“I am always finding ways to open the world more though Japanese food,” says Chef Masaharu Morimoto, as he undoes the decorative knot on the scroll he has placed before me. This Mizhuki-style wrapping reveals a salad of beautifully sliced smoked king salmon, baby romaine, beetroot, asparagus, and carrot is finished with black truffle and a pour of Caesar dressing. The beautifully painted paper around this exquisite dish has been signed by him with a message that reads ‘big dreams, deep foundations’. His life’s work does seem to reflect that philosophy. Born in a still-recovering Hiroshima just a decade after the nuclear bombings perhaps made him more resilient and determined to chase his dreams. Today, not only does he have 17 prestigious Japanese restaurants around the world to his name (the newest ones in Las Vegas, Doha, and Dubai launched early this year) but also retains the title of Iron Chef, having been one of the top culinary defenders of the title in the hit TV show that was a rage across Japan and the US in the 90s. But despite all the adulation over the decades, he’s still completely hands-on with the mis-en-place before the elaborate omakase feast he is prepping for. His knife skills are to die for and his single-minded focus in the kitchen to die for.
We are at Wasabi by Morimoto at the iconic Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai. Seated at the round table placed in the turret of this heritage hotel which turns 115 this year, there’s a sense of timeless luxury. Fourteen years ago, Chef Morimoto was invited by the hotel to open one of India’s first modern Japanese restaurants here. The former Nobu New York head chef, who had opened his own place called Morimoto in Philadelphia in 2001, took this India endeavour as a welcome challenge in 2004. Many questioned his wisdom. “They asked ‘Why Mumbai?!’” he recalls, crinkling up his nose quizzically the way they did, wondering whether a country known for its rich, spicy cuisine would accept the subtlety and technique of Japanese. But he confides he was confident that it was the right place, the right time and he knew that if he made it work here, he could conquer the world. “Mumbai is the second restaurant that I ever opened and I have a deep connection to it,” he says, explaining that it was after he first opened the restaurant that he truly realised what a variety of international backgrounds there were in India and how much guests were interested in and adaptable to other cuisines.
Mumbai diners have been receptive to Japanese cuisine and Wasabi by Morimoto has been a hit with well-heeled locals, expats on expense accounts and visiting gourmets ever since. So much so, that the restaurant has regulars who come in every week and are on first-name terms with the staff and know exactly when the best ingredients are expected in from Japan! It has also repeatedly featured on lists such as Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants over the years, making it a Mumbai memory that many reserve much in advance. It’s no wonder then, that the omakase dinners which Chef Morimoto came to preside over in order to celebrate Wasabi’s 14th anniversary, were sold out on the day they were announced.
Omakase is all about trusting your chef and letting him surprise you with his creations. It’s a philosophical journey as much as a culinary one. When Chef Morimoto smokes whole spices into a wine glass and places it upside down over tiny morsels of Japanese mackerel, you don’t question why but wait to see what unfolds next. Once the smoke has permeated the amuse bouche on the plate, it’s whisked up with a flourish and used to smoke the Sake (deliciously potent Japanese rice wine) to give you a double-whammy of a dish. The second course is listed as a Japanese Autumn Hassun on the personally signed menu I’m presented with. This is in keeping with the formal kaiseki style that Morimoto trained in as a young man in his native Hiroshima. Kaiseki is all about food of the moment and the hassun course usually sets the seasonal tone for the rest of the meal. The platter I’m presented with is so much like a painting that I almost want to frame it rather than tuck into it. It’s a gorgeous tray lined with leaves underneath and an orange maple leaf nestled between a multitude of edible delights in autumnal hues. Everything, from the delicate roast duck to the karasumi daikon (a delicacy of salted mullet roe with radish) to walnut tofu, soft ginko nuts, fried lotus root, and prized matsutake mushrooms with the astringent taste of kikuna leaves, sings Morimoto magic. There’s a balance of flavour and texture here. And a reason for the odd-numbered offerings. “Odd numbers are for celebrations, whereas in Japan, we make even-numbered dishes only when it’s a sad occasion,” explains Chef Morimoto.
The eight-course omakase I feast on has everything from a slippery chawanmushi egg custard featuring parsley-like mitsuba, sea urchin and mushroom; a selection of sushi that stars nigiri of the melt-in-your-mouth otoro (the rare fatty part of tuna belly) and a wonderfully patterned shikaimaki using egg and tuna; to his trademark bouillabaisse rich with lobster, black cod, mussels, Japanese tiger prawn and a crab claw, which takes me back to the sights, sounds and smells of Tokyo’s wonderful Tsukiji Market, which, as I write this, is sadly shutting down forever. Nostalgia is a seasoning too and I will always remember this soup with pleasure.
For mains, there’s a trio of roasted lamb chops in the most velvety jus imaginable, redolent of truffle. Dessert is served in a huge silver lotus leaf. My favourite is the crunchy Mille Feuille with a gooey black sesame topping that is surprisingly more satisfying than dense, dark chocolate. The doughnut ball-like agepan, a school favourite amongst Japanese kids, comes with a squeeze of white peach ice-cream. There’s a typical anmitsu, with clear cubes of agar agar jelly, mochi, and tart fruit on a base of sweet red bean paste that is certainly an acquired taste. It’s usually enjoyed in spring and summer so it seems a bit out of place on an autumn menu until I remember that it’s Mumbai’s red-hot October outside! The crème brûlée, infused with Japanese persimmons and served in half of one, is everything you want in an end-of-year dessert – warm and creamy but with enough zest to keep you cheery.
Where: Wasabi by Morimoto
The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Apollo Bunder,
Colaba, Colaba, Mumbai, Maharashtra 400001
Phone: 022 6665 3366