September 5, 2007

Tokyo Trip: Tapas Molecular Bar

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I've long heard about Tapas Molecular, the mini-El Bulli dining experience at the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo. So I made a reservation to dine there during my stay this time. There are two seatings each night and unfortunately I only managed to book the 6pm seating.

This takes place literally inside the bar of the hotel, with 6 seats at the counter. There are two chefs who "cook" in front of you - Jeff Ramsey (I was tempted to ask if he was related to Gordon, but given his American accent I thought better than to crack the stupid joke) and his Japanese assistant. The seating was for 2 1/2 hours and we had to go through some 20 courses, so I expected to be busy eating little mouthfuls.

I had the misfortunate of using a malfunctioning memory card, so the photos from the dinner are lost. Fortunately I do have a mini-menu so I can vaguely remember some of the courses.

There are some similarities to what you would find at El Bulli, such as the Olive Cloud (nothing but a mass of olive-flavored bubbles) and the Carrot Caviar (like El Bulli's mango caviar, and you get a demonstration on how it's done). But clearly there are Japanese touches that are unique to Tokyo.

The Handmade Soba is interesting in that it's a course with audience participation. Everyone is asked to push the paste out of a plastic syringe into a cup of hot water. The paste hardens somewhat as it reacts to hot water, and you have a similar experience to eating the Japanese buckwheat noodles.

Blue Hawaii is fun in that everyone is given an empty soda fountain glass (found in American diners) with a metal straw. As suction is applied to the straw, the air that hits the tongue tastes like the classic cocktail.

Finally, the most amazing experience has got to be what Jeff referred to as the magic fruit. Apparently originally from Africa, this is now grown in Japan and looks like a simple cocoa bean, with soft flesh wrapped around a hard seed core.

We are first asked to taste the fruit in front of us, such as slices of lemon and lime. Of course they would be sour, and not something that I would normally take to. Then we are asked to chew on the magic fruit for a few seconds, consciously coating our tongues and the insides of our mouths with the juice.

Now we are asked to taste the lemon and lime a second time, and voila! The taste has completely changed! What was sour is now apparently sweet! The slice of lemon now tastes like a slice of ripe, sweet orange. And glasses of white wine now taste like sweet dessert wine. Apparently the fruit manipulates the signals from the tongue to your brain, and this affect can last up to 90 minutes for some people. Quite amazing!

The dining experience is slightly marred by the rushed pace of it all. Going through 20+ courses in 2 1/2 hours is a bit too much, and is probably the biggest difference between this place and El Bulli, where there is only one seating per evening.

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