Restaurants and bars are a universally competitive industry, but never is it more so than in Tokyo. A city with an estimated 60,000 establishments coupled with an income destroying pandemic certainly is akin to playing the game on a God-tier level of difficulty. The closure of Inua at the end of 2020 was a sad but sobering reality, that even fine dining businesses would not necessarily be exempt. One other fancy establishment that still remains standing for now is Eneko Tokyo, and in today’s story, the setting of my birthday lunch.
Eponymously named after the chef himself, Eneko Tokyo is a modern yet pretty looking white building located in the upscale area of Nishiazabu. Eneko Atxa’s main claim to fame is naturally his three Michelin star restaurant, Azurmendi, but Eneko has embarked on his plans for world domination, with these self-named outposts in major cities like Tokyo, London as well as Lisboa.
We saunter over from home as it’s conveniently a mere 15 minute walk away. Curiously, two people in suits are outside, looking like they are waiting for someone. The taller gentleman of the pair approaches us in a polite yet warm manner, making us realise that he is our attendant and what he’s actually been waiting for, is us. Unsure what to expect, we walked into a courtyard before then being ushered into the Bar of the restaurant. Here our attendant lets us know that he’s prepared a warm lemonade to help bring our fingertips back to life after the chilly journey.
A few minutes later, we’re on the move again, this time to the restaurant’s Green House. It feels like a cross between someone’s minimalist plant room and art gallery, with lush yet artistic foliage placed on the display. A choice of a herbal tea or txakoli (classic Basque dry white wine) is offered and then we’re off to embark on a gastronomic journey around the room. A chef takes us through an explanation of ingredients and where they are from, as a video featuring Azurmendi playing in the background reaffirms this. Our first small bite is a boat-shaped seaweed origami, which coasts along a cloud of dashi. Next is cider that we’re encouraged to savour thoughtfully to guess its infusion notes (peppermint and rosemary we discover) before ending this particular segment with a cup of smoked salmon caviar.
From here, we are taken to the dining room on the 2nd floor where the actual sit-down meal begins. Our attendant brings us both a picnic basket each, revealing delicate and pretty-as-a-picture small bites. Of the three, the cherry tomato-esque orb is the most intriguing with its unmarked and visually perfect surface. As we pop it into our mouths in its entirety, a burst of passion fruit and lime coats our tongues with some richness come through in the form of the “tomato” shell which is made from cacao butter.
As if our 8 course meal wasn’t going to fill us up, we order two additional dishes of Joselito ham and truffled egg. The latter, an Atxa signature, is a table-side theatric delight. Using a syringe, some of the egg yolk is extracted then refilled with a thick, hot truffle broth that cooks the egg from the inside out. The end result is an explosion that slowly warms your mouth with umami-ness.
The starter is where our paths start to diverse, where Emi gets the foie gras with lemon grass and me with the dietary requirements, a beetroot, caviar and ikura medley. Both are served in little cups of sudachi rind and are tangy yet savoury in their own way. Bread (of the gluten and gluten-free variety) arrives around this point and is served with an incredible olive oil.
We’re onto warm starters now with Hokkaido scallops, anago and white bean and a lobster tempura (mine is sautéed only). This is the second time they bring out the dashi cloud which is getting a little amusing but the seafood waft is certainly palpable and does influence taste, what with it being 70% smell and all.
The fish dish is skipjack tuna, also known as katsuo with a heady tomato salsa. It’s interesting having skipjack prepared this way and it tastes much lighter and markedly different to the katsuo we are used to having in Japan that is usually much thicker and smoked.
For our mains we were given a choice of meats, where Emi went with beef and I went with venison. After trading bites, we find that the beef is far more tender and ‘melt-in-your-mouth’ but the venison lends such a unique flavour profile (“wild” dare I say) that it is both our winner.
Dessert is probably where our dishes differed the most. The usual item is a croissant ice cream with milk foam, that makes me thing of familiar comfort sweets like bread and butter pudding. Mine is a jelly with a strawberry sorbet that seems simple in construction but all comes together with such bright tasting jewel-like fruit.
Our petit fours are the last to appear with our coffee and tea drinks, appearing before us in the form of a wooden box. Our attendant once again encourages us to look around for other compartments where treats can be found. We discover them all happily through this activity which manages to capture that child-like delight of discovering hidden nooks.
There was a time where I felt fine dining was about showing off opulence. How many grams of caviar could you fit into a tart, how many layers of uni can you stuff into this maki, and how many dining guests wanted the optional foie gras course. In the last few years, it seems the view has changed back to a more farm to plate focus, a respect for ingredients (more local, less air-flown) and more experience-led rather than pure consumption. I love meals like this that stimulate all the senses and that show me how to think differently. At a fine dining price point, I’d dare say that being able to experience something new, something I’ve never had in my life, is much more important than whether the dish is ‘just’ tasty. It’s naturally an incredible privilege to be dining out at all, let alone at such a beautiful establishment like Eneko Tokyo. The meal itself and the context in which I had it, is something I’ll remember for a long time.