While Chef Keisuke Matsushima is best known for the regional southern-French cuisine at his Michelin-starred restaurant in Nice, his newer venture in Harajuku adopts a more eclectic approach. The kitchen draws on French, Italian, Japanese and Chinese techniques, all filtered through a distinctive Tokyo sensibility. And it's a point of pride that nearly all the ingredients used here are sourced from Tokyo and the surrounding Kanto region.
Vegetables - beautifully colored, organically grown heirloom varieties in particular - play a starring role on Restaurant I's menu. During a recent visit we started with a generous selection of freshly procured Kamakura vegetables served with tiny, fried shirauo (icefish). The exotic radishes, greens and edible flowers somehow seemed more brightly flavored than the typical salad we encounter, and the vegetables and delicate fish were well matched with an assertive, but sparingly applied, anchovy sauce.
Our next dish was roast "Tokyo X" pork - a brand-name, locally bred hybrid of three heirloom breeds that's prized for its rich flavor and fat content. It was served with a whole market basket of Edo-yasai (traditional root vegetables from the Tokyo area) that included artichoke, lotus root, bamboo shoots, leek, and celery. The simple but perfectly prepared foie gras also benefited from its accompanying mix of market-fresh greens drizzled in a subtle balsamic dressing.
If one were putting together a list of the famous foods of Harajuku one would have to include the products of the neighborhood's popular crepe stands, and Restaurant I's pastry chef regularly creates his own playful interpretations of this Harajuku standby. To mark cherry-blossom season, delicately fluffy crepes were filled with a mix of cherries and a lightly whipped cream cheese base, perked up by a splash of kirsch and served alongside a refreshingly sour cherry sorbet. We also sampled an excellent lemon-meringue tart, served with tangy yogurt sorbet and several dollops of honey that we learned were produced by Tokyo bees.
Restaurant I's dining room is quietly restrained - the walls are decorated with tasteful artwork, but the main focus is on the expansive windows looking out onto the patch of greenery in front of the restaurant. Behind the main dining room is a more intimate seating area; there's a low wall between them that visually separates diners in the two rooms while still allowing a view outside.
The dining space is bright and cheerful at lunchtime, making this a very pleasant venue for an under-Y5000 luxury lunch. Prix-fixe menus start at Y3800 (+10%sc) at midday, Y6800 in the evening. Six wines are served by the glass, and bottles start at Y3800, with an impressive selection of French grands vins in the Y20,000-60,000 range for special occasions.
The schedule for days they're closed varies month by month, so call ahead.
by Robb Satterwhite