For our last lunch in Tokyo, we wanted to mix it up a bit and try something Western. We decided on Ristorante Aso, the flagship Italian restaurant of Japanese chef Tatsuji Aso. We were looking in particular for a Western place run by someone Japanese, rather than a Japanese outpost of a European chef. Aso, with 2 Michelin stars and a reputation for the best Italian in Tokyo, fit the bill perfectly. The Japanese have been known to embrace Italian food and put their own little twist on it. Given my love for the very popular rustic Italian places in SF like Delfina and A16, I was excited to see what the Japanese were doing with Italian.
Ristorante Aso is on a pretty road in Daikanyama, hidden away behind a more casual cafe operation which occupies the streetfront. Walking through the cafe, we passed a small interior courtyard before getting to the main entrance of the restaurant. Aso is actually a big house, with 2 stories and multiple rooms of varying sizes. There's one main salon with the most tables. We sat upstairs, in a smaller room with 4 tables overlooking some trees in the back. The place has a very calm, country atmosphere, although I can also imagine it becoming more formal during dinner service.
Aso offers a 3 levels of set meals, ranging from ¥4,000 to ¥8,400 for lunch, and ¥10,500 to ¥21,000. One of the reasons we went was the relative value of the lunch sets compared to dinner, and we ultimately opted for the middle one at ¥5,250. It's hard to beat a multi-course Michelin 2-star meal for around $60!
Aso started us off with this pretty awesome bread presentation. We got two of these for 4 people, which is a definitely lot of bread... and since they were all different, I had to eat everything. They were all freshly baked and quite good, with my favorites being the scallion roll at the far left and the flaky thing second to the right. They also served another hot country roll, not pictured, and gave us 3 different butters.
Our first course was this beautiful sanma (Pacific saury), a fish rarely used in sushi. Reminiscent of my mom's cured salmon dish, this fish bursted with smoky flavor. The combination with lardo was genius, giving the entire thing a rich, luxurious mouthfeel. Simple, creative, and tasty.
A very interesting spin on carpaccio. The beef was cut thicker than usual, giving it a more chewy, tartare-like texture. The tonnato sauce, more traditionally used with cooked veal, was bright and slightly tangy. Loved this.
At the beginning of the meal, our waiter summed up the pasta course as "Amatriciana," to which I quickly thought "awesome, probably bucatini amatriciana, a classic pasta dish." Imagine our surprise when they brought out this plate of what looked like prosciutto. I was confused at first and thought maybe there was a course I had forgotten about. The plates were then followed with glasses filled with hot spaghettini in a foamy sauce. This dish was like nothing I'd ever seen. We were instructed to mix the whole thing together (you can see some action mixing in the background). I've decided to dub this officially as a "deconstructed Amatriciana" - a more accurate description than the humble standard I was expecting.
After putting everything back together, and getting over the crazy/weird/awesome factor, I was happy to discover that this dish was in fact delicious. The spaghettini was perfectly cooked. The guanciale (to be honest, I couldn't tell if it was guanciale or pancetta - I've never been served either sliced so thinly before) had a little bit of crisp to it, and balanced beautifully with the clam foam sauce. I was simply blown away by this dish. It showed some extreme complexity and creativity, and yet the sum of all these parts was very hearty and comforting. I ate about half of my grandma's share in addition to my own...
Our main dish came next, covered in a parchment puff pastry of some kind.
Cutting open the paper revealed chicken with a variety of greenery. It tasted grilled, and was actually quite similar to the chicken we had the day before at Ukai Toriyama - tender, and juicy. The pastry wasn't your typical puff pastry. It tasted a lot more flour-based than usual, without the overwhelming buttery flavor. All in all, this dish was pretty good, but definitely not up to the level of the other courses. (Admittedly, the pasta would have been hard to top.)
In more French than Italian style, Aso has a proper cheese cart with about 10 available selections. I opted for this camembert, a hard, dry orange that I didn't catch the name of, and some taleggio. All very nice, especially with the provided fig.
Sorry for the crappy photo on this one. Palate cleanser was this pineapple sherbert, which tasted like a foamy essence of pina colada. Not a bad thing.
You get to pick from a few choices for dessert, and I went with the simply-described tiramisu. Again, it was a presentation like I've never seen before. The plate just had the square of cream at first, and the waiter "freshly" grated the bits of coffee on top. Lady fingerish cake was hidden under the cream, and the whole thing actually tasted like a rich regular tiramisu, except with an added bit of crunch from the bits of coffee. Very interesting.
My grandma opted for the gelato, which I thought was photo-worthy. I believe the flavors were caramel and coconut, and it was served with some grate-your-own fancy salts. The ice block presentation was pretty slick.
When they first brought this out, I thought it was just some flowers. This not being a French restaurant, I wasn't really expecting petitfours, and it took me a few seconds to realize they were in there! It was definitely the most beautiful set of petitfours I've eaten, with a very Japanese aesthetic to it. All of them were quite good, especially the cake-based ones.
Overall, I was very pleased with the Aso meal, most notably for the pasta, the sanma, and the carpaccio. And while I didn't think the chicken was all that great, it was more because of the standard set by the other dishes. Tatsuji Aso is capable of some excellent cooking, and has a creative perspective that is quite different than what I've seen from Italian places in the US and Europe. And for ¥5,250, this meal was certainly a great value. I'm not sure what you get for the dinner courses, but it seems like the formality and length of the meal are both stepped up quite a bit at night.
Either way, I highly recommend a stop here. It's the perfect place for a little break from Japanese food. Italian with a Japanese twist!