I had dinner with a fellow chowhounder at Aroma Fresca last night. The food and wine were both very good, but I continue to be absolutely mystified by the incredible popularity of the restaurant amongst Japanese people. The food is certainly good, but we both agreed that it was not memorable. I would not be able to write a detailed review if I hadn't taken some notes last night - some dishes would already have escaped my memory. Perhaps the place is so popular with locals because it makes very heavy use of very Japanese ingredients (kani miso, seaweed, abalone etc).
The all-Italian wine list is very good. Not quite as good as Angolo's, but it does have a good range of wines from many of Italy's 20 wine regions, and the pricing is extremely reasonable for a Michelin-starred restaurant in Tokyo. There are many fairly decent wines for around 5,000 Yen, and the mark-up is quite humane. By way of example, a Were Dreams Chardonnay by Jerman costs around 7,500 Yen in shops, and at Aroma Fresca you pay 13,000. In contrast, many other Michelin-starred restaurants charge three times the shop price, or more. The by-the-glass selection was very good as well
There are two set menus of ten courses plus dessert plus tea/coffee for 12,000 and 15,000 Yen (no a la carte options). The 12,000 Yen meny, "Menu Aromafresca", is a seafood menu with six seafood dishes, one meat dish and three vegetarian dishes. That is the menu we had. The 15,000 Yen menu, "Menu Stagionale", was more mixed, featuring four seafood dishes and three meat dishes (horse meat carpaccio, roast rabbit with liver paste sauce and "cowtail" stew, presumably oxtail) as well as three vegetarian courses. Here is an overview of the individual dishes:
1. Smoked eel on caviar
The eel had a wonderfully full flavour, it was soft but firmly textured, a sliver of crispy eel skin with coarsely ground salt provided an effective textural contrast. The caviar got a little lost, the salt of the skin somewhat overpowered it. It did not add as much as it could have done. Overall a very good start though.
2. King crab salad with grapefruit
The king crab was prepared in a more Japanese rather than Italian manner: while one side was lighlty grilled, providing a note of charcoal that contrasted well with the delicate flavour of the crab meat, half of the piece of crab was semi-raw. The crab was succulent and juicy. The grapefruit and vegetable salad was extremely boring. While it is fine to add subtle flavours to the delicious crab so that the crab can dominate and does not get overshadowed by other ingredients of the dish, surely the chef could have come up with something slightly less dull.
3. Steamed sea eel with fresh tomato sauce
This dish was a real highlight. The eel was steamed to perfection and a hint of dill wedged between thin layers of eel provided a fresh, herby contrast to the full flavour of the eel and its fat content. A small amount of fresh chopped chives on the top of the eel fulfilled a similar purpose. The amount of herbs was just right to provide a contrast without in any way overshadowing the flavour of the eel. The tomato sauce largely consisted of cold finely chopped fresh tomatoes with a very small amount of herbs and olive oil. The tomatoes reminded me of how good raw vegetables at their best can taste - the flavour was very intense, sweet and fruity and greatly enhanced the dish. It paired wonderfully with the eel and, again, added freshness and contrast without taking away form the eel. I can't remember buying tomatoes in a shop - even some of the crazily expensive Japanese ones - the flavour of which even began to approach last night's offering.
4. Seaweed and warm soup with abalone
The name of this dish is misleading, because it contained a lot of broccoli which was very much the dominant flavour. The seaweed had almost no perceptible flavour of its own. The abalone was very thinly sliced and had a pleasant texture, but almost no flvour to speak of (the strenghth of the broccoli ensured that even if it did, it would be difficult to perceive). For good measure, the chef added some okura, which did not add any flavour, but enhanced the slightly slimy 'neba-neba' texture of the soup. Overall a very mild and not unpleasant dish, but a little pointless
5. Blue crab spaghetti
This was an excellent spaghetti dish. Wonderfully al dente spaghetti with a lot of bite: a substantial amount of garlic, herbs, olive oil and butter, with a strong aftertaste of chilli. The flavours were strong, but none dominated. The individual flavours came into their own and the dish was very balanced. The crab had a very light, fluffy texture with more than a hint of kani miso. Kani miso can be quite dominant in a way that is not always pleasant, but in this case it was just about right, and worked very well with the garlic.
6. Ravioli pasta (potato) with basilico sauce
The sauce had a very concentrated, dense basil flavour. The ravioli was filled with a puree of potato, cheese and butter. The textural contrasts were good - the ravioli was al dente - and the buttery flavour of the filling went well with the basil sauce. Overall it was a little blunt though, even something as simple and obvious as a very small amount of freshly ground black pepper would have added a dimension this dish was lacking.
7. Blanquillo with clam and winter turnip
The fish was prepared to perfection: succulent, juicy and firm flesh, crunchy, crispy scales with a chargrilled flavour. The clam was tough and could have done with extended steaming in sake (I have previously had a similar type of clam steamed in sake for hours, and it was divine; it would have worked here flavour-wise as well as the sauce contained sake). The turnip tasted oven-baked and worked very well with the fish and the clam. The sauce was a buttery turnip sauce with sake and chives - excellent flavour that did not in any way overshadow the flavours of the other ingredients. With the exception of the clam, a very well executed dish.
8. Sherbet of citrus fruits
This palate cleanser contained various citrus fruit and passion fruit. It was unusually tart, quite sour.. A bit too much for me, but it certainly did its palate cleansing job.
