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Chef Yumoto's autumn menu is a treasure to behold

Fried rock lobster glazed in caramel with Japanese mountain pepper
Makoto Yumoto, executive chef of Restaurant Suntory, says he uses great food to share his happiness with other people.

Fried rock lobster glazed in caramel with Japanese mountain pepper

Makoto Yumoto, executive chef of Restaurant Suntory, says he uses great food to share his happiness with other people.

The menu read "shooter of toro, sea urchin and scallop with diced yam and citrus ponzu vinegar." Instead of getting a glass filled with all those delightful seafood (I was thinking "oyster shooter"), I got a beautiful, deep rustic bowl filled with pristine crushed ice strewn with burnt orange and red leaves. A lone green chrysanthemum, its stem buried in the ice, completed the picture.
My shooter turned out to be a bowl of autumn.
Intrigued and delighted at the same time, I finally blurted out: "Where's the
food?"
"It's like a treasure hunt," Makoto Yumoto, executive chef of Restaurant Suntory, said gleefully. "You have to do a little bit of 'exploration' to find the hidden treasure."
And a treasure hunt it was. Removing the delicate leaves with my chopsticks, I "unearthed" a deep ceramic glass filled with finely diced scallops, roe of sea urchin, and toro. The colors again reminded me of fall.
A plastic tube filled with sauce was buried in the ice. Emptying its contents into my ceramic dish, I was instructed to mix the seafood and the sauce well, and to consume it in one gulp. The flavors and textures exploded in my mouth: Sweet, salty, and sour, and creamy and crunchy at the same time.
"The changing season inspired me to create this dish. Autumn reminds me of a blaze of color - yellow, red and orange leaves blanketing the ground, like a warm comforter," said Yumoto. "Sometimes, out of curiosity, you'd look underneath a clump of leaves and find a chestnut. It's your find."
Yumoto had us hooked. If his appetizers were as fascinating, as enchanting and as exquisite as this shooter, what would his main course be like?
That "bowl of autumn" spoke volumes about Yumoto's zen-like philosophy about food. Dining to this chef is clearly not about wolfing down morsels to stave off hunger; it is about feasting with your eyes and mouth. It is about balance, beauty, pleasure, and most of all, heart.
Yumoto is a perfectionist, and is unapologetic about it.
Born and raised in Tokyo, Yumoto was introduced to the restaurant business at an early age. His family owned a take-out restaurant. Ironically, he grew to dislike the greasy atmosphere of the kitchen.
While attending university, Yumoto decided to spend a year in Australia. In Australia, he found work at a restaurant. It was the head chef who inspired Yumoto to pursue a career in the culinary arts.
He was what one would call a "late bloomer" in the industry. He started his culinary career at 26, and got himself into the cooking stations at 29. For several years, his mentors only taught him the "basics," he said.
"Now, I understand why," Yumoto said. "By mastering the basics, you are building yourself a very solid foundation in your career. You could only innovate if you knew the basic techniques, if you had the basic tools and skills. I have learned so much from each of my mentor, and all of them have helped mould me into the chef that I am today. Just like them, I too am unique, and I am passing on what I have learned to our younger chefs."
After earning his university diploma, Yumoto joined Inagiku, a premium international Japanese restaurant chain specializing in tempura cuisine. During his first three years with the company, he worked as a buyer. This stint gave him the opportunity to learn more about fresh ingredients, food processes, and quality control to name a few.
In 1992, Yumoto started working in the culinary section, and was reassigned as the tempura chef of the Inagiku branch at the Westin Hotel Bonaventure in Los Angeles. His talent did not go unnoticed.
Because of his outstanding performance, he was promoted to sous chef of Inagiku at the Westin Hotel (presently Sheraton Hotel) in Shanghai, and later on, as a section cook in Tokyo, the main corporate branch of Inagiku.
