With a new chef installed, Whitegrass at CHIJMES is set for its next chapter in classic French cuisine with a modern Japanese touch.
Like its name, the interiors of Whitegrass remain unchanged, right down to the side plate we recall seeing the last time we were here. Owner Datin Karen H’ng was probably right in thinking the interiors are versatile enough to accommodate a chef sleight of hand. Just as it did chef Sam Aisbett’s intensely layered constructions, the pastel-hued and brass-accented space designed by Takenouchi Webb complements chef Takuya Yamashita’s delicate, understated cuisine.
Even so, we wish chef Yamashita had a brand-new restaurant to start with, so that he’d be unhindered by impressions of the former Whitegrass. For the past three years, Aussie chef Aisbett and his wife Annette Glover were at the forefront of moulding the restaurant’s modern Australian fine-dining identity, and earning the restaurant a Michelin star in 2017 and 2018. Turning the page on the former Whitegrass would require taking on a whole new perspective, first by recognising the new chef’s different reference points.
The French cooking chef Yamashita practises is of similar ilk to the produce-driven, innovative modern French cuisine that several Japanese chefs in Paris have been gaining attention for. Chef Daï Shinozuka of Les Enfants Rouges, and chef Keisuke Yamagishi of Étude, were the mentors he worked under during his stint in Paris. Returning to Tokyo, he joined Ciel et Sol, a restaurant started by chef So Otowa and his father, master chef Kazunori Otowa. The latter was a disciple of the late Alain Chapel—a main proponent of ‘nouvelle cuisine’ or a modern approach that favours lighter, natural flavours—and is renowned for serving up French cuisine using ingredients from Tochigi prefecture. There, Yamashita continued reinterpreting French cuisine using predominantly Nara ingredients, in what was termed La Cuisine Naturelle or Cuisine of the Natural Body.
At Whitegrass, chef Yamashita’s produce-centric La Cuisine Naturelle is offered in three-course set lunches ($68), or five- or eight-course dinners ($168, $228). The earnest chef seems to favour focusing on a few key ingredients to build a dish. In the five-course dinner menu, for instance, the flavours of Hyogo prefecture oyster poached in white wine, set in an oyster jelly infused with oyster liquor, and paired with Granny Smith apple puree, meld together in wobbles of briny, gelatinous deliciousness. In another example, he brings together mildly boozy, fruity notes in a sake kasu sorbet dessert, using sake kasu or lees, the by-product of sake-making from Umenoyado brewery in Nara, strawberries, rose hip jelly and gold leaf.
Says chef Yamashita, “I tend to use ingredients sourced from Nara because I want to share the beauty of my hometown Nara with my diners, and at the same time pay tribute to my roots.” In his summer menus, for instance, he will be using somen, handmade by a family of somen makers in Nara, with pickled cucumber, myoga and fresh ayu, as well as sencha sourced from an 11th generation family of tea Farmers, in the Japanese tea dessert. But he is keen to expand his canvas beyond just Nara produce. He says, “I enjoy plating dishes that visually depict the natural scenes and landscapes that Nara is famous for. This is the same approach to plating that I adopt at Whitegrass, though I now use more ingredients from all over Japan as I want to showcase the vibrancy and diversity that Japan has to offer.”
With each Japanese influence, the foundations of traditional French cuisine is never far behind. That he and a few other chefs are translating Auguste Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire, or the Complete Guide to the Modern Art of Cookery from French to Japanese speaks of his respect for the classics. Says Yamashita, “Having been trained in the classical methods of the French culinary arts, I have always had a strong and deep connection to the history and roots of French cuisine. I enjoy studying age-old French recipes first, before reimagining them as my own by adding my personal twist to them, mostly inspired by my Japanese heritage.”
A case in point is the dish inspired by the consommé aux Ailerons or chicken consommé with stuffed wings dish listed in Escoffier’s cookbook. Yamashita’s rendition is a deboned chicken wing stuffed with Tokachi mushroom, Arborio rice and pistachio served with a chicken consommé. Wrapped in a tidy package at first, the components of the stuffed wing unravel and slowly reveal their earthy, savoury flavours with each bite. The morsels taste even better with spoonfuls of consommé packed with smoky depth of flavour. This dish is may be a bit like the chef and his cooking—give it time, peel back the layers, and there will be even greater depths to be discovered.
#01-26 CHIJMES, 30 Victoria Street. Tel: 6837 0402