Archive for the ‘Food/Wine’ Category

Compelling Culinary Creativity at Kei

Tuesday, April 28th, 2020

5 rue Coque Héron
75001 Paris, France
+33 (0)1 42 33 14 74
Hours: Tue-Wed, Fri-Sat: 12:30–1:30 p.m., 7:45 – 9:15 p.m.; Thu: 7:45 – 9:15 p.m.
Average for meal/person, excluding wine: lunch: €58-€165; dinner: €105-€199
Wine by glass: €15-€25
Major cards
Rating: ◊◊◊◊◊ (excellent)

Restaurant Kei

Life can sometimes be crazy. And life can also be unpredictable at times. Amidst my incessant busy schedule, I manage to find time to pursue la joie de vivre, even on a whim. With planned spontaneity last April, I packed my bags and hopped on a plane to France; I decided to spend the Easter long weekend in Paris—yes, just a few days—in la Ville Lumière, the French city and capital that embodies timeless sophistication, effortless elegance, sartorial savoire-faire, and unerring style. Rich and colourful in its storied history, beautiful architecture, and iconic landmarks, la ville de l’amour exudes an inimitable mixture of modern and old-world charm and embraces artistic tendencies. The distinctive skyline, the emblematic monuments, the eclectic arrondissements, and the cobble-stoned streets lined with specialty shops, romantic restaurants, intriguing boutiques, and illustrious couture houses capture the visitor’s heart and imagination, seducing the traveller to explore, discover, and experience the global epicenter of art, fashion, food, and culture in all its moods and guises.

Home to an extensive plethora of boulangeries, pâtisseries, fromageries, and épiceries, not to mention cozy coffee shops and luxurious tea salons, the international metropolis also boasts over 40,000 restaurants, brasseries, and bistros, 114 of which have garnered Michelin-star recognition. This European alpha city is widely considered as the culinary capital of the world (and also as one of the global “Big Four” fashion capitals of the twenty-first century), although Tokyo currently still holds the record for the city with the most triple Michelin-starred restaurants than its French counterpart.

Possessing curious eyes, inquisitive minds, and epicurean tastes, my foodie friend and I were drawn to Paris’s dynamic and enterprising gastronomic scene. On a summer-like night, my friend and I set off to visit Kei, the fine-dining haven of chef Kei Kobayashi. It turned out to be not only an unanticipated adventure just to find the gastronomic gem, which was nestled away between the Louvre and the Palais Royal on one of the smaller side streets of the premier arrondissement, but also an unexpected exercise in athletic grace in the warm heat as I walked in a mini bodycon dress and four-inch stiletto sandals on the meandering cobbled thoroughfares. After a rather lengthy promenade, we finally located the upscale outpost with its steel gray frontage and white entry double doors with double-lite design and brass door handles. Upon our fashionably late arrival, the manager Louie-Marie Robert greeted us at the front of the restaurant and then escorted us to the small yet spacious dining area.

Furnished in subdued gray and white tones, the ascetic yet intimate 30-seat salle à manger exuded a classic and contemporary aesthetic as well as French and Japanese tradition and modernity. Shimmering voile curtains adorned with golden stars graced the front wall-length windows while large grid mirrors with decorative grilles decked the back wall. To impart notes of warmth and luxury, a plush gray banquette occupied one side of the walls. Matching upholstered velvet chairs with ornate legs and nailhead trim accompanied tables that were dressed in white cotton tablecloths and set with candle-lit lamps, stemless round glasses, and tightly rolled napkins atop wave-shaped oblong plates. As another elegant touch to the interior décor, the server station counter was embellished with an ikebana-style arrangement of flowers in a ceramic bowl planter. And an arresting chandelier and wall sconces—all designed by Cristal Saint-Louis—provided further French flourishes to the zen-like quarters.

