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The Kitchen Magician
At the tender age of 34, Jeff Ramsey is the chef of an award-winning restaurant he started in 2005, and he nightly dazzles diners—and other chefs—with his innovative creations. The Japanese-American has come a long way since he got his start as a teenager washing dishes in a sushi restaurant in the Washington, DC, area. As the "Chief Culinary Engineer" at Tapas Molecular Bar in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Ramsey uses experimentation, innovation, and deception to create dishes that challenge common perceptions of what it means to dine and drink. One of his original creations is the Emperor's New Mojito, a performance more than a drink—Ramsey pretends to pour the concoction from an empty cocktail shaker into a tall glass with a metal straw. When bewildered guests are encouraged to drink, they get a shot of mint which cleanses the palate between courses. How it is done exactly is, like a magician's trick, a guarded secret.
Here, Ramsey shares his Tokyo recommendations for dining, both fine and casual.
Fodor's: Tell me about your restaurant, Tapas Molecular Bar.
JR: We have eight seats set up at a counter that was originally destined to be a sushi bar. We do a live cooking show that lasts about an hour and a half. We try to be very creative in terms of the ingredients and the presentation. But we try to make the food still recognizable to people, either through deconstruction, or using ingredients or combinations that people know, and applying modern techniques to get interesting effects. It is a food journey in which we are able to present points of modern cooking that people do not get a chance to see otherwise in Tokyo.
Fodor's: If someone is in Tokyo only for a few days, what do you recommend they try?
JR: Abroad, people's perception of Japanese food is often one restaurant that has a little bit of everything—some tempura, some yakitori, some udon, etc. In Tokyo, people should definitely try specialty restaurants that only serve one type of cuisine. In winter, they should try fugu. One thing that fits in well with people's conception of Japanese food is izakaya. There is a standing izakaya called Kanematsu run by a father-son team in Kachidoki. The dishes are simple, with only three or four ingredients, but they are phenomenal.
Fodor's: What is one dish everyone should try before they leave Tokyo?
JR: Really nice wagyu (Japanese beef) seared on a teppanyaki grill is really unlike anything you can try outside Japan. Also, sushi in Tsukiji has a nice romantic value because you are at the fish market, but it is not the best Japan has to offer. My favorite place is Sushi Shomasa in Nishi-Azabu. That dining experience changed my opinion on how good food can taste.
Fodor's: What is comfort food for you on your day off?
JR: I love soba. I'm Japanese-American, and I grew up eating soba. We are all tied to the foods of our childhood.
Fodor's: Where do you go for inspiration?
JR: It is great to go to a bookstore and browse through food books and magazines. There are tons of books and magazines with a really wide coverage and high-quality photography and layout. Even if you cannot read them, they still make good coffee table pieces.
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