Gucci Osteria da Massimo Bottura — Tokyo’s hottest new restaurant
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
This article is part of a guide to Tokyo from FT Globetrotter
Perhaps the greatest joy of a long Friday lunch at Tokyo’s Gucci Osteria is the discovery that dessert (actually, the first of two desserts) is primarily crafted from sea scallops.
By this stage of proceedings, the sweet molluscular ambush (the be-puddinged bivalve is hiding out beneath a ghostly veil of pumpkin jelly and orange sorbet) feels completely of a piece with the simultaneously playful and straight-faced tone of the place. After a prior five courses of manipulation, the scallop arrives like the chapter where Poirot summons everyone, guilty and innocent, into the drawing room. You are here fully hoping to be wrong-footed; you know something deeply satisfying is about to happen — the drama will play out in the presence of exquisite china, plush sofas and just-so suits.
The setting for all this culinary fun is a new restaurant in the heart of Tokyo’s Ginza shopping district — the flashiest part of the Japanese capital — on the top floor of the Gucci Namiki flagship store. The restaurant is the first Japan venture from one of the world’s most celebrated chefs, the Italian Massimo Bottura, whose famed Osteria Francescana in Modena is a feted three-Michelin-star affair, consistently voted one of the top five restaurants in the world and almost entirely booked out until spring 2022 (bookings for May open on November 2). So the arrival of Gucci Osteria in Tokyo (he has two other Gucci Osterias in Florence and on Rodeo Drive, LA) signifies the first chance to experience the Bottura school of cooking in Asia, and deserves a measure of fanfare.
A separate elaborate pastoral-themed entrance lures you in from a street terraced with Patek Philippe, IWC and Rolex, via a green mirrored corridor, to the top floor, where the restaurant’s interior is all Venetian flooring, breezy floral ceramics and notes of couture. Whatever you may think of waiters padding about in Gucci plimsolls and suits with outsized Gucci labels on the cuffs, the profound culinary substance of the place effortlessly outweighs all that style.
A shorthand might describe the tasting menu, with its seven courses, as a fusion of Italian and Asian cuisine. It is not that. It is more like a lovingly rendered translation of a great Italian novel into Japanese: the meaning is carried without the slightest abridgment, but the flourishes make the locals feel they are consuming something distinctly theirs. One of the dishes, which combines aubergine with a knot of noodles, is called “The Parmigiana that Wants to Become a Ramen”. Another combines sushi-style sweet shrimp with a savoury yuzu panna cotta. You are never seriously pushed into thinking that the meal is something other than Italian, but every bite injects a glorious note of doubt.
Where this model breaks down, however, is in the wine list, which wisely decides that, in the section of the table just north-east of the knife and spoon, there is only so far that localisation should go. The lunch I enjoyed was paired with four wines that take you on an ornate tour of Lombardy, Campania and Piedmont. The single detour to Burgundy, during the risotto course, involved a 2018 Saint-Antoine Chablis that was probably the best of the lot.
Several bits of context are important here. The first centres on Bottura’s bravery in opening a restaurant after what has, for Tokyo and Japan, been a bruising pandemic. For months on end, lockdown, states of emergency and other restrictions have hit restaurants across a city celebrated for having the highest concentration of Michelin stars anywhere on the planet. Bottura is here because Tokyo, in global food terms, is where it counts. Few places are quite so good at incorporating local and highly unusual ingredients into their menus, or of minutely reflecting the seasonality of food.
The with-Covid reopening of Japan, meanwhile, has been nervously tentative, and accompanied with time and alcohol limits that have, for many restaurants, either shredded the economics or dented the ability to offer the perfect experience they once strained so very hard to create. The opening of Osteria now is only possible because, first, its executive chef Antonio Iacoviello (menus are conceived by him and Bottura) was able to get in to Japan to start work, commanding his kitchen of Japanese sous-chefs; and, secondly, because most restrictions on restaurant operations were lifted at the beginning of October.
The second critical element is the choice of location. Gucci has outposts in several other swish corners of Tokyo, but Ginza feels right for the kind of slower, more specifically gourmet nature of the restaurant. As a district, Ginza has undergone a number of transformations in recent years. From the 1970s to the early ’90s, Ginza was a perfect symbol of the country’s rising wealth: a glittering testament to the arrival of the Japanese consumer as one of the world’s most powerful forces in luxury goods. As Japan slowed and aged in the early 2000s, so did Ginza’s demeanour. Its stunning revitalisation came over the past 10 years as it reinvented itself as Asia’s most glamorous shopping hub — in particular for Chinese tourists who began arriving in their millions.
Covid stopped that narrative in its tracks. There is talk, of course, about a schedule for reopening Japan to tourists, but a clear decision — let alone the actual return — seems unlikely before next spring. Ginza, however, has continued to behave as if they will all be back any minute. There are still Japanese shoppers, but the retail side no longer feels quite as directly tailored for them as it once did. The restaurant side of Ginza, meanwhile, still does feel designed for wealthier, and therefore probably a bit older, Japanese. Not rushed business-lunchers or dining as a prelude to something else, but people with a bit of time, a bit of money and, one senses, with this restaurant as their main reason for leaving the house that day. Gucci Osteria feels perfectly calibrated for this demographic.
The third, crucial bit of context applies more broadly to the way in which luxury goods now increasingly present themselves. It is no longer enough to simply plonk a delicious plate of grub in front of the punters: purveyors need to provide some sort of narrative hook to give everything meaning.
Both the decor and menu of Osteria represent a distillation of all this. This is not a place for a casual lunch or dinner, and not just because the price (¥10,000 — about £63 — for the entry-level five-course tasting menu) is substantial. It is a place for people who have come explicitly for the food, the reputation (or downright fandom) of its famous chef, the ambience and the experience of being placed for two good hours in the hands of Bottura as he weaves (at a distance of thousands of kilometres away in Modena) his narrative.
And this is really where Bottura captures the meaning of opening a Gucci-branded restaurant in the heart of Asia’s greatest luxury-goods hub at what may or may not be the beginning of the end of a global pandemic. He has worked out that the particular diners who will be coming, now, to this restaurant are there to break the misery and uncertainty of the past 18 months and want to be told stories that help intensify the gratitude everyone feels for being back at a table with waiters and sommeliers and wine buckets and cloakrooms and those things that sweep crumbs away between courses.
The perfection of this narrative style, and the best course among the seven, was “Pronto Luisa . . . Tribute to Bizza”. It is, the waiter explained, a tribute to the 45-year friendship between Bottura and Marco Bizzarri, the CEO of Gucci, who would stop at Bottura’s mother Luisa’s house to eat rice and peas on the way home from school. This converts at Osteria into a risotto of Yamagata rice in edamame cream with a pea miso caramel. A story utterly Italian in the grammar and thematics, while all unmistakably Japanese in the telling.
Which are your favourite restaurants in the Japanese capital? Tell us in the comments below.
Follow FT Globetrotter on Instagram at @FTGlobetrotter