When we met iron chef Hiroyuki Sakai at his amazing La Rochelle in Shibuya, we thought life was pretty much complete. If that was all that we had been able to accomplish during this trip, it would have been more than enough. I don’t know how or what god decided to intervene, but we managed to luck out again.
Back at Sakai’s restaurant, we had the fortune of meeting the head of sales and marketing for La Rochelle, who was chatting up the tables there. He mentioned to us that he is friends with Chen as well as Sakai and they they play golf. He told us about Shisen Hanten and suggested we try it out if we like Chinese food. Then he offered to make us a reservation at Chen’s restaurant for later in the week, if we like, assuring us he would even personally call Chen and make sure he would be there.
If we like?
We met with my friend George, who lives in Yokohama (and is just a genuinely fantastic person to hang out with), before taking a couple of trains out to Akasaka. After we got off at the Nagata-cho station, I switched on my phone and wifi to try and track down the small building which houses the Shisen Hanten restaurant. It’s not big; not a flashy building but an older establishment of just a few floors tucked away in the heart of the city. Chen has several restaurants, including one in the mega-hotel Cerulean Tower (a hotel we love dearly…) but this restaurant is one of the originals left to him by his father Chen Kenmin. He still runs it along with his son, Kentaro.
In the show, Chen was often called the “god of Szechuan cooking” in Japan. Known for his fiery dishes, lively wok cooking and his likable personality, Chen was always one of my favorite chefs to watch at work. And Chinese is one of my absolute favorite cuisines. To say I was excited about this meal would be an understatement.
When we arrived on the 6th floor of this unassuming building and sat down, we weren’t sure what to expect. Would he really be here? Were we even in the right place? We sat down and nervously awaited whatever might come.
It wasn’t long before Chen himself appeared to greet us, along with our hookup from La Rochelle, who joked, “thanks for coming to my second restaurant.”
At first, he simply greeted us in limited English and thanked us for coming. Then Teresa worked her Mandarin magic, asking him if he could speak in Chinese with her. From there, things took off. He talked with her for some time, asking what we would like (anything – especially your mapo-tofu!), whether we liked spicy food, and so on. He told us that he would take care of everything, smiling and nodding the whole time, just as we had watched him do for years on Iron Chef.
To our amazement, Chen personally delivered our food to the table, stopping to explain various details here and there in Chinese to Teresa, who then translated for us.
It’s the simplicity that I love in authentic Chinese cuisine. First, some cold appetizers. He brought us shredded chicken with tomato and some kind of ground pork sauce, dried glazed beef, potato with mustard greens, and some paper-thin sliced cucumber and pork belly with chili sauce. He came back after a few minutes to see how we liked everything.
Then, chicken and watermelon soup – an unexpected surprise Chen said he was sure we would like. We did.
After this, some chicken and cashews with szechuan peppercorns served with an arrangement of fresh fruit.
These were spooned out into small dishes for each of us. So simple, vibrant, incredibly fresh, and good.
A very hot stone bowl with fried rice chips arrived. Then, Chen poured a bowl of thick seafood soup into the bowl and it immediately began to boil and sizzle furiously. The smell was intoxicating.
The soup was then served to each of us in our own smaller bowls after it cooked a bit in the hot stone. This was without a doubt one of the finest things I’ve ever tasted.
Still more… a delicious wonton with a chili bean sauce and chives. Chen came back out to check on us again and check on the spice level.
He asked if we wanted to take a picture, since he planned to leave and visit his other restaurants. We gratefully accepted, taking the photo at the bottom of this post.
Teresa then asked if he’d be willing to sign a menu or a piece of paper for us. Chen smiled, said something to the waitress and advised us to wait just a moment. 5 minutes later, Chen came back with an ink painting he had apparently just made featuring a chicken and his signature, tonight’s date, and his red seal. He explained proudly that he drew it for us, and that it is a picture of a chicken. Because he’s Chen, he then started to flap his arms and cluck like a chicken for us!
Here it is!
We thanked him profusely, and, since things seemed to be going so well, Teresa asked if we might have a quick look in the kitchen. “Of course,” he said! He took us right back with him. We thought we might just get a quick peek inside. Instead, he gave us a whole demonstration of cooking in the wok.
We walked to the kitchen, where a staff greeted us and invited us inside. Chen walked to his wok and began to cook something (we learned a bit later that it was a Chinese eggplant stir fry) right then and there, firing up the intense wok burner and adding things left and right.
This was no time to be bashful, so I got right in there and started snapping photos like a madman. I was in heaven.
A lot of garlic. That’s the way it should be!
I loved watching the way Chen uses the ladle for just about everything from stirring, to pouring, to mixing, to tasting.
Teresa talked to his son, Kentaro, in Chinese. Chen was apparently making some food for the restaurant staff – stir fried eggplant with pork belly in chili sauce. Chen’s son explained that Chen rarely ever cooks like this any more, so we definitely feel like this is a treat.
We watched him cook in the wok for a while, adding meat, starch, vegetables, spices and broth. He began to plate the meal for the staff, splashing a little onto the stainless counter at one point and joking “Oh my god!” – then laughing a big belly laugh with his cooks. He gave us some small plates of the eggplant to bring back to our table and thanked us again for visiting.
We walked back to our table in disbelief. Had this just happened? It felt like a dream.
If I had a bucket list, this would be a great big checkbox that is now checked off. There’s no one I would have rather watched in his kitchen. Chen really treated us like family.
Back at the table, the legendary mapo-tofu was ready for us. It was fantastic – perfect little cubes of tofu stir fried with minced pork in a wickedly hot chili oil and szechuan pepper sauce. The version that George and I had was very spicy and it really snuck up on us after a few bites. It burned good… so, so good. Teresa’s was made to be less spicy, just as Chen had promised at the start of the meal. I really like mapo-tofu… and this was one hell of a rendition.
We had a little jasmine tea and a light dessert – homemade almond jelly with goji berries. We finished our meal, thanked everyone at Shisen Hanten and made our way back home through the streets of Tokyo, very full and practically walking on air from meeting two iron chefs in the past few days. Things definitely worked out.
Here we are (bottom) with Chen and our friend George (upper right):