9. Beef steak Aromafresca style
The steak was salt and pepper encrusted on one side, otherwise rare. The waiter explained to me that it was a very specific cut, but I am afraid that I did not understand what cut exactly. The marbelling was what you would expect from a medium amount of marbelling on a wagyu sirloin steak (a little vague, I know - I should have written down what he said!). It was qualitatively one of the better steaks I have had at high end restaurants in Japan, though not quite at the same level of the offerings at steak restaurants like Dons de la Nature. The steak came with three pastes: a garlic paste, a horseradish paste and an unusual, but very tasty mustard, potato and citrus fruit paste. The garlic paste was composed of wonderfully roasted garlic. The pastes were all excellent, but their flavours were quite strong, so I enjoyed them separately from the steak. The salt and pepper crust gave it enough additional flavour, and I did dip a few pieces into a small amount of Maldon salt that came with the dish.
The steak came with a simple, but excellent salad of rocket, whole coriander seeds and a lemon-based dressing. The tartness of the dressing cut through the fat of the steak, and the coriander seeds added some wonderful spice to the dish.
10. Cauliflower in cocotte
This was served at the same time as the steak. Essentially, this was cauliflower dipped in butter and baked. Tasty but wholly uneventful.
There was a choice of five desserts, and I selected the strawberry soup. It was a very enjoyable and refreshing dessert, if nothing spectacular. The chopped strawberries were very fresh and flavoursome. The liquid consisted of strawberry puree and soda. Adding the soda was a simple but inspired idea; the gentle carbonation added to the freshness of the strawberry puree. Finally, there was some milk ice cream in the soup. That conbination worked well, as you would expect, though there was nothing unusual or memorable about it (with the exception of the soda).
We limited ourselves to by-the-glass wines. I started off with a Franciacorta Blanc de Blancs by Cavalleri. This was disappointing. Aggressive, large bubbles and pretty uneventful flavour; most Champagne or even Burgundy cremant blanc de blancs offered at restaurants of comparable standard tend to provide a more satisfying experience. 8,500 yen per bottle, 1,600 yen per glass.
I then moved on to a 2006 Capitel Croce by Anselmi. That is essentially a Soave (the producer has left the appellation in protest against the low standard of many Soave producers, so the wine cannot be called Soave DOC anymore, but that is what it is - a Veneto white made of 100% Garganega grape). Soave very often is dull, cheap, boring wine with very little quality, but some producers do produce top wines, and Anselmi is one of them. The wine is gently oaked (increasinly seen in Soave, but still not common) and has honey and lemon flavours, with some very gentle vanilla toast and herbacious undertones. Good value at 7,000 a bottle (glass: 1,400).
Next up was a Chardonnay from the mountainous region of Alto-Adige, a 2006 Cornell "Formigar" by Colterenzio. An excellent winemaker, and this wine was no exception. Contrary its sunny, fullbodied cousins from the south and centre of Italy, this was a fairly restrained, relatively crisp, medium bodied wine with gentle oak and the usual tropical fruit notes you'd expect from a Chardonnay. Unlike Sicily's overoaked offerings, this was an excellent food wine that paired exceptionally well with the seafood dishes. Priced at 9,800 per bottle (1,600 per glass).
The last white was a 2007 Gewurztraminer by Terlano, also from Alto-Adige. This was excellent, up there with Alsatian Gewurztraminers of the same (or higher) price range. Wonderful note of exotic spices and pineapple. Very fresh, very young, and very dry, with none of the residual sugar you find in some Gewurztraminers. A really excellent example of the grape variety. 5,800 per bottle - an excellent price - and 1,200 by the glass.
The first red was a 2005 Nebbiolo d'Alba "Ca Veja" by Paitin. A very decent example of its kind, good fruit, a bit more body than many Nebbiolo d'Albas, and already fairly drinkable, despite its youth. Obviously don't expect it to match good Barolos or Barbarescos - same grape variety, different worlds. But at 6,800 it is very decently priced (1,400 per glass), and much, much cheaper than a decent Barolo or Barbaresco (and given how many bad producers there are in Barolo and Barbaresco, it is much safer to go for this Nebbiolo than try your luck with cheap Barolos / Barbarescos, where the rule often seems to be that if it is affordable, it is not worth drinking).
The second and last red was a 2003 Salae Domini by Antonio Caggiano. Made from the Aglianico grape, the pride of the Campania region in southern Italy this wine originates from, it it full of dark fruit, cherries and a hint of baked plum. Spices in the nose. May need some more time, but is already very palateable.
Moving on to the dessert wines: we had a Vin Santo del Chianti 2001 by Altesino from the Montalcino area. Notes of coffee, caramel, sherry, plum, chocolate. Excellent. I didn't write down what it cost.
The final dessert wine was another Anselmi, the I Capitelli 2005. As in the case of the dry white described earlier, this one is also 100% Garganega. An excellent wine - caramel, raisins, dried apricots, a very full-bodied wine with good balance. It seems that the Garganega grape, certainly in the hands of a good producer, is very well suited to producing excellent dessert wines. The Garganega dessert wine by Pieropan, possibly the best Soave producer, was one of the best dessert wines I have ever had. This one does not quite reach such heights, but it is really excellent. I did not note what that one cost, either.
Overall, the wine list shows that whoever is in charge of wine at Aroma Fresca knows exactly what they are doing. The only downside is the way the wine list is organised. It is purely organised by vintage, so wines from different producers, grape varieties and regions are all lumped together. It is a very odd and inconvenient way to organise the wine list, and does not make much sense.
Overall, a very good dinner, as I said - but not really that memorable. Aroma Fresca deserves a Michelin star, but not more. To me, Ristorante Aso still reigns supreme (though the wine list is better at Aroma Fresca as Aso focuses on French wines; the Aso French wines are top, but an Italian restaurant should have a wine list dominated by Italian wines), although the style of the food is very different and I can fully understand that other people might view the relative merits of these two restaurants differently.