Since I saw chef Yoji Tokuyoshi's astonishing "Sgombro Gyotaku" dish on Culinaria 2016 event I promised myself that when on my next trip to Milan I would dine at his restaurant.
And so it was.
Tokuyoshi comes from a long dynasty of pharmacists from the city Tottori in southern Japan, which is famous for its sand dunes, and was supposed to take his place in the family pharmacies chain. It could be that the passion for cooking skips a generation because his first steps in the kitchen were taken next to his grandmother Reiko while he prepared the family's own soy sauce and tofu. At the age of 18, he left Tottori and went for catering studies in Tokyo, where afterward started to cook in Italian restaurants, so the natural next step was to go for the real thing - in Italy.
The year is 2005, Tokuyoshi is in Italy and addresses the best 50 restaurants in the country according to Gambero Rosso, but you just try to convince Italians that a non-Italian cook, not to mention from the other side of the world, can work in an Italian kitchen. After a couple of weeks, dozens of rejections and on his way to the airport in Milan where he got a plane ticket back home, Tokuyoshi goes for one last shot. This restaurant had already received its first Michelin star, but was still far from a worldwide recognition, partially because it was located in the little town of Modena.
On his LinkedIn profile Tokuyoshi regards himself as who worked as "a cook" in Osteria Francescana of Massimo Bottura, and technically you can concede it. It's just that after more than 8 years of working in Modena Tokuyoshi had the chance to stand shoulder to shoulder with Bottura when Osteria Francescana got its second and third Michelin stars, when it was named the best restaurant in Italy for three years in a row, and finally climbed to the third place of the best restaurants in the world list of San Pellegrino (back then). Personally, Tokuyoshi was named as the best sous chef in Italy next to Bottura, who that year accepted to Osteria Francescana also a Japanese pastry chef, Takahiko Kondo.
On the last day of 2013, Tokuyoshi left Modena and Osteria Francescana for an adventure of his own. After a year of traveling and foraging inspirations all around the world, he settled with his Italian wife in Milan, probably the most non-Italian city in Italy, hence the most likely to except Tokuyoshi's cooking philosophy.
Talking with him after dinner (thanks to my gorgeous V.) Tokuyoshi explained that he creates "contaminated Italian cuisine", a quite peculiar word when it involves food but very accurate in its meaning. This is not "fusion" and this is not "hyphenated-cuisine". This is Italian food - even traditional Italian food - which is contaminated conceptually by the Japanese aesthetics and techniques which he practiced until he arrived in Italy. These are not ingredients from the two cultures but two whole traditions that flow into one basin and "let culture influence his cuisine with the aim of creating something new that goes beyond tradition", in his words.
Tokuyoshi was the one who greeted us heartily at the entrance and took his post behind the pass of the dining hall. A little higher above the rest, close to the entrance and in front of the kitchen doors, it was the perfect spot to control the happenings of all the restaurant's areas. We took a brief look at the menu and went for the Omakase one, which translates to "I'll leave it up to you". To you, chef.
The dinner started with these three nibbles alongside cool Franciacorta:
An interpretation of Parmigiana, a south Italy classic of eggplant, tomato and Parmigiano, served as a two-bites crostatina. Once you had the first bite you'd reveal the ingredients set in layers, each ingredient in its' strong flavored floor;
another one from the south - a cannolo, but instead of sweet ricotta it was filled with chopped cod and sealed with pistachio and candied lemon;
"a root" - Langoustine in black tempura from which grows a green plant, much alike the green stem which grows out of the wall at the back wall of the dining hall as saying: "we planted it here because we're here to stay".
The threesome was served with a "leftovers" vegetable broth, very condensed in its taste and with flashes of bitterness. Exactly as I imagine edges of vegetables should taste.
The Omakase menu includes also the colorful seasonal menu, starting with crab shells on shiny red plates that were lifted and revealed crab meat and a nice slice of amberjack powdered with plankton. Luckily we sat at the bar so we could see also a transparent strip of fermented pear jelly which was put between the crab and fish, melted into the dish - and gone.
The vegetable broth wasn't there by chance: as part of Tokuyoshi's philosophy, each dish is served with a liquid which not only adds flavors, but also helps to "pay attention to the food, the liquid, the textures, their scents, and overall taste".
This time the liquid was a roasted potato broth that created a contradiction between the earth/fire in the cup and the sea/water on the plate.
All what's missing is wind
This is what we came for: Sgombro Gyotaku. Two perfectly cooked mackerel fillets that shone from carbonated olive oil and between them scallop mousse and delicate hints of lemon, orange and fennel, all crusted with black "bread". The Gyotaku is an old Japanese form of art in which the fish is "rubbed" against rice paper and other surfaces in order to record its catch, a much elegant and restrained form of the animal head trophies of other cultures. From a side view you cannot see anything except the actual fish, but from above it completes its form which was printed in squid ink on the plate.
These were excellent combinations of the soft fish and the grainy crust, of the black plate and the white pine nuts milk that was served with it and of form and matter.
It was all that we've expected - and more.
Form and matter
Our bread and butter were sourdough bread with fermented cherry seeds in its crust - and I'm really holding myself from diving into the importance of cherries and cherry blossom in the Japanese culture - and cloudy butter of mascarpone and yogurt.
