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restaurant review

Esterre at Palace Hotel Tokyo: Authentic French culinary technique heightens Japan’s natural terroir

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By Mai Shoji

Palace Hotel Tokyo’s signature restaurant Crown served as one of the leaders of the French culinary scene in Japan for half a century after its opening in 1964 - the last time Tokyo hosted the Olympics. With Tokyo preparing to host the mega-sporting event again this year, that same restaurant has undergone a dramatic transformation.

In partnership with Ducasse Paris founded by Chef Alain Ducasse, and with Chef de Cuisine Martin Pitarque Palomar (former sous chef at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester) at the helm, the reformed French restaurant Esterre brings authentic French luxury dining to a whole new level. Needless to say, the world renowned Ducasse is a Michelin three-star restaurant owner of three restaurants across the globe. Esterre means Mother Earth in the Occitan dialect in southwest France where Ducasse was born. His mindset of glorifying local produce is perfectly suited to a contemporary fusion of seasonal ingredients from Japan’s farms.

A narrow tunnel-like approach to the restaurant complements the story of sustainability, with a wooden sculpture of fruit and vegetables by artist Reiji Kosaka, displayed at the end of the passageway.

Photo: Mai Shoji

The monumental floor-to-ceiling wine cellar and private rooms on the way to the main dining area are retained from Crown, but now have a more all-natural feel.

Photo: Mai Shoji

My first impression of the transformation was the eye-catching Jean Nouvel bubble-cushioned chairs in earth-colored leather placed throughout the main seating area. The interior is the work of popular Japanese studio SIMPLICITY, living up to its philosophy. There are no chandeliers nor Louvre art decor in sight as you see at many other French restaurant chains. Instead, what looks like a gold leaf on the ceiling emits warm light, intentionally built-in, so as not to disrupt the panoramic night view of the imperial palace at night.

Photo: Mai Shoji

The sofa seat areas are decorated with frames of iron art pieces featuring seasonal herbs by Morison Kobayashi. And of course, the view of the palace grounds from the sixth floor is quite an artwork on its own. No other high-rise buildings are in the way, so you see a stretch of lawn and roads along the imperial palace where runners exercise during the day. The walls are wrapped with simple cream-colored washi paper and the fireplace remains in a corner to add to the relaxing ambience. I felt extremely comfortable in a room filled with the sense of nature.

At this point, I imagined Japanese sake might be offered as a welcome drink, but instead I was given a refreshing glass of detox juice of hibiscus, celery and beets. My second drink, poured by the chief sommelier, came from a magnum Moet bottle which kicked off the French wine pairing from then on.

Photo: Mai Shoji

The first presentation by the newly appointed chef was seafood on crispy seaweed rice paper in a bowl of white marble stones, which was a small bite of excitement to start a satisfying evening. Esterre bakes two kinds of original organic breads to fit their, literally, cutting-edge bread cutter carried in on a bread wagon to the table. Not only are the warm breads kneaded with oats and sesame appetizing, their exclusive Hokkaido butter is so creamy that I couldn’t help nibbling more.

Photo: Mai Shoji

For the entree, I tried the recommended green asparagus from Provence with rice bran and sea urchin. Sea urchin is sweet like syrup and the texture of asparagus is perfection. The sommelier’s choice of Famille Hugel Riesling Estate 2014 from Alsace elevated the operatic singing on my pallet. I took a bite of my party’s Botan-ebi from Hokkaido, green peas and almonds, which made me feel like coming back for more bites.

Photo: Mai Shoji

Photo: Mai Shoji

On the spring menu “Inspired by Landscapes of Spring,” I was most impressed with the octopus from Aomori, potatoes and capers with sage condiment. I don’t think I’ve seen a single octopus tentacle paid so much attention and care. It’s brought to you on a shichirin (clay charcoal brazier) along with scenting herbs that lie side by side with the octopus. The waitress gently places it on your plate and then pours an impeccable sauce. To choose octopus as the main ingredient is a novelty, and I’ve never appreciated the tenderness of each bite of octopus before.

Photo: Mai Shoji

For the main course, I highly recommend the wagyu beef from Tochigi, aubergine and perilla, paired with a red Bordeaux highly ranked by oenophiles - Virginie de Valandraud 2014 Saint Emilion Grand Cru. It’s another hard-to-forget plate of entertainment with two cuts of steak, crispy on the outside and rare in the middle, placed cross-section up to view the dazzling marbled texture. I fell in love with the innovative cream sauce with a hint of eggplant, which I suggested that Chef Pitarque Palomar sell in a bottle as a hotel souvenir.

Photo: Mai Shoji

I tasted a few cheeses from the wagon with famous Okinawan honey, paired with one of my favorite dessert wines - Château Coutet 2006 Premier Grand Cru Classé from Barsac-Sauternes. For dessert, I tried pineapple from Okinawa, passion berries and wasabi - a work of art by Thomas Moulin, former chef pâtissier at Rech by Alain Ducasse in Hong Kong. As my first encounter with wasabi (and wasabi flowers) in a dessert, it was ideally refreshing and did not leave me nauseously stuffed as is often the case in the aftermath of French course dining.

Photo: Mai Shoji

Just before the dessert course, I ordered the herbal tea which was brought on a wagon with a selection of the freshest herbs. I asked the waitress to blend rosehip, lavender and mint as she customized an exclusive blend just for myself, freshening the air with luscious aroma.

Photo: Mai Shoji

All tableware are a collection of Japanese art that will tingle the heart of tourists and hit the soul of locals, from washi paper show plates, bendable tin ware and Arita-yaki porcelain to uniquely carved wooden butter knives. After all, Japanese food and craftsmanship are a treat for hotel guests, and you can experience the best of Japan dining at Esterre.

Photo: Mai Shoji

Esterre’s objective is “to make the customer happy and to promote our culinary vision of tradition and modernity.” I think they do better than making guests happy; they enable leading local farmers to feel even more proud of their produce by using techniques that are unique to washoku. It’s all the more persuasive that this avant-garde restaurant sits in one of the few Japanese owned and operated hotels. I look forward to their next seasonal menu and wonder which natural flavors they will shine a light upon.


Palace Hotel Tokyo 6th Floor

1-1-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-0005

Tel: 03-3211-5317

Opening Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. – 2 p.m. L.O. Dinner 6 p.m. – 9:30 p.m. L.O.

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I've always loved the Palace Hotel. Been going there since the 1980s and it's convenient to the imperial palace grounds.

Esterre looks good. Japanese really have a love affair with French haute cuisine. I've never seen octopus leg served that big before. Not like the taco I buy at the supermarket.

Anyway, I hope people will still go out dining and not be scared of the coronavirus. That's what I'm doing. Sometimes it's fun to go to a fancy restaurant in a nice hotel like this just to forget about life's problems for a few hours.

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