by the Sugiyama Design agency to turn the former El Mansour restaurant in the 8th arrondissement into a traditional tea-house-inspired space where Okuda’s exquisite kaiseki menu can be enjoyed in quiet simplicity, just like in Japan.
Okuda has several seating options, including a traditional tatami room, but the best place is at the counter, where you can watch the master himself at work transforming the freshest ingredients into kaiseki masterpieces. In keeping with kaiseki tradition, Okuda has taken great pains to procure local produce and meats: certain vegetables come from Nantes-based farmer Olivier Durand (who even grows some Japanese varieties) and the beef comes from Hugo Desnoyer, the celebrated Parisian butcher of choice for Michelin-starred chefs.
Kaiseki literally means “stone in the bosom,” a reference to a practice monks had of tucking hot stones in their robes to ward off hunger pangs during morning and afternoon prayers. In the 16th century, kaiseki came to refer to the simple fare eaten after the tea ceremony and eventually evolved into a highly sophisticated cuisine perfected in Kyoto, the imperial city of the time and cradle of Japanese culture.
Kaiseki is served as a fixed, multi-course menu. Each course is prepared according to a different cooking technique—pickled, raw, grilled, fried, steamed—but without a lot of unnecessary manipulation or fancy additions. For this reason, the subtle flavors can be surprising and even a little disappointing to the Western kaiseki novice (see my review of Kikunoi in Kyoto for a personal example!). But with a bit of training and humble observation, it becomes a pleasure to appreciate the authentic flavors of a meticulously prepared cuisine.
The ingredients take center stage in this multi-act play: they must always be fresh, local and seasonal. It was easy to see the respect that Okuda-san paid to each one as he prepared them for me to savor. I particularly loved the clear broth with sea bream; the flavors were wonderfully defined. The red mullet tempura was some of the best I have ever had!
The Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic of uncluttered beauty is also present in each tiny kaiseki artwork that arrives. Each element in the careful balance of texture, color and flavor, even the hand-crafted plate or bowl that cradles it, is the result of careful consideration; nothing is superfluous—even the red maple leaves on the soup cup remind us that we are eating an autumn meal.
Okuda-san will have to continue overseeing his restaurants in Japan between trips to Paris, but in his absence chef Shun Miyahara and the Japanese team will ensure that everything stays authentic and of the highest-quality.
I know where I’ll be going when I want to experience authentic Japanese cuisine in Paris…