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Aroma Fresca - detailed review

a
Asomaniac Jan 21, 2009 08:09 PM

I had dinner with a fellow chowhounder at Aroma Fresca last night. The food and wine were both very good, but I continue to be absolutely mystified by the incredible popularity of the restaurant amongst Japanese people. The food is certainly good, but we both agreed that it was not memorable. I would not be able to write a detailed review if I hadn't taken some notes last night - some dishes would already have escaped my memory. Perhaps the place is so popular with locals because it makes very heavy use of very Japanese ingredients (kani miso, seaweed, abalone etc).

The all-Italian wine list is very good. Not quite as good as Angolo's, but it does have a good range of wines from many of Italy's 20 wine regions, and the pricing is extremely reasonable for a Michelin-starred restaurant in Tokyo. There are many fairly decent wines for around 5,000 Yen, and the mark-up is quite humane. By way of example, a Were Dreams Chardonnay by Jerman costs around 7,500 Yen in shops, and at Aroma Fresca you pay 13,000. In contrast, many other Michelin-starred restaurants charge three times the shop price, or more. The by-the-glass selection was very good as well

The food

There are two set menus of ten courses plus dessert plus tea/coffee for 12,000 and 15,000 Yen (no a la carte options). The 12,000 Yen meny, "Menu Aromafresca", is a seafood menu with six seafood dishes, one meat dish and three vegetarian dishes. That is the menu we had. The 15,000 Yen menu, "Menu Stagionale", was more mixed, featuring four seafood dishes and three meat dishes (horse meat carpaccio, roast rabbit with liver paste sauce and "cowtail" stew, presumably oxtail) as well as three vegetarian courses. Here is an overview of the individual dishes:

1. Smoked eel on caviar

The eel had a wonderfully full flavour, it was soft but firmly textured, a sliver of crispy eel skin with coarsely ground salt provided an effective textural contrast. The caviar got a little lost, the salt of the skin somewhat overpowered it. It did not add as much as it could have done. Overall a very good start though.

2. King crab salad with grapefruit

The king crab was prepared in a more Japanese rather than Italian manner: while one side was lighlty grilled, providing a note of charcoal that contrasted well with the delicate flavour of the crab meat, half of the piece of crab was semi-raw. The crab was succulent and juicy. The grapefruit and vegetable salad was extremely boring. While it is fine to add subtle flavours to the delicious crab so that the crab can dominate and does not get overshadowed by other ingredients of the dish, surely the chef could have come up with something slightly less dull.

3. Steamed sea eel with fresh tomato sauce

This dish was a real highlight. The eel was steamed to perfection and a hint of dill wedged between thin layers of eel provided a fresh, herby contrast to the full flavour of the eel and its fat content. A small amount of fresh chopped chives on the top of the eel fulfilled a similar purpose. The amount of herbs was just right to provide a contrast without in any way overshadowing the flavour of the eel. The tomato sauce largely consisted of cold finely chopped fresh tomatoes with a very small amount of herbs and olive oil. The tomatoes reminded me of how good raw vegetables at their best can taste - the flavour was very intense, sweet and fruity and greatly enhanced the dish. It paired wonderfully with the eel and, again, added freshness and contrast without taking away form the eel. I can't remember buying tomatoes in a shop - even some of the crazily expensive Japanese ones - the flavour of which even began to approach last night's offering.

4. Seaweed and warm soup with abalone

The name of this dish is misleading, because it contained a lot of broccoli which was very much the dominant flavour. The seaweed had almost no perceptible flavour of its own. The abalone was very thinly sliced and had a pleasant texture, but almost no flvour to speak of (the strenghth of the broccoli ensured that even if it did, it would be difficult to perceive). For good measure, the chef added some okura, which did not add any flavour, but enhanced the slightly slimy 'neba-neba' texture of the soup. Overall a very mild and not unpleasant dish, but a little pointless

5. Blue crab spaghetti

This was an excellent spaghetti dish. Wonderfully al dente spaghetti with a lot of bite: a substantial amount of garlic, herbs, olive oil and butter, with a strong aftertaste of chilli. The flavours were strong, but none dominated. The individual flavours came into their own and the dish was very balanced. The crab had a very light, fluffy texture with more than a hint of kani miso. Kani miso can be quite dominant in a way that is not always pleasant, but in this case it was just about right, and worked very well with the garlic.