Along with it the sommelier Bartolomeo Bellarmino served us Vitovska Slovenian wine of Marko Fon vineyard, very dry and mineral thanks to the limestone rock typical to the Karst/Carso/Kras (you can pick your favorite language) terroir on the border between Slovenia and Italy.
Cherry bread and cloudy butter
To Sicily! - And not for the last time: extra accurate spaghetti carrying memories from Noto, on the far south-eastern part of Tokuyoshi's likable island, in the form of soft clams, crushed almonds and coffee powder. Coffee! In pasta! To complete the dish the restaurant's manager Alfonso Bonvini sprayed an aromatic cloud over it made of grappa with soaked capers.
Together with the pasta we got a concentrated broth of olive oil and tomatoes, as if to make the point clear: the liquid fills the gaps and cracks between the slices, the layers and the crumbs on the plate, completes the dish conceptually and creates a sense of a full circle.
Pasta memories from Sicily
Back to the north of Italy and the city we're in: tender ossobuco gets along with a yellow-mellow saffron risotto and fennel under a delicate clarified butter membrane. The distinct capers broth helped to freshen the palate and closed the light part of dinner.
It was all yellow
Even if Tokuyoshi decided to take his own path it seems that he cannot forget so easily all the years and experiences that were imprinted in him during the years in Modena. The first dish that reminded me the dinner I ate at Osteria Francescana (the dessert section here) was a small skewer of foie gras covered in dry herbs and served on dry chicory leaves. Like a fragment from a painting depicting a forest ground.
All that was left was to dip the foie gras in the swirl of duck and egg yolk on the plate and sink into the deep, heavy and brown flavors.
As to complete the somewhat heavy feeling the liquid was a sweet broth of red fruits.
Going through the woods with another color - purple: noble venison was honored with purple potatoes cream, fried garlic hair and royal truffle shavings.
The liquid in that case: thick cranberries "soup", like Tokuyoshi interpreted the last dish - and himself.
Homage to two of Bottura's dishes: "Camouflage Pigeon" and "Hare in the Woods", creates "Hidden Pigeon" - this time in green: the ground is made of Porcini and Chanterelle mushrooms, the trees are sea asparagus and between them, you can see the pigeon leg. This is a relaxed stroll in the forest, and if you turn your look to the ground you could catch a glimpse of the wood bark that is bearing a small piece of chocolate and a touch of foie gras. Absolutely fantastic.
The lentils broth fitted accurately with his flavor and deep brown color to the earthy sense of the dish.
Pigeon in the Woods
The massive bolt was a sign, unfortunately, that the dinner was about to end. But before that, another quick trip to Sicily: refreshing almonds granita and jelly made of Zibibbo wine, a local sweet wine which name is derived from Zabib - raisin in Arabic, a reminder of the deep influence of the Muslim culture during the occupation of the island at the beginning of the previous millennium.
We wondered about the strong presence of Sicily on the menu, since most of Tokuyoshi's life in Italy has been in the north - Modena and Milano, but apparently the island and its strong flavors cast their magic on whoever encounters them. Tokuyoshi spoke with shiny eyes about his frequent visits to Sicily, the rare findings that he carries all the way back to Milan and the large amounts of capers that are cured in the back of the kitchen. To demonstrate it he opened one of the jars that stood on the high shelf in front of us, and the definitive salty smell made it most clear.
Another dessert was a recreation of the Monte Rosa ("Pink Mountain") massif, which is not pink at all, of course: the slopes are meringues made of beetroot and coffee - oin which "stamped" a coffee plated herb. Such a great presentation, even before we unassembled it and went inside: oven-roasted potato ice cream - surprising and remarkable as you might expect, in case you can "expect" a roasted potato ice cream - and a porcini mushroom crumble.
A true peak.
This is the end, together with the coffee:
delicate apple macarons,
beetroot jelly candies that I would be happy to have regularly,
and a cube of Barozzi cake, the famous peanut, almonds and chocolate cake from the little town of Vignola near Modena. The cake is solely made in the Gollini bakery since 1886. In 1907 Eugenio Gollini decided to honor for his 400th birthday the architect Jacopo Barozzi, who designed - among the rest - the most impressive Church of the Gesù in Rome and was born just a couple of buildings from the bakery.
Just before we arrived in Milan we watched the first episode of the Netflix's series "Chef's Table", in which the mentor Bottura recalls the inspiration he absorbed under the kitchen table from his grandmother. The grandmotherly inspiration works the same for Tokuyoshi, but in his case the inspiration is Japanese and the hands are moving in a different rhythm and pace.
If Bottura's cooking touches the molecular but doesn't surrender to it - breaking the traditional dish to its ingredients and setting them back again differently, Yoji Tokuyoshi considers the Italian cuisine as a whole. He pours into the dishes he got used to his homeland culture, "contaminate" them with different aesthetics and pace, and as if he filters the Italian cuisine through a sharp and stressed lens and hands that came from afar.
If you were wondering what's cooking at Tokuyoshi's home between the Japanese and Italian cuisines, his not-that-surprising answer was "after so many hours in the kitchen we prefer to eat out".