A Japanese-French coupling making the most delicious babies
Claim to fame: The studied precision of careful French-Japanese creativity
Reason to go: Bold flavors don’t need to scream
Look out for: Foie gras with sea urchin sauce
Here’s how you spell excellence: Poncelet butter. That king of lard, the most sought after butter in France. It arrives in a dainty cube, monogrammed for gravitas, a small gesture that signals deep knowledge and refined generosity. Sure, it’s a cliché, but Chef Takayuki Honjo embodies the Japanese notion of perfection and strict attention to minutiae. He is the emperor of his own very distinct type of Franco-Nipponese cuisine. Having spent his formative years cooking at Tokyo’s iconic French-accented Quintessence he moved to Paris and was accepted into l’Astrance’s notoriously disciplined and minuscule kitchen. Stints at hyper-creative Mugaritz and Noma further helped him hone the ninja-like skills he needed to strike out on his own.
ES is situated on elegant Rue de Grenelle, and yes, in typical Japanese fashion it’s so discreet you might just miss it if you’re walking by. The shiny white, serene space seats only 16 guests, a small number but also a sign that this cuisinier is in full gastronomic control of each plate that will ultimately reach you, the diner.
Japanese chefs with French training is the latest trend in Paris, even though these two cultures’ culinary love affair is nothing new. Takayuki Honjo sparks fresh life into the romance by constantly furthering his own amalgam of the two cuisines, but he does so gingerly, paying respect to heritage where it is due. Simplicity, minimalism and concentration seem to lead the way, this is no one-night stand, his is a mature gastronomy of the type that is usually never created by younger chefs. The cube of Poncelet butter presented with the bread service is a perfect example. Honjo’s creativity is expressed in small gestures and in intricate details, like when he marries roasted foie gras with a light sea urchin sauce; the combination seems so obvious, yet it’s rarely seen in other Parisian restaurants. It’s supercharged surf n’ turf or, as we say here,
terre et mer. Playing with the French classic pot-au-feu, Honjo utilises small seasonal vegetables from legendary cultivator Joel Thibault, simmering them separately for maximum purity and explosiveness of flavor. Then, eschewing the conventional beef, he pairs the veggies with steamed abalone. Certainly not traditional but perfectly sensible, allowing his roots to shine through. A different approach to classic gourmand fare turns up in rare Basque Kintoa pork tenderloin, deliberately undercooked to reveal unusual textures and flavors, it’s matched with a light chorizo sauce as well as the smallest, most angelically sweet green peas, all covered in black truffles.
The desserts are ethereal. Very light and fresh on the one hand; perfectly balanced little takes on French classics, re-invented and updated with yuzu, jasmine or hibiscus. More bold and daring on the other, though always surprisingly clear and delicate; a chocolate tuile filled with whisky-perfumed crème pâtissière, served with lime- and hazelnut-flecked banana sauce and a tiny spot of sweetly reduced soy sauce, topped with fat shavings of black truffles. Rich but light, fresh and umami-kissed, emotional in contrasts and full of bright ideas. Honjo’s food never shouts for attention, it grants diners the joy of discerning its quiet nuances by themselves.