A Japanese Sputnik


Just as our lunch had been served (far too early, such is the wont of airlines) as our plane made its way north over Australia towards Singapore, Jancis leant over to me and asked the following seemingly innocuous question: ‘Which do you think was the best meal on our trip to Chengdu, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Sydney and Adelaide?’ (see Australasia here we come). 

Playing for time, my immediate answer was that it would have to be one of the meals we enjoyed in Tokyo, before adding more particularly that it would be one of three: Tempura Yamanoue on the third floor of the Tokyo Midtown building, where I had eaten without her; Sushisho Saito in the Akasaka district, where we ate wonderfully well; or finally Le Sputnik, where we had relished our final meal in this food-obsessed city. On reflection, I felt it would probably have to be lunch at Le Sputnik, a small French restaurant where all the staff are Japanese. Promisingly, it had been recommended to us by the voracious Simon Staples, who has just been recalled from Tokyo by his employers Berry Bros & Rudd.

Le Sputnik is the creation of its hugely talented chef and owner, Yujiro Takahashi. After three years in various kitchens around France, at Ledoyen, Chez L’Ami Jean and pâtissier Maison Keyser, from whom he now buys his excellent baguettes, he returned to Tokyo a couple of years ago and then opened Le Sputnik last July to great acclaim.

He could hardly have found a location that is more expressive of his talents. His restaurant is located down a narrow, one-way street in Roppongi, central Tokyo, a five-minute walk from Tokyo Midtown. Fortunately our taxi dropped us there a few minutes early and we were able to take in the surrounding buildings that, this being Tokyo, comprised an astonishing mixture.

At the corner of the street, overlooked by many a skyscraper, was a run-down shack, complete with bikes and matching car parked alongside it. ‘How much would this space be worth if it were to be developed?’ I asked JR. Close by was a host of several much more modern buildings while opposite these there are a couple of inexpensive restaurants. Then came the very modern, stylish building that is home to Le Sputnik that seats a mere 16.

We walked in to be greeted warmly by a receptionist who doubled as a waitress and were shown to a table for two in our own private room. This door was promptly closed by our waitress, although I immediately asked for it to be slid open. The view, even if not of the glass-enclosed kitchen visible from the other tables, was too interesting to miss.

Right in front was a table of four Asian businessmen, of whom three were enjoying wine with their Thursday lunch, specifically a second bottle of Léoville Las Cases 1986. Staples had already assured us that the restaurant’s house champagne by the glass was excellent so I promptly asked to see their wine list.

This caused quite a stir. Jancis was immediately struck by the rather low price being asked for a Selosse champagne but when she was shown the bottle she realised that this was the less famous one, Selosse-Pajon (page 6 of Google search after five pages of Anselme/Jacques S). My attention was caught by a bottle of Domaine de Bongran 2003 from Jean Thevenet, a wine that I had had on the list at L’Escargot during the 1980s. Intrigued, we ordered it and it proved not just very versatile over a long lunch but also had on its back label the word ‘reefer’, the first time either of us had seen this reference to the fact that the wine had been shipped around the world in a temperature-controlled container.

We were then informed by a very smartly dressed young waiter that there was no menu, that we would be served a series of dishes created that morning by the chef. We were getting quite used to this after five days in Tokyo, where chefs and customers seem to live in this perfect harmony. Customers here and, more widely in Japan I feel, expect to be pampered and to leave the decision-making up to the professionals.

Takahashi got off to a flying start. First up was a stick that held a white ball, a scallop covered in rice with a cucumber and yuzu dressing, that we were instructed to eat like a lollipop. Then a plate was put in front of us piled high with a mound of beautifully crisp fried, highly seasonal burdock on top of which were two small, fried lake fish that we were instructed to use our fingers to eat. There were shades of fish’n’chips about this combination although its arrangement was far more freeform (see picture of the crisp pile and hard-working reporter above right).

We were then served three dishes that we assumed constituted the balance of the lunch: an egg mousse that cleverly housed the egg yolk and was topped with a pungent mushroom powder; a clear, smoking plate that held mackerel with a Roquefort sauce; and then two renditions of foie gras, one topped with candied beetroot petals in the exquisite shape of a rose for Jancis and another with mango for me. By this stage, we were both pretty full.

The waiter seemed to relish letting me know that, instead, two more courses remained. A fish of the day, today a fillet of yellowtail with daikon, a modern interpretation of two classic Japanese ingredients, followed by a fillet of venison with a burnt Japanese apple, carrot purée and a fantastically rich sauce that was, I was informed, a reduction of pepper, white wine and pig’s blood. Its richness was nicely cut by a dessert of strawberries, hibiscus and yuzu, that was vibrantly sweet and delicious.

A quick look into the narrow kitchen en route, having paid our bill of 27,561 yen (£171) must have alerted Takahashi to my more than personal interest in his restaurant and by the time we had collected our things and said goodbye to our waiter, there stood Takahashi waiting for us in the backstreet outside his modest front door. He smiled, we spoke French, I just had time to take in his extraordinary hair which is black, plentiful and wild, and, most importantly, to congratulate him on what had been an excellent lunch in a thoroughly recommended setting.

Le Sputnik  1F 7-9-9 Roppongi, Minato-Ku, Tokyo 106-0032; tel +81 (0)3 6434 7080