How do you capture a sense of place in a fine dining restaurant? It may seem effortless to transplant a modern fusion restaurant from New York to Rio, or for a sommelier to match a fine dining menu with the wine. On the other hand, would a sophisticated city bar look out of place on a beach, or the fiery theatre of an open kitchen drown out the dance of light and shade above effervescent beach outside? The architect and designer here grappled with all this, and more in building this restaurant.
In Japanese, the restaurant is called umi no hoshi, or star of the sea, which could be a play on the word for starfish. Like the art here, it beckons you to reflect and explore your relationship with it. In Latin, it translates as Stella Maris, a beacon of hope personified in the Virgin Mary, keeping watch at the ocean’s edge. For ancient Israelites the people over the sea was a byword for gentiles, almost akin to the Japanese, whose sense of foreignness is that which is over the ocean.
While you cannot dine outside, the floor to ceiling windows, stretching from one end of the restaurant to the other, along with the cathedral ceilings, give the feeling of being outside and awakening in me of some special memories, like the time spent in the allure of the grand vistas of Sydney harbour (think the elegance of Balmoral beach with the grandeur of Bondi), but blending in the otherworldliness of a national park. I even saw a jumping fish, but could not believe my eyes until it jumped again. It is surprising how evocative this place is. I did not need a musical note or a scent to transport me to a more pleasant time.
With the concrete walls largely a blank canvas, there are works by the Italian artist, Michelangelo Pistoletto, whose iconic prints on mirror like surfaces invite the viewer to become part of the art work, blurring the lines between artist and viewer, akin to the Monoha school of espoused by Lee Ufan in his museum nearby.
The stripped back elements are in harmony with Tateru Yoshino’s philosophy, which allows you to take in the raw ingredients, ripened to its prime before being served.
To prepare you for a journey of calmness and anticipation, diners are requested to confirm the selection of one of the degustation menus on reservation, freeing your mind to dwell on the view. There are a la carte selections available, but the degustation is better value.
The Amuse Bouche is a foie gras with a mango and orange mousse. A touch of sweetness meets the rich terrine like pate, complemented by the light crunch of the fresh parsley leaf. On the second spoonful I discovered another complexity of taste, the nuttiness of fresh tofu and almond. The pate has the creaminess of well aerated ice cream, served at slightly less than room temperature. I am floating on air.
The rosemary brioche was tasty but the wheat bread was underwhelming, not as fresh as I like but airy with a crispy crust. The olive oil seems flat at first but has a solid and delightful aftertaste, staying on my palate long afterwards. On second taste you can taste the fruitiness of the Shodoshima olive, which is no mean feat. Be generous with dipping the bread to get a full bodied taste.
The onion soup with foam is a work of art. It was almost too good to eat with bread, with a rich Unami taste. It also fully extracted the sweetness of the onion slices while leaving an amazing melt in the mouth texture.
Next is the marinated sanuki Salmon with dill and Japanese pink pepper balls, accompanied by a lightly dressed micro leaf salad. The lightness of the leaf matches the depth of the orange pink Salmon. The lights cooked beetroot also made a good contrast with sweetness, sharpness and crunch.
The first main was Sea Bass with Japanese burdock or gobo, carrot and daikon radish and cauliflower on a creamy potato foam base, topped with blue flowers. The gobo had a complex symphony of sweet, savoury and bitter tastes. The fish was grilled to perfection, but with a juicy and tender underbelly, with just enough taste for a fish dish.
Lifting the intensity scales was a melt in the mouth beef cheek with red wine reduction, with the muscular gravy making a red wine like Syrah a necessary accompaniment. The accompanying polenta was infused with the divine taste of butter and truffle oil, stealing your attention from the beef. The highlight for me was the pumpkin cream, superbly smooth with a touch of sweetness. I was seriously tempted to lick my plate afterwards.
My degustation was finished off with Teshima lemon tart with Akashi tree, a Yuba or soy like Ice cream on a lightly pickled slice of lemon. The tart was citrus fresh and sweet like a lemon candy while the slight nuttiness of the ice cream was a perfect counter point to the acidity of the lemon.
An added luxury of staying at Benesse House is that they can book a complementary car back to your quarters. It is like staying on a resort and having a mini golf cart to take you home, but in the luxury of a cocooned leather seat car.