Four years ago, Yumoto was promoted head chef at the Inagiku branch of the Royal Garden Hotel in Hong Kong. Fame soon followed. His frequent customers included Jackie Chan, music artists Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung, business tycoon Li Ka-shing, entrepreneur Stanley Ho, and Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang.
Sharing his tempura secrets, Yumoto said the "most primitive and simple" method should be used. Use only the finest ingredients and the best Japanese sesame oil for your frying oil so your tempura would not be too rich or too greasy. Most importantly, do not ever reuse a pot of oil to fry tempura. Do that and you will ruin the color and texture of the tempura.
Before joining Suntory, he was the Exclusive Japanese Chef at "The Japanese Restaurant" of The Andaman Langkawi Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Asked about his role at Restaurant Suntory of the Shangri-La's Far Eastern Plaza Hotel, Yumoto said he would stick to the basics.
"Use great food to share your happiness with people," he said.
Yumoto's seafood shooter had made us happy and the next course, his vegetable sushi platter, had made us even happier.
Served on a white, rectangular dish, his sushi rolls were so unlike the sushis of my past. Vegetables, not seafood, crowned his delectable rice rolls. Tiny spears of asparagus, lightly poached and still retaining their sweetness and crispiness, were daintily bundled with the sushi. My favorite looked exactly like a miniature cabbage. A ball of rice, twice the size of a marble, was wrapped in cabbage leaf and topped with a pinch of wasabi. The irrepressible Yumoto also hid little surprises in his sushi. One item was stuffed with spicy cod roe.
The next item on Yumoto's menu was tuna belly sashimi with freshly grated horseradish. Instead of serving the grated daikon or radish on the side, he rolled it into a rough ball and covered it with slices of pink, marbled tuna belly. Frozen white horseradish was then grated tableside.
"It's like snow," said Yumoto, sprinkling grated horseradish on the sashimi.
The sweet tuna belly virtually melted in my mouth like butter. I thought, "How could he top that?
But Yumoto, just like a magician, had so many goodies hidden up his sleeves. His fried rock lobster glazed in caramel left me awed. The fat chunks of lobster meat were coated with a delicate sweet sauce and seasoned with Japanese mountain peppercorns. The meat was served on fried, brilliantly orange and red lobster shell. A miniature bamboo basket stuffed with vegetable tempura was served on the side. Yellow ginko nuts were even held by tiny skewers. The entire feast was laid out on a traditional rice thresher made from woven bamboo strips. To top it all, I discovered that each set was unique. One of my dining companions even had an egg yolk-colored chestnut snuggling next to his ginko nuts! (Darn! I had more tempura though.) Christine, Shangri-La's marketing communications director, had a colorful tempura set. Yumoto's attention to detail was mind-boggling.
Still reeling from his lobsters, I was immediately served thinly sliced Australian wagyu beef and vegetables served in a wooden basket similar to the ones used to steam bao-dz. Placing it on top of hot stones, Yumoto poured sake water into the basket. The stones hissed as clouds of steam - and that wonderful aroma! - wafted out of the basket. Yumoto covered it with a flat wooden lid.
To keep track of the beef's cooking time, Suntory even provided each guest with a one-minute hourglass. As soon as the upper half of the hourglass was emptied, one minute would have had passed. The beef, tender and juicy, was ready.
"I call this 'sauna beef' since steam is used to cook it," Yumoto laughed. "It is cooking in its own juice."
I dipped the beef, bean sprouts and alfalfa sprouts in Suntory's shabu shabu sauce. Yumoto's "sauna beef" was spectacular.
Full but not stuffed, I still had ample room for his creamy Japanese-style chestnut panna cotta, grape sherbet, and refreshing lemon-infused fruit juice.
"It's all about balance," Yumoto said, looking at the happy faces around him.
Restaurant Suntory's "Autumn Celebration" is scheduled until October. A Kaiseki set meal costs NT$3,000 per person. A la carte orders start at NT$500. For reservations, call the Shangri-La's Far Eastern Plaza Hotel at (02) 2378-8888 ext. 5920.