Caesar salad days

Image of Tyler Brûlé

Can you remember the last time you travelled through time without taking medication, visiting a therapist, flying supersonic or wearing a costume? Can you remember where you went and how you got there? Were you gazing at the trees outside your office window when you were transported back to your ninth-grade science class, and reminded how easy life was back then? Or was it one of those more unsettling moments where you have a strange flashback and are unsure if it stems from a recurring dream or some bit of childhood trauma you’ve attempted to block?

On Tuesday, in Tokyo, I had the most delightful journey back in time – free from ugly scenes at high school, embarrassing moments at college and terrifying events when I started work. My day started with a run around Roppongi/Nishi-Azabu/Hiroo, weaving around moms on bikes with toddlers strapped on, and young gentlemen and ladies of the evening shuffling home from tiny bars and nightclubs. Back at the Grand Hyatt I showered, caught up on some emails and watched an ageing US military Twin Huey chopper thud past my window as it descended toward the US military facility tucked just beyond Roppongi crossing.

Downstairs, I met my driver and we went over the plan for the day. Oto-san might have been in his mid-sixties, or perhaps he was in his mid-eighties – it is always tricky to tell in Japan, as people are usually a decade older than they look and often think most Westerners look a decade older than they actually are. He greeted me with a very formal style of English that matched his black cap and white gloves. As we cut through the traffic he explained he learned his perfect English in Seattle. “I used to work at Microsoft,” he said and then burst out laughing. Oto-san had clearly spent time in Washington state when Brother was still doing a roaring trade in typewriters and word processing was something found in the pages of manga.

After a brief stop in Akasaka to meet with a gentleman keen on rethinking the concept of rural life in Japan, I jumped back in the car and shuffled through my schedule.

“Should we continue to Ginza, sir?” asked Oto-san.

“That would be great,” I said. “I’m going to Shiseido Parlour for lunch.”

Ten minutes later we pulled up at Shiseido’s little patch of cosmetics, sweets, fashion and fragrance stores.

“I’ll be waiting right here for you at 1.15pm, sir,” said Oto-san. “Have a good lunch.”

While Shiseido is globally known for its range of cosmetics and ownership of many international fragrance and beauty brands, in Tokyo it also has a reputation for its tiny tower of fine restaurants and extraordinary sweets shop.

I took a lift up to the fifth floor (the mezzanine of a two-level dining room), was greeted by an elegant woman and a man in a dinner jacket, and whisked into a private room where my clients were waiting.

After a round of greetings and exchange of cards, we settled in to look at the menu. “We’re very happy you’ve chosen this restaurant, Tyler-san,” said the boss of the bunch. “The best curry rice and classic western Japanese dishes.” His colleagues nodded and grunted in agreement and studied the menu with great intensity.

It was at this point that the time travel started. A quick scan of the menu took me back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the standout dishes were onion soup, croquettes (meat or crab), beef stroganoff and then Japanese takes on western dishes in the form of curries and “om” (omelette) rice.

As I debated whether to go for a curry or a steak, my colleague, Noriko, pulled up a chair and the perfectly turned-out waiters (dinner jackets, long aprons and sharp grooming) started taking orders.

“Fancy sharing a Caesar?” I asked Noriko.

“Sure, and I’m going for the stroganoff.”

While we got on to business the waiters went about laying the silver and transforming the table into something that reminded me of business dinners with my parents in Montreal, circa 1974. There were towers of condiments, crystal glasses of ginger ale and then a trolley appeared with a massive teak salad bowl, wooden spoon and fork and all the ingredients for a Caesar salad. The waiter started preparing the salad from scratch – crushing garlic, beating eggs, grinding pepper and trimming lettuce. In an instant I was back in the dining room of my childhood with my mother preparing the same dish. With much ceremony, the waiter poured oil, mixed, tossed and served us the salad.

As the bowls were placed in front of us, I tried to recall the last time I’d had such proper service in a setting that so confidently recreated the 1970s and without a whiff of irony. There was no attempt to appeal to modern tastes, no molecular nonsense, no concession to dietary fads. What a delight. For a moment, being in Tokyo circa 1974 was a magical place. Better still, it was doing a roaring trade in Tokyo, autumn 2012.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

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