Considering it’s the world’s most populous metropolitan area, Tokyo harbors a surprising number of contemplative oases. I’ve found peace and tranquility in the gardens of the Nezu Museum in Minami Aoyama, wandering the empty, tatami-matted halls of the historic Asakura house in Shibuya, or during early morning strolls through birdsong in Shinjuku Park. On my last trip to the city, I experienced this same sort of inner peace on a grand, interior scale.
It was the location of this experience—beginning on the thirty-third floor of Otemachi Tower in the city’s financial district—that made it so incongruous. The space, the atrium lobby of the Aman Tokyo hotel, soars thirty meters (the equivalent of five-stories) up into the rarefied open air, like some sort of secular, geometric cathedral. Architect Kerry Hill says he was going more for the feeling of being inside of a Japanese lantern, an effect he achieves with shoji-like, textured washi paper walls, and ceiling ribbed with strips of ash wood that float above visitors, all of it warmly illuminated from behind.
Just off this magical space is the hotel’s main restaurant, Arva, which, since late January of this year, has featured a new seasonal and locally sourced menu concept. It is less fine-dining oriented than the last Italian restaurant incarnation, but still finds common culinary ground between Japan and Italy. The day I was there, for example, Executive Chef Masakazu Hiraki, instead of sopressa or prosciutto, opened with thin slices of lacquered lean red tuna and tuna heart that had been aged for up to three months until they were as savory and salty as a deeply cured ham, though retaining the essence of tuna. Next, came a white turnip grown in nearby Shizuoka Prefecture, coated with Sardinian bottarga (the analog to Japanese cured fish roe, karasumi) and paired with a glass of Ricard Pastis.
Hiraki spent 17 years cooking in Italy, the last 13 at the Bauer Hotel in Venice. At Arva, he sources seafood from the shores of Japan instead of the Adriatic, and produce—organic where possible—from five different farm suppliers across Japan. A light yet complex sakuradai (cherry sea bream) salad was built upon thin slices of raw bream scattered with matchsticks of Japanese udo, the much beloved herbaceous and lemony spring shoot sometimes called “mountain asparagus.” Slices of tender bamboo shoot and a lemony dressing spiked with pink pepper completed the dish. Chef Hiraki’s bagna cauda tasted like it was snatched from the kitchen of a prize-winning Italian nonna, and it turns out it kind of was: he credits the mother of an Italian chef friend who taught him how to make the anchovy-rich dip, the old-fashioned way, completely by hand. The secret, he says, “is that I make it with the desire for it to be delicious.”
Other specialties include a dish that combines white asparagus, a soft-centered egg that has been breaded and deep-fried, and bottarga; yellow grouper on a bed of agretti (a spring succulent prized in the Mediterranean) in a shellfish-tomato broth, given a final sprinkle of dried Italian oregano at the table; grilled mackerel with roasted spring cabbage and anchovy, and to end, an expert tableside preparation of meringue, gelato and macerated strawberries. As a farewell touch, you might be handed a mini-cone of hand-churned lemon basil gelato from a cart near the restaurant’s entrance.
One doesn’t expect to return from Japan dreaming about its Italian food, but this is one instance where that’s exactly what I did.
Photos courtesy of the Aman Tokyo