Off the Top of my Head
By Paul Murray
In the heart of downtown Tokyo amid serious daytime offices is an innovative eatery called “The Blind Donkey” that delivers creative cuisine made from ingredients sourced from farms across Japan that specialise in growing premium quality organic produce.
The restaurant is near Kanda Station in the heart of old Tokyo Town. Kanda is a busy place by day and the streets are crammed suited salarymen with serious business on their minds.
By night, the corporate samurai’s motivation is wine, women, song and sustenance and the area transforms to cater to the market shift. Daytime businesses close and the night shift takes over. Traditional Japanese izakayas, sushi, soba and ramen shops open and there are plenty on offer in this location.
The restaurant opened in late 2017 and it provides completely different fare to the standard culinary offerings in the area. The Blind Donkey is an unusual name for an unusual restaurant in an unusual location. Such restaurants are normally found in more affluent, sophisticated boroughs of the megalopolis, but the owners Jérôme Waag and Shin Harakawa decided on the location to offer a significant point of difference to competing establishments.
The name of the restaurant is a nod to the philosophical writings of Ikkyu, a 15th Century Zen monk and poet know for his mischevious eccentricities.
Originally from France, Waag was a chef for 20 years at the famed Bay-Area restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkley, California. Chez Panisse was founded in 1971 by film producer Paul Aratow and food activist Alice Waters and the focus of the venture was to source the best quality produce from dairies, farms, ranches and gardens who are dedicated to ecologically sound agricultural practices.
Harakawa is an experienced restaurateur and is also influenced by the culinary innovations of Alice Waters. In The Blind Donkey, Waag and Harakawa seek to replicate Water’s model in Japan.
Waag and Harakawa both agree on the sanctity of good food, “Produce is everything” said Waag in relation to food quality and taste. “All I need to be happy in life is excellent food and wine,” said Harakawa, but later agreed that love was also important.
They visited farms across the Japanese archipelago and developed relationships with individual farmers who now supply the restaurant with freshly harvested, ethically grown, environmentally conscious, organic seasonal produce. As the availability of produce changes with the seasons, so does the menu, so patrons are always eating food that is seasonally available and in tune with the circadian rhythms of nature.
People a very interested in the provenance of their food these days and they also want to know that the produce was ethically grown and the meat from animals treated humanely. The Blind Donkey excels in this regard and always references the source of the ingredients back to the farmer, baker, winemaker or fisherman.
Wine is matched to the beautifully presented multi-course dinner by a delightful wine waiter who referred to herself as a “nommelier.” The term is an amusing wordplay mixing the Japanese work “nomu” meaning to drink with “sommelier” to create a title that suggests she likes to drink wine, but also incorporates the humility of Japanese not to overstate their official status. She expertly pours us samples of an interesting selection of wines that match well with the flavours and style of the dishes.
The restaurant staff were all really pleasant and happily chatted away as they were going about their duties preparing the food and delivering the dishes. Waag and Harakawa have chosen people who support their food philosophy and not necessarily highly experienced restaurant staff choosing to train them themselves in their own way. The result is more like a visit to a family home than a commercial eatery. The food is prepared and plated before you if seated at the counter and this provides an interesting insight into the meal and how it is delivered.
The cuisine would be best described as French/Italian with a dash of Japanese and a course dinner at The Blind Donkey is not a cheap night out, but you are paying for quality, not quantity…the level of service is high and the food exceptional. It’s a great place for a special occasion and foodies will love it.
3-17-4 Uchikanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
Tuesday to Saturday 17:00—23:30
(restaurant reservations 18:30~20:00)
Oh, and it’s a great place for a date!