Review: Motif Restaurant highlights exceptional produce from Hokkaido (Tokyo, Japan)

Very few words can describe just how exciting the dining scene in Japan really is. It’s almost dizzying to think just what kind of journey your palate will be taken through on a trip to the famously unique country, presenting you with everything from the standards like ramen, sushi and yakiniku through to the likes of okonomiyaki and yakisoba. Though meat and seafood are most definitely the most common just about everywhere, vegetarians would be mistaken to think they are left out, given there are some truly beautiful “farm-to-table” experiences to be had, with local seasonal vegetables showcased in playful, inventive ways. Case in point: Tokyo’s all-class Motif Restaurant & Bar.

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The 7th floor French restaurant is the pride and culinary joy of the city’s boutique Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi (a mouth-full, I know), positioned directly next to the historic Tokyo Station with romantic views of the prestigious business district. Hong Kong-based architect Andre Fu helped open this restaurant back in 2015, presenting guests with a space that’s both inspired, with classical French accents and a true air of old-world sophistication, and ultra-modern with an infectiously casual atmosphere. That much is mirrored in the guests which spread between the restaurant’s three distinctive areas, whether that be to soak up “The Living Room’s” crackling fireplace and peer out of large, expansive glass windows, settle down in the main room of “The Social Salon”, or socialise in the “Gastronomic Gallery”.

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As a brand, Four Seasons are known for procuring top-notch talent to head up their kitchens and that’s certainly no exception here. Helming Motif is Head Chef Hiroyuki Asano who works closely with culinary advisor Hiroshi Nakamichi, a name which should be familiar with diners in Japan from his Michelin-3-star Moliere flagship in Sapporo. Together they’ve brought a distinct farm-to-table approach at Motif, pushing out food with a French flair making use of fresh, spirited Japanese local ingredients sourced from up north in Hokkaido, a vast major agricultural belt.

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The partnership with farms in Hokkaido means that fresh produce comes directly to Motif’s kitchen, picked on location during the evening and arriving the next morning. It’s this direct channel that has proved most valuable for Motif, evidenced by their set menu which is a stunning showcase of how simplicity and restraint is often the best approach.

A beautiful sparkling sake from Nagano to start.

An extra treat is that the restaurant has recently added a sake pairing option with each set menu, expertly matched by an in-house team who have evidently give much thought to the pairings. This will net you everything from
sparkling sake made in Nagano to an incredibly smooth one from Yamagata. What’s most eye-opening about this add-on option to those who may not be too familiar with sake is just how distinctive the profiles are, whereas outside of Japan many entry-level sake fail to capture such range.

On my particular visit the set menu started off with a very interesting Shiitake mushroom tart, small but beautifully constructed and presented with smart use of caramelised young onion. On the side is a small cup of shiitake consomme, an extra hit of rich, earthy tones to balance against the slightly sweet, biscuit-y tart. A clear winner as far as entrees go, reflecting exactly what defines the multi-course meal – that being endearingly rich and fresh flavours that, as mentioned above, illustrate how simplicity and restraint is the best approach when dealing with such exceptional produce.

A medley of seasonal vegetables with seafood.

From there it’s a very varied and interesting showcase of Hokkaido’s best produce; a butterbur sprout is served as a fritter with scallop mousse; a medley of seasonal vegetables is built into a tower of intense flavours, with edible wild plants, pieces of chewy baby squid cooked in butter, surf clam Spinach couscous; there’s a beautiful pan-fried greenling served with tomato-base bouillabaisse and rice; and I never thought I’d ever say that an asparagus based dish – green asparagus with inka-no-mezame potato and morilles – was one of my highlights.

The incredible lily root is first presented sizzling in butter.

Another highlight – perhaps my favourite of the entire menu – is with the beautifully presented roasted lily root, cooked with butter and served with smooth homemade yoghurt. The aroma is powerful and buttery as the sweet potato-like vegetable comes sizzling in a pot and falls apart on the slightest prod of a fork, bringing a beautiful melt-in-your-mouth texture that floods the palate with a sweet-savoury profile.

The lily root is then served with house-made yoghurt.

Though this particular set menu may be well-suited for vegetarians it’s not an exclusively vegetarian offering. After an icy palate-cleanser comes the main dish of grilled lamb, kept simple as supporting flavours come from the economical use of endive and creamy goat cheese. Unfortunately the meat was quite tough and stringy on the edges even though the middle would melt on the tongue in an instant; I was not surprised when I was told that on the night of my visit the usual lamb sourced locally wasn’t available, so these cuts were imported from Iceland. Let’s just say, it seems Japanese produce is superior.

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The set menu caps off with two inventive shots at dessert, the first being very much in-line with the vegetarian heft of the menu. It’s a soup of diced mango served in a fleshed-out tomato, drawing on the juicy walls for a very rich, very drinkable dessert. This is followed by Japanese pomelo with crème brûlée and bugne, a more conventional deconstructed-style dessert to add a little pizzazz to the finish.

Japanese pomelo with crème brûlée and bugne

What’s most likable about the set menu at Motif is just how articulate it is, conveying the kitchen’s farm-to-table philosophy while also serving as an educational tool, no doubt set to amplify and encourage curiosity about Japan’s unique produce. The structure of the set menu (especially with the sake pairing) is also beautifully spaced out, meticulously planned so that by the end you are neither overwhelmed nor wanting for more.

Motif Restaurant & Bar @ Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo

Address: 7th Floor 1-11-1 Pacific Century Place, Marunouchi Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo
Contact: 03-5222-7222

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Chris Singh

Chris Singh is an Editor-At-Large at the AU review, loves writing about travel and hospitality, and is partial to a perfectly textured octopus. You can reach him on Instagram: @chrisdsingh.