Cristal Saint-Louis chandelier at Kei

The beautiful marriage of these two cultural influences represents a reflection of the culinarian’s background. The son of a chef who specializes in the elaborate and multi-course kaiseki cuisine, Kobayashi discovered French gastronomy after watching a television documentary about Alain Chapel, one of the nouvelle cuisine pioneers who was also a three-star Michelin chef; such revelation at the young age of fifteen propelled him to pursue his lifelong dream and passion: to become the chef (and a great one) of his own restaurant in France. After learning and developing his French culinary skills at French restaurants in Nagano and Tokyo, he headed off to France to further assimilate and master the fine art of French cooking; he had the privilege of working under the tutelage of a series of stellar chefs at some of France’s finest haute temples de gastronomie, including Gilles Goujon at the Auberge du Vieux Puits in Fontjoncous (Languedoc-Roussillon), Serge Chenet at Le Prieuré in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon (Provence), Michel Husser at Le Cerf in Marlenheim (Alsace), and legendary Alain Ducasse at the renowned Plaza Athénée in Paris under the direction of Jean-François Piège and Christophe Moret. In 2011, Kobayashi decided to branch out on his own; with his wife, who he had met at Plaza Athénée, he took over the space that once housed Gérard Besson’s Michelin-starred eponymous establishment in Paris and transformed it into his very own restaurant, inviting local and foreign patrons to succumb to the allure of culinary world. A year following the opening of Kei, the prodigy Kobayashi earned his first Michelin star. Ferociously ambitious and ardent, he continued to strive for excellence and his gourmet hideaway was awarded its second Michelin star, becoming the second double-star restaurant in France run by a Japanese chef. And at the beginning of this year, the talented chef with bleached blond hair made history as the first Japanese chef in France to ever receive the highly coveted three Michelin stars for his admirable fixture.

Innovative and expressive, Kobayashi’s fine cuisine seamlessly fuses his comprehensive knowledge and true mastery of French gastronomy with his deep roots in Japanese culture. French heritage is evident in his dishes—impeccable culinary techniques, classic French recipes, terroir cooking, perfect balance between flavours and textures, and sheer intensity of focus on the premium-sourced produce and ingredients. Integrated with subtle inflections from his Asian background—profound sense of Japanese aesthetics, fluid verticality of construction, meticulous attention to detail, harmonious use of colours, and delicate combination of flavours, the French recipes are reworked and reinterpreted, resulting in an accomplished cuisine that is creative, spontaneous, modern, and unique. Dictated by diligence, dedication, precision, control, and exigence, his cohesive culinary compositions are inspired not only by, of course, his passion for both culture worlds but also works of art, fashion, travel, and the rhythms of the seasons. In a neutral-hued setting devoid of any artwork on the walls, his gourmet masterpieces, presented in a poetic and poignant manner, become the focal point of attention, providing the necessary colour to the blank canvas surroundings.

That evening there were three multi-course menus: “Dégustation,” “Prestige,” which comprised caviar and Galician beef, and “Horizon,” which included caviar and Wagyu beef. After deliberating among the tantalizing choices, my friend and I opted to try the “Menu Horizon.”

As one of the few restaurants in Paris with a wine cellar holding 6000 to 7000 bottles, Kei possesses a well-curated list of over 150 different types of wines, many of which are rare vintage treasures from various French vineyards. Although all three of the tasting menus at this upscale destination were not wine dinner ones, the knowledgeable waitstaff was able to suggest and recommend wines by the glass that best complemented each course for my oenophile dining companion. Besides a limited selection of sake, Kei also offered freshly brewed iced Japanese teas. I enjoyed both the sencha which was mildly sweet and slightly grassy and the hōjicha with its distinct roasted and caramel-like aroma and flavour.

Amuse-bouches, from top, clockwise: barbajuans à la blette, parmesan et ricotta; tartelettes au yaourt, sardine espagnole et oignon rouge; and palourdes et gelée de bouillabaisse

