The Japanese chef taking Paris and London by storm

Kei Kobayashi’s love affair with French cuisine has won him a Michelin star and a cult following on both sides of the Channel

An elegant jumble of herbs and barely cooked vegetables concealing a tranche of smoked salmon, with a lemon emulsion, tomato vinaigrette and dusting of dried black olives, all collapsing into a light, chilled rocket soup
An elegant jumble of herbs and barely cooked vegetables concealing a tranche of smoked salmon, with a lemon emulsion, tomato vinaigrette and dusting of dried black olives, all collapsing into a light, chilled rocket soup

The mutual esteem in which Japanese and French cuisines hold each other grows ever stronger, and there is no better example of this culinary entente cordiale than Kei Kobayashi.

As a 15-year-old in Japan, he saw the great Alain Chapel on television, an epiphany that prompted him, aged 21, to move to Paris and master French cuisine, working for Alain Ducasse and Jean-François Piège before taking over Gérard Besson’s eponymous restaurant on Rue Coq Héron, near Les Halles, smartly modernising it and renaming it Kei. He now has a well-deserved Michelin star. 

Given his background, one might expect technique and precision, but there is flair and imagination too, and true artistry on the plate: amuse-bouches before me include a palate-cleansing cube of red shiso granita, a lovely little sardine and onion tart, and a crisp beignet of kabocha squash with ricotta.

Then comes an elegant jumble of herbs and barely cooked vegetables (pictured) concealing a tranche of smoked salmon, with a lemon emulsion, tomato vinaigrette and dusting of dried black olives, all collapsing into a light, chilled rocket soup at the wave of a fork: Japan, Provence and a soupçon of the Auld Alliance in a single dish.

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There’s more than a hint of Scotland about the next: delicately smoked langoustines with a fricassée of shiitake mushrooms, onion purée and lobster bisque, a lovely, soothing combination. Seabass follows, scales left attached and crisped in the pan (a trick performed with red mullet at Ducasse’s Plaza Athénée), its sweet flesh sharpened with a Barolo vinegar reduction.

Finally, Kobayashi’s version of a vacherin: classically, meringue filled or layered with red fruits and sweetened cream; here, a saffron-yellow sphere of crisp, yuzu-spiked meringue filled with exotic fruits and basil. The best modern French haute cuisine blends intensity of flavour with lightness of touch: Kei achieves this beautifully.

In an amusing turn of events, this Japanese disciple of French cuisine has been asked by the Parisian owners of France’s most successful chain of sushi bars, Sushi Shop, to create special dishes for its 2017 menu, an honour already bestowed on, among others, Joël Robuchon and Thierry Marx.

The salmon gravlax roll is a version of his signature salmon starter from the restaurant: fish, vegetables, herbs and tapenade in an “inside out” sushi roll, topped with salmon eggs and cucumber. There is also a beef teriyaki roll with the crunch of fried onions and sesame mayonnaise, and a bracingly sweet-sour red miso cucumber salad, laced with yuzu zest and lime.

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And you can have them delivered to desk or home from any of Sushi Shop’s three London outposts: Knightsbridge, Notting Hill and Marylebone. Japanese dishes created by a Japanese-born French chef for a French-owned Japanese restaurant group… available in London. The march of global gastronomy, I am glad to say, continues apace.

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