Restaurant Review: Picchu, Sapporo, Japan
The Meaning Of Restraint
I am back from my Japan trip, and it was a trip, to say the least. I’ll leave out the gory details but J ended up with a badly twisted ankle on the second day of our vacation; I decided to sprain my foot a few days after. Toss in a visit with the police (did not involve me personally but I had to play interpreter at 5:00 AM) and an earthquake which scared the living daylights out of me (I was in my high rise hotel room) and you’ve pretty much figured out that this wasn’t exactly the trip of a lifetime. However, a wacky Japan experience is better than no Japan experience, so I’ll spend the next couple of posts relaying the highlights of our trip.
One our very first day in Sapporo, we strolled around Nijo Market, famous for their bounty of locally caught seafood. We gawked over some of the biggest crabs I’d ever seen, piles of whole salmon and an array of a conch-like shellfish stuck to sides of large tanks. Almost all of the shops had lots of other local specialties like dried squid with squid ink, crab miso and even canned seal (please do not write me emails about this- I am simply making an observation!). One of the fish mongers offered to crack open a live uni (sea urchin) for us to eat and I was giddy since I’d always seen this on TV but had never tasted fresh-from-the-shell uni before. O M G- it was fresh, slightly briny and totally rich and J loved it as much as I did.
As we were walking around, J spied a teeny tiny restaurant with a sign that read “Picchu.” We peered inside to see that, at 2:00 PM, it was closed but gathered from the display of good olive oils and balsamic vinegars on the counter that it was an Italian restaurant. There was something so compelling about the bar-only restaurant that, even though it was our first day in Japan, we tossed our plans to eat sushi aside and vowed to come back for dinner.
On the way back to the hotel I picked up a few interesting food items to bring back to my friends. Sapporo is known for their food, particularly seafood, dairy, corn, ramen and potatoes. Each little shop carried the most unusual snacks showcasing these famous foods and I couldn’t resist. I bought four different flavors of caramels- corn, milk, potato and shio-ramen and decided that the corn and milk work, the other two definitely do not.
We returned to Picchu at around 7:00 PM and found the 10-seater bar half full. Since the space was so small, it was quite warm but once we opened an additional window it was quite comfortable. There was one lone chef- I’d say mid-30’s- working behind the bar in plain sight of all the customers. One very capable and polite waiter was the only other employee so he doubled as a dish washer as well between orders. We spied the specials written on a chalk board but since my Japanese reading ability is mediocre at best, we simply asked the chef to give us a tasting menu of what he recommended that highlighted the local ingredients. J went over the extremely reasonably-priced wine list and selected a bottle of Prosecco to start, then a half bottle of a red from Montepulciano.
The chef worked very steadily but calmly, and in no time we were both handed a plate with a small fish that the chef described as a tiny salmon. It was in a light broth and slightly grilled, very tender and extremely delicious. Topped with a thin slice of marinated konbu (seaweed) and a dollop of caper relish, it was the perfect compliment to our sparking wine. J and I knew at that point we were in for a treat.
The next course was a piece of homemade crab sausage made almost entirely of pure crabmeat. It, too, was lightly grilled and placed in a reduction so tasty that I almost picked up the bowl and drank every last drop. It was just so pure and beautiful in it’s simplicity and we both knew the chef was there to showcase the ingredient, which is did better than anyone I’d seen do in a long time.
I was very happy when a plate of spaghetti was the next course, since I’d been hoping for some pasta. The noodles were tossed with some good olive oil, salt & pepper and was peppered with chunks of local conch and edamame. The slight crunch of the conch came through and was mellowed by the sweet soy beans.
What came next was another dish I’d seen here and there but never eaten- uni risotto. You can only imagine how good his version, using the best local uni, tasted and I wanted to make sure to savor every last bite. This was a “wow” dish, and once again it was simple, beautiful and not overly rich.
The first of two main courses was a braised lamb, wrapped in caul fat and perched on a bed of dark green mashed local potatoes. Tender doesn’t even describe the softness of this meat that still somehow retained its meatiness. The basil-infused mashed potatoes were so fresh with herb flavor that I only wished I had more. I know, I’m gushing at this point but every single bite of every single plate to this point was so profound that we just sat there and ate in silence. I can still taste the basil in those potatoes they were so prominent yet completely melted with the flavor of the lamb.
Think it doesn’t get any better? Feast your eyes on this plate of local wagyu beef sitting in a garlic and potato puree and topped with watercress. Yes, it was as good as it looks if not even better and we both agreed that this was the absolute best thing of a fantastic meal. It was juicy and tender and everything I’d hoped real wagyu beef would taste like.
At this point one word kept popping into my head that explained clearly what this chef was all about- he was an expert in restraint. Nothing was over-sauced, over-garnished, over-thought or over-produced. It wasn’t even over-plated……..the places in which he held back made each dish perfect. Talk about an exact opposite experience of the one I had at Tojo’s in Vancouver. This chef was quiet in his perfection but modestly so- he wasn’t standoffish and answered questions we had but focused on the food and let it speak for itself. I mean, isn’t this what every food loving person in the world HOPES and dreams they will experience? The fact that we stumbled upon this nondescript place that ended up being one of the best meals we’d ever eaten made it even better. I mean, who would have known that such a small restaurant in the back alley of a fish market would be the location of what was most definitely one of the more profound dining experiences of my life eating Italian food in Sapporo?? Mind boggling, isn’t it? When I asked the chef if he’d been to Italy, he answered “No….but hopefully one day I will get the chance.” I swear it made me want to run to the local travel agent and buy the guy a ticket- I mean, if he is THIS good already could you image the insanity he would create after his maiden voyage to the country to which he pays such wonderful tribute to through his cooking?
Even though a bunch of weird things happened on this trip, our experience at Picchu made the entire trip worthwhile. There isn’t a shred of this restaurant on Google or anywhere online that I could find, and I don’t have the business card on me but once J gets back from his tour I’ll post the address.