To kick-start our sublime dinner, an assortment of amuse-bouches presented in different serving tableware awakened our senses. Set on black metal spoons balanced on a mottled, black square plate, watermelon-pink cubes of red shiso granité which were sharpened with umeboshi plum vinegar were refreshingly sweet and acidic. The culinary savant’s dexterity and creativity became even more conspicuous in the other mises en bouche. Arranged atop a mound of glistening ice “rocks” in a white stucco-textured bowl, the fresh wedge clams on the half shell enrobed with gelée de bouillabaisse were richly and robustly flavourful. The third hors d’œuvres was equally enticing and delightful. Served on a white, embossed and etched plate, thin tartelette shells were filled with rustic Provençal anchoïade and red onion brunoise beneath a dome of airy, creamy yogurt, each ensemble decked with a morsel of marinated Spanish sardine and a piece of fresh sarriette leaf. For the fourth nibble number, Kobayashi revamped the Côte d’Azurian barbajuan, putting a novel spin on the stuffed fritter specialty. Cradled on top of a bed of fried chickpea “gravel” in a khaki green bowl, the oval fried raviolis were filled with the conventional mélange of Swiss chard, grated parmesan, and ricotta cheese but were shaped and coloured like Castelvetrano olives. Indeed, the palate teasers were small bites with big flavours and were an avant-goût of what was to come.

The ensuing succession of dishes of our multi-course meal which were unveiled on a playful display of tableware continued to showcase Kobayashi’s creative culinary genius as he regaled his dining guests with a lofty lineup of soigné plate presentations and fascinating flavour pairings and combinations. As the table game slowly unfolded, the gourmandise evening turned out to be a gastronomic adventure of discovery through a diverse range of intoxicating taste experiences.

Caviar “Shrenki” par Kaviari, gazpacho aux premières fraises de printemps et crevettes carabiñeros

Following a delicious slice of whole-grain and honey bread served alongside artisanal semi-salted butter and Sicilian olive oil, the first course arrived, presented in a dark, splotched soup plate. Inflected with an Iberian accent, the spectacular showpiece consisted of a gazpacho made with early spring strawberries, so appropriate for that warm night. In the centre of the Andalusian cold soup which was bordered by a halo of watercress coulis, a carabiñeros prawn tartare laid hidden underneath a dome of yogurt espuma which was encircled by a ring of smoked eel jelly studded with beads of Kaviari Schrencki caviar. With a hint of the deep sea, the subtle brininess of the firm sturgeon grains enhanced the freshness of the succulent scarlet shrimp which was simultaneously sweet, saline, and robust. The understated yet intricate interplay of the different elements formed a delicate counterpoint in this flavourfully and texturally intriguing composition. Exquisite.

“Le jardin de légumes croquants,” saumon fumé d’Écosse, mousse de roquette, emulsion de citron, vinaigrette de tomates et crumble d’olives noires

The second course featured Kobayashi’s signature showstopper “Le jardin de légumes croquants,” which was the first dish that the culinary virtuoso created when he opened his restaurant. In this visually stunning salad assembled on a dappled, white soup plate, an astonishing assortment of vegetables—30, to be a little bit more precise—celery, cucumber, round zucchini, Zephyr zucchini, Gold Rush zucchini, red beet, runner bean, pink radish, red radish, variegated carrots, just to name a few—are employed, each one prepared in a different way, some raw, others barely heated. Dressed with an olive and anchovy mayonnaise, tomato vinaigrette, and lemon emulsion, the vegetable medley was covered with a cloud of arugula mousse which was planted with fresh mesclun, herbs, sprouts, and flowers and finished with a crunchy crumble of black olives and a gentle drizzle of basil oil, the whole ensemble resembling a pastoral garden in nature. As we digged in the colourful “Garden of Vegetables” and mixed the mulitfarious ingredients at the table, we unearthed tranches of Scottish smoked salmon buried beneath the snow white foam. So elaborate yet so scrumptious, the breathtaking concoction was utterly brilliant in construction and presentation.

Asperges blanches, sauce Périgueux, crémeux de vieux parmesan et lard de Colonnata

The plant-based theme continued to take centre stage in the next course; this time, the white asparagus, one of the most refined sprouts of the spring season, was cast in a principal role. Arranged on a black, spotted round plate, the charcoaled-roasted asparagus pieces, imprinted with brown grilled marks, were artistically anchored one on top of the other over a puddle of Périgueux truffle sauce. The log-like stalk was gracefully draped with Colonnata lard shavings and humbly decorated with a fresh herb sprig. To complete the delectable victual, a dollop of aged parmesan crémeux garnished with a sprinkle of fresh verdant herbs was thoughtfully added. With such unrestrained simplicity and purity of focus on the innovative combinations of flavours, Kobayashi brought the sumptuous dish to a different level of sophistication. Utterly remarkable.

