I think I got to be the first Tennessean to eat at Inua. Unconfirmed, but it’s a claim I’m happy to make. I had vague ideas of what to expect. A kitchen full of (and I don’t use this word lightly) culinary experts open a restaurant in what is undoubtedly on the world stage, one of the best food cities on the planet. The diversity of flora and fauna in Japan is vast and unequaled. Its widespread landscape and proximity on the planet lead to exquisite seafood and produce. The mushroom varieties alone could lead to an entire menu offering.
It’s no secret that Chef Thomas Frebel spent ten years as one of the most important creative minds behind Noma, the unparalleled super kitchen in Denmark. But Inua is a new endeavor and has every right to be viewed not as a continuation of Noma, but as an independently founded rising superpower of its own. The new restaurant will build a legacy, and it deserves it without question.
The space is curated so beautifully and exquisitely, it has breathtaking appeal. A private dining room opens up or closes off with swinging panels, a stunning conference room sized table sits in the middle of the room. Every detail of the dining area is brilliantly deliberate. Pin spots light up the table, subtly lighting each dish as it makes its way to your table. A member of the kitchen staff comes out to explain each dish, including Chef Frebel himself for several dishes. If you know his history, it’s an honor to spend the few minutes of time with him. Unlike many big-time chefs, he is front and center in the open kitchen, directing every move, methodically planning and evaluating each step. The whole dining room is set up with the kitchen as a focal point. You’re treated as a cherished guest, the hospitality here is rampant. I have never been to a restaurant where I’ve been greeted by the entire kitchen staff as I walk in.
Is it a Japanese restaurant? This is a hard question to answer. Two full-time employees are tasked with ordering and sourcing produce from all over Japan. Most ingredients are Japanese to the absolute core. The restaurant sits in a quiet neighborhood and overlooks Tokyo’s vast, even endless skyline. Many of the staff are from Japan. Is it a Japanese restaurant? My answer, it doesn’t even matter. Tokyo has room for everything, and Inua fits in exactly where it’s supposed to be.
Kitchens like Inua and Noma and El Bulli and Gaggan are about more than being a delicious place to eat. For me, they are about pioneering new routes and realities for the greater culinary world. These masterpieces push the boundaries of gastronomic possibility. They prove over and over that, contrary to popular belief, not everything has been done yet. New ideas are endless and plentiful. When a kitchen this powerful comes onto the scene, endless possibilities lead to endless explorations.
The menu is ingredient focused in an elemental way. Maitake mushrooms slowly smoked for three days, a banana and miso crisp, a bamboo shoot with caviar, grilled octopus with native almonds, the menu is increasingly exciting as it progresses. They aren’t afraid to play with flavors and textures and surprises. What kitchen in the world of this caliber has the gumption to serve rice as the main course? Inua. And it works with divinity. The beverage pairing heightens each course, picking up on subtle notes and exploding them into taste bombs. It spins from beer to wine to sake and back, each glass hand-picked and perfect. The desserts are interesting and unique. The kitchen makes their own tofu daily for the first dessert offering. Koji ice cream with edible pinecones