6. Ravioli pasta (potato) with basilico sauce

The sauce had a very concentrated, dense basil flavour. The ravioli was filled with a puree of potato, cheese and butter. The textural contrasts were good - the ravioli was al dente - and the buttery flavour of the filling went well with the basil sauce. Overall it was a little blunt though, even something as simple and obvious as a very small amount of freshly ground black pepper would have added a dimension this dish was lacking.

7. Blanquillo with clam and winter turnip

The fish was prepared to perfection: succulent, juicy and firm flesh, crunchy, crispy scales with a chargrilled flavour. The clam was tough and could have done with extended steaming in sake (I have previously had a similar type of clam steamed in sake for hours, and it was divine; it would have worked here flavour-wise as well as the sauce contained sake). The turnip tasted oven-baked and worked very well with the fish and the clam. The sauce was a buttery turnip sauce with sake and chives - excellent flavour that did not in any way overshadow the flavours of the other ingredients. With the exception of the clam, a very well executed dish.

8. Sherbet of citrus fruits

This palate cleanser contained various citrus fruit and passion fruit. It was unusually tart, quite sour.. A bit too much for me, but it certainly did its palate cleansing job.

9. Beef steak Aromafresca style

The steak was salt and pepper encrusted on one side, otherwise rare. The waiter explained to me that it was a very specific cut, but I am afraid that I did not understand what cut exactly. The marbelling was what you would expect from a medium amount of marbelling on a wagyu sirloin steak (a little vague, I know - I should have written down what he said!). It was qualitatively one of the better steaks I have had at high end restaurants in Japan, though not quite at the same level of the offerings at steak restaurants like Dons de la Nature. The steak came with three pastes: a garlic paste, a horseradish paste and an unusual, but very tasty mustard, potato and citrus fruit paste. The garlic paste was composed of wonderfully roasted garlic. The pastes were all excellent, but their flavours were quite strong, so I enjoyed them separately from the steak. The salt and pepper crust gave it enough additional flavour, and I did dip a few pieces into a small amount of Maldon salt that came with the dish.

The steak came with a simple, but excellent salad of rocket, whole coriander seeds and a lemon-based dressing. The tartness of the dressing cut through the fat of the steak, and the coriander seeds added some wonderful spice to the dish.

10. Cauliflower in cocotte

This was served at the same time as the steak. Essentially, this was cauliflower dipped in butter and baked. Tasty but wholly uneventful.

Dessert

There was a choice of five desserts, and I selected the strawberry soup. It was a very enjoyable and refreshing dessert, if nothing spectacular. The chopped strawberries were very fresh and flavoursome. The liquid consisted of strawberry puree and soda. Adding the soda was a simple but inspired idea; the gentle carbonation added to the freshness of the strawberry puree. Finally, there was some milk ice cream in the soup. That conbination worked well, as you would expect, though there was nothing unusual or memorable about it (with the exception of the soda).

The wine

We limited ourselves to by-the-glass wines. I started off with a Franciacorta Blanc de Blancs by Cavalleri. This was disappointing. Aggressive, large bubbles and pretty uneventful flavour; most Champagne or even Burgundy cremant blanc de blancs offered at restaurants of comparable standard tend to provide a more satisfying experience. 8,500 yen per bottle, 1,600 yen per glass.

I then moved on to a 2006 Capitel Croce by Anselmi. That is essentially a Soave (the producer has left the appellation in protest against the low standard of many Soave producers, so the wine cannot be called Soave DOC anymore, but that is what it is - a Veneto white made of 100% Garganega grape). Soave very often is dull, cheap, boring wine with very little quality, but some producers do produce top wines, and Anselmi is one of them. The wine is gently oaked (increasinly seen in Soave, but still not common) and has honey and lemon flavours, with some very gentle vanilla toast and herbacious undertones. Good value at 7,000 a bottle (glass: 1,400).

Next up was a Chardonnay from the mountainous region of Alto-Adige, a 2006 Cornell "Formigar" by Colterenzio. An excellent winemaker, and this wine was no exception. Contrary its sunny, fullbodied cousins from the south and centre of Italy, this was a fairly restrained, relatively crisp, medium bodied wine with gentle oak and the usual tropical fruit notes you'd expect from a Chardonnay. Unlike Sicily's overoaked offerings, this was an excellent food wine that paired exceptionally well with the seafood dishes. Priced at 9,800 per bottle (1,600 per glass).

The last white was a 2007 Gewurztraminer by Terlano, also from Alto-Adige. This was excellent, up there with Alsatian Gewurztraminers of the same (or higher) price range. Wonderful note of exotic spices and pineapple. Very fresh, very young, and very dry, with none of the residual sugar you find in some Gewurztraminers. A really excellent example of the grape variety. 5,800 per bottle - an excellent price - and 1,200 by the glass.

The first red was a 2005 Nebbiolo d'Alba "Ca Veja" by Paitin. A very decent example of its kind, good fruit, a bit more body than many Nebbiolo d'Albas, and already fairly drinkable, despite its youth. Obviously don't expect it to match good Barolos or Barbarescos - same grape variety, different worlds. But at 6,800 it is very decently priced (1,400 per glass), and much, much cheaper than a decent Barolo or Barbaresco (and given how many bad producers there are in Barolo and Barbaresco, it is much safer to go for this Nebbiolo than try your luck with cheap Barolos / Barbarescos, where the rule often seems to be that if it is affordable, it is not worth drinking).

The second and last red was a 2003 Salae Domini by Antonio Caggiano. Made from the Aglianico grape, the pride of the Campania region in southern Italy this wine originates from, it it full of dark fruit, cherries and a hint of baked plum. Spices in the nose. May need some more time, but is already very palateable.

Moving on to the dessert wines: we had a Vin Santo del Chianti 2001 by Altesino from the Montalcino area. Notes of coffee, caramel, sherry, plum, chocolate. Excellent. I didn't write down what it cost.

The final dessert wine was another Anselmi, the I Capitelli 2005. As in the case of the dry white described earlier, this one is also 100% Garganega. An excellent wine - caramel, raisins, dried apricots, a very full-bodied wine with good balance. It seems that the Garganega grape, certainly in the hands of a good producer, is very well suited to producing excellent dessert wines. The Garganega dessert wine by Pieropan, possibly the best Soave producer, was one of the best dessert wines I have ever had. This one does not quite reach such heights, but it is really excellent. I did not note what that one cost, either.

Overall, the wine list shows that whoever is in charge of wine at Aroma Fresca knows exactly what they are doing. The only downside is the way the wine list is organised. It is purely organised by vintage, so wines from different producers, grape varieties and regions are all lumped together. It is a very odd and inconvenient way to organise the wine list, and does not make much sense.

Overall, a very good dinner, as I said - but not really that memorable. Aroma Fresca deserves a Michelin star, but not more. To me, Ristorante Aso still reigns supreme (though the wine list is better at Aroma Fresca as Aso focuses on French wines; the Aso French wines are top, but an Italian restaurant should have a wine list dominated by Italian wines), although the style of the food is very different and I can fully understand that other people might view the relative merits of these two restaurants differently.

  1. l
    Lucil Jan 22, 2009 04:59 AM

    hey, nice meeting you ytd.. today i had sushi mizutani already.. i agree with you on that one. Its just sushi, for me i did not think it was miles ahead of top sushi bars in singapore, maybe a notch or two.. although the anago, saba, tamagoyaki and uni were quite well done i would say..

    the rice is very good, i can feel each pearly whole grain in my mouth, also without the smell of japanese rice grain that u commonly will get from rice that were grown in america or australia.

    the anago had absolutely no bones in it, usually in other places there will still be soft bones inside.

    the uni was particularly buttery and firm, not watery, this is only my 2nd time eating this.
    the tamagoyaki was particulary dense, moist , eggy, sweet, exterior tastes like the surface of kueh lapis(nonya cake) or kasutera..

    some of the letdowns were the ika, and the clams in general. the ika was not as soft and melt in your mouth as another chowhounder would describe, instead it had a bite but not chewy. i had really melt in the mouth squid before, that could break with juz a slight bite, although not in sushi restaurants.

    the clams i thought were too general, i couldnt remember which was which.
    the maguro chutoro and ootoro, were just what they taste like.
    no engawa, i should have asked for it, the lady beside me who came in later got it when she asked for it, at first mizutani sensei said there were no more, but he found one more instead. sheesh.. kanpyo was not overly powering. instead it was quite sweet. total damage 18k yen, which is maybe around the same price of a sushi omakase in singapore.

    today i also had lunch at la bettola da ochiai at ginza, this place seems to have a 2 month impossible to book dinner reservation list from what i read online,

    i was there at 12pm, and it was full, the waitress was very helpful and great,( sensing that i couldnt speak much japanese, she spoke to me in fluent english, no japanese accent), so i had a table at 1pm .

    went to toraya to buy sake manju, and returned, ordered the pranzo set 3, which included antipasti, pasta, and 1 main, for 3000 yen( actually 2900+)

    antipasta - caprese, might be broncocini(sp?) or mozzarella di bufala.. the tomatoes were really great, firm and really sweet! FULL OF ITALIAN FLAVOURS!

    pasta - uni spaghetti, spectacular dish( all the reviews on the net raved abt this one) ,
    very memorable, uni was made into a buttery and creamy sauce, but no cream i suspect it is just egg yolk., like an uni cabonara.. very memorable indeed.

    mains - cotoletta ( or pork cutlet), i duno wad the real deal tastes like in italy, but it tastes something like scissors cut pork cutlets will get in singapore , or some of those singaporean western coffee shop pork cutlets. sort of a minced pork then deep fried, very thin not thick. came with rocket and again the coriander seeds.

    this is the sort of place that i will go back again and again. the price is just amazing for the kind of meal, i had a look at some other tables on what they were having, seems like they have this new crab dish with some roe(maybe), i even saw it along the escalators advertisment in one of the department malls in ginza.

    i also sort of fell in love with the nice looking waitress(my type) that spoke english to me at the restaurant.. service was personable and i requested to take a picture of her outside the restaurant( she was very shy and reluctant, but after much begging(haha) she agreed, and she sent me off in a very tradtional japanese fashion, just standing at the door way and watching me walk away.. but in general, if not for my prejudice, the service would be rather quiet instead.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Lucil
      FourSeasons Jan 22, 2009 10:53 PM

      Hi Lucil:

      I am actually quite curious to know which top sushi bars in Singapore that is just one or two notch below Sushi Mizutani since I thought the standard is so far apart based on my own personal experience. If I were to give a rating of 10 to Mizutani, I would only give 5 to 6 to the best sushi that I had in Singapore, not just one or two notch below. But in all honesty, I don't frequent Sushi counters here anymore because I thought the top ones always overcharge me, and outside of the popular ones (like toro, uni, hirame, shima aji, akagai, ika, anago, ebi), I thought the quality has dropped off (for example, I never had a good akami, mirugai, kohada or awabi here), and the selection is more limited. So would be interested to know the top ones that you think is close to Mizutani's standard.

      1. re: FourSeasons
        l
        Lucil Jan 23, 2009 06:14 AM

        Hi,

        the top sushi bars(sg) seems to be 2 or 3 notch below mizutani neta standards, but they are not on par with mizutani on the rice, tamagoyaki , kanpyo issue, nori, uni maybe. Nogawa does a good kohada. but i nv had shellfish in spore before.
        mizutani's rice is godlike, i do not think alot of people can do it. It retains the whole grain structure yet holds incredibly well. Mizutani seems to have a free hand on the wasabi thou..

        1. re: Lucil
          l
          Lucil Jan 25, 2009 06:20 AM

          thinking back, it may be 3- 4 notches above wad u get in sg.. maybe i dont really like beer with sushi.. the ootoro didnt have any sinews at all, zilch, whereas sushi saito had a wee bit, i think singapore ones do not cut the sinews out.

          Also saito san was very friendly, but i think i prefered mizutani's sushi more, but i duno if its the beer or the sushi(maybe more than 15 sushi, plus 1 maki), i was really stuffed towards the end before the makisushi, whereas at saito, it was much more manageable even thou i had 13 or so sushi and i felt like wow, i didnt even realise i ate that much sushi. Mizutani's rice is definately a very different animal from other sushiya.. i asked saito san abt it, he said he didnt like it, he say it was neba neba, and too much water, and too much rice(this i agree, mizutani had a wee bit more rice).. but i prefered mizutani's rice, i thought it was better, as you could feel each grain by itself in your mouth. i also had this octopus in some kind of thick sauce, at saito.. very nice.. saito san also has a different way of presenting the order of sushi, he likes to jump from light to heavy and repeat.. he says the flavour attacks the tongue, instead of the more traditional way which is from lighter tasting to heavier tasting.

    2. a
      amrx Jan 22, 2009 05:30 PM

      I'm very grateful for your detailed review of Aroma Fresca, It's extremely difficult to get a reservation on a few days notice so I've never bothered on any of my many Tokyo visits (2 in 2008).. Your very credible evaluation leads me to conclude that it's not for me.

      1. FourSeasons Jan 22, 2009 10:36 PM

        Hi Aso:

        another excellent review from you. Perhaps your most detailed one, if I recall correctly. I thoroughly enjoyed the dinner at Aroma on November, though I am not able to compare to Ristorante ASO as I have not tried there before. Personally, I would be more generous and give a 2 star rather than just one. I rated three dishes as "excellent", four dishes as "good", one as "poor". I picked the "Menu Stagionale". Not able to recall too many details as there are too many meals since then so this is just a quick review:
        -we started with the light eel on caviar as well, same as your menu. Agree it is a good start.
        -Akaza shrimp carpaccio style: good.
        -Deep fried fioe gras with half done egg: excellent, creative and perfect combination.
        -Cold porcini soup with abalone: the only dish that I did not like it. I guess being of a Chinese ethnic background, I don't really like soup that is this cold. Plus I was not able to taste the abalone flavor as well.
        -Risotto "shanghai crab" aromafresca style: I wrote "excellent" on my note, but to be honest, I can't remember much details anymore. I guess it is excellent but not memorable enough.
        -Tajarin pasta with stewed beef sauce: real excellent, very delicious, one of the best, if not the best, pasta I ever had. The chef added truffle to enhance the flavor as well.
        -Charcoal grilled rock fish and Roast Ezo Deer: both dishes are good, but again, can't remember too much details.

        2 Replies
        1. re: FourSeasons
          a
          Asomaniac Jan 22, 2009 10:55 PM

          Hi FourSeasons,

          Thank you for your review! The Menu Stagionale has changed since you visited. I wonder what the Ezo deer was like, I normally love it!

          This is definitely the longest review I have ever written, simply because for the first time, I actually took notes during the dinner. Makes things much easier the following day, I will continue to do it in the future.

          I actually wrote the last sentence of the review with you in mind as we have had some exchanges on differing tastes, which are often influenced by the dominant culinary culture individual people have mostly been surrounded by. I would be really curious to see what you make of Aso. You may or may not rate it more highly. I know that I do (though to an extent it is a bit like comparing apples and oranges as the interpretations of Italian cuisine are so different) based on the fact that I remember many of the dishes I had there, even on visits more than a year ago.

          1. re: Asomaniac
            FourSeasons Jan 22, 2009 11:25 PM

            I think the "Menu Stagionale" is changed monthly while "Menu Aromafresca" is a fixed menu for the year. I think it would be good for you to have a habit to take notes more often so that we get to enjoy to read the detailed reviews you submitted on CH. LOL

            I would defintely want to try Ristorante Aso on my next visit to Tokyo. BTW, how many weeks/months in advanced do we need to reserve a table for lunch or dinner at Ristorante Aso? And is it a better deal to visit Aso for lunch since the price is much cheaper?

        2. e
          exilekiss Jan 23, 2009 07:04 AM

          Hi Asomaniac,

          Subarashi! :) Excellent review, and thanks for the detailed thoughts on each dish and the wine pairings.

          I'll have to try Aso over Aroma Fresca on my next trip. Thanks. :)

          1. l
            Lucil Jan 30, 2009 10:21 AM

            just uploaded the pictures of aroma fresca and ur writeup to my blog here..http://caramelcorn.wordpress.com/2009...

            1 Reply
            1. re: Lucil
              l
              Lucil May 26, 2009 01:09 AM

              after 5 months , i tink aroma fresca is afterall a very good restaurant.. better than quintessense to me.. no single bad dishes at aroma fresca, produce were very fresh, bread and olives were superbly good.. best i had while i was in tokyo... but no particular standout dishes..

              i think the reason why this restaurant is so popular is because of the Cost performance. Afterall this is a fine dining restaurant, and one tends enjoy everything there and not just focusing on particular dishes etc.. therefore if i was a japanese, i would tend to go back to aroma fresca everytime, as it wouldnt fail on some dishes that i do not like etc.... the menu changes everytime too.. yes i still remember their ravioli basilico( i think the ravioli is superbly done, simple but skillfully done, taste of basil with the butter enriching the taste ), the steak and the strawberry soup...

              maybe one shouldnt tink of this as an italian restaurant, but rather a rather special place..

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