Le bar de ligne rôti sur son écaille croustillante, raisin blanc et tapenade

The fourth course featured another hallmark specialty from the master chef’s evergrowing and evolving culinary repertoire. On this occasion, the white, rimless oval plate truly set the backdrop for the abstract design of the plat de résistance. A round pool of Provençal bouillabaisse sauce was spooned over intersecting diagonal lines, one composed of the same seafood-fortified sauce and the other, a Barolo red wine reduction. Placed adjacent to the saffron-infused sauce was a cylindrical cup made from a reddish-purple grape that was stuffed with a white grape tapenade. On the opposite side, the starring component, a sea bass filet, which was unilaterally roasted and finished with grapeseed oil, was presented with its skin and scales. By applying a particular cooking technique which involved repeatly lifting and soaking the scales in hot oil, the outer layer of the bar de ligne became deeply golden and unbelievably crispy. In contrast, the flaky fish flesh, which was immaculately cooked, was moist and melting. To round out the compelling composition, a dainty drop of green fennel coulis gave a gracious touch to the colour scheme and the harmonious alliance of flavours in this culinary work of art. Phenomenal.

La langoustine, mayonnaise façon “Bloody Mary” et caviar “Shrenki”

Food from the sea continued to be honoured in the fifth course. Unveiled on a white upside-down bowl with decorative holes, the Scottish langoustine was given the royal treatment. In Kobayashi’s rendition, the plump Norway lobster, which was cushioned on top of a layer of black Schrencki caviar, was gloriously glazed with a “Bloody Mary” mayonnaise that was brightened with tomato ketchup, lemon juice, and lime zest and heightened with homardine, vodka, and tabasco sauce. Ornamented with a thin savoury tuile, the luscious seafood delicacy was absolutely saporous.

Le bœuf Wagyu de Kagoshima et gnocchi

For the ensuing course, Kobayashi mounted the French bistro warhorse steak frites and elevated the hearty classic to gastronomic heights by giving the solid standby a flamboyant twist. Punctuated with global accents, his luxe version united four elements together on a black, borderless oval plate. Arranged in a minimalist fashion atop a circular pool of beef au jus, the three slices of Kagoshima Wagyu beef in varying size and thickness exhibited a pervasive marbling that was so noticeably characteristic of the highly prized meat. Incredibly tender, buttery soft, and richly flavourful, the perfectly pan-seared Japanese black beef was accompanied with two golden brown nuggets of deep-fried gnocchi which were equally toothsome with their intensely crispy exterior and pillowy, fluffy interior and a petit pickled cornichon seasoned with shichimi tōgarashi which provided an unexpected piquant punch to the indulgent dish. Magnificent in its simplicity, it was comfort food fare at its finest.

Le crémeux de chèvre frais, marmalade de cidre, poivre noir de Phù Quốc et huile d’olive de Sicile

With the assistance of his pastry chef Toshiya Takatsuka, who, incidentally, decided to move to Paris to work under Kobayashi after having dined at Kei, the subsequent audacious specialties are resplendently conceived and contrived with finesse and originality. Like Kobayashi, Takatsuka is also a talented culinary maven and artist. His gastronomic wizardry sang with flair and eloquence, stirring pleasurable emotions of joy, curiosity, excitement, and even nostalgia.

As a gradual transition, the seventh course bridged the savoury and the sweet. In lieu of the customary cheese plate, Kobayashi has nimbly woven a pre-dessert concoction into the well-designed and well-crafted tasting menu. Served on a black, wide-rimmed bowl mottled in muted gold, the crémeux de chèvre frais, velvety creamy and ethereally light, was drizzled with a farmhouse cider marmalade and Sicilian olive oil, and at the table, dusted with Phù Quốc black pepper which lent pleasant heat and citrus notes to the mildly tangy treat. Simply splendid.

Le smoothie aux fruits exotiques et sucre soufflé

The first of the two dreamy dessert courses then followed, and it was minblowingly impressive. Assembled on a white triangular plate, an unfussy heap of glistering clumps of cellophane-like sugar feuilletes were topped with scattered clusters of lemon caviar grains and kaffir lime zest. As we slowly dug our spoons beyond the stratum of blow-dried sucre soufflé which almost immediately melted in the mouth like cotton candy, we gradually uncovered a medley of other components—quenelles of blood orange and yuzu-sadachi sorbets and yuzu-sadachi smoothie; crushed exotic fruit givrés—mango, yuzu, and passion fruit, among others; cubes of mandarin granité and citrus jelly; and dabs of pomelo espuma over a base of citrus marmalade. Bracingly refreshing and not overly sweet, the ambrosial standout, with its whimsical and engaging festival of colours, textures, and flavours, was pitch-perfect, scoop after scoop.

“Le Baba de Kei”

The final course of the evening was an atypical take on the time-honoured French staple baba au rum. At Kei, the retro dessert, including its artful plating, was rejuvenated with an imaginative twist. Set in a white wide-brimmed bowl with a blotched centre, a yeast dough cake studded with rum-macerated raisins and saturated with the requisite rum syrup was completely concealed under an airy cloud of vanilla crème Chantilly. As additional nuances of unconventionality, a slender rocher of Okinawan kuro sato ice cream was ensconced on the sweetened whipped cream which was liberally speckled with Japanese black sugar shavings. Simultaneously smoky, malty, salty, and caramel-like, the unrefined whole cane sugar bestowed a more complex depth of flavour to the brioche-like gâteau and its accompanying accoutrements. With a rare narrative of fluidity, grace, and lightness, the “Baba de Kei” not only enchanted my dining companion and me but also drew us into a state of euphoria. Marvelous.

Mignardises—guimauves litchi framboise et tartelettes au caramel beurre salé et nougatine

As part of the French gastronomic meal ritual, mignardises, which continued to be de rigeur, were offered, this time, on a white, rectangular floral plate that we first encountered at the outset of our regal repast. Sparingly frosted with granulated sugar, teardrop-shaped marshmallows with pronounced notes of lychee and raspberry were soft and springy while the tiny tartelettes made with salted butter caramel and nutty nougatine were addictively decadent. Almost like an after-thought, these cute confections extended the fleeting pleasures of the table and concluded the leisurely dinner on a sweet, high note.

As I reminisce about my visit to Kei a year later, I look back at the indelible memories forged from the compelling culinary creations and poetic plate presentations that Kobayashi and his cosmopolitan kitchen brigade had prepared as well as the smooth flow of precise and solicitous service delivered by the courteous and knowledgeable waitstaff that night. I felt extremely privileged to experience a titillating taste of Kei’s commendable cuisine and a scintillating slice of Paris’s gastronomic scene.

From the safety and comfort of my home, I also observe and reflect on how the world has changed so rapidly and so drastically in less than a year. Who would have imagined that life would become even crazier due to the recent COVID-19 outbreak. As numerous countries around the globe implement and impose extreme measures to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus disease and consequently struggle to cope with the devastating effects of the pandemic lockdowns, the hustle and bustle of everyday life in major cities and towns has been brought to a hushed standstill. 4.5 billion people—more than half of humanity—have been confined to their homes worldwide as the virus continues to take a harsh toll across the globe. Amidst the coronavirus restrictions and closures, city streets that were once vibrant are now eerily empty, and cultural landmarks and tourist hotspots that previously attracted crowds of people are now completed deserted. As political leaders on the international stage continue to navigate the turbulent waters of COVID-19, the world, now so vulnerable, has been adjusting to survive during these difficult and trying times. I am optimistic that we will find the strength, determination, and perseverance to rise above the unprecedented crisis, and I hope that we will come out on the other side stronger and more resilient, kinder and more compassionate. “Tough times never last, but tough people do.ˮ We are anxiously waiting for the day when we would be able to resume the pursuit of our dreams, our passions in life, la joie de vivre… As inherently social beings, we crave comfort, we crave connection, we crave interaction, we crave community. Hopefully that day will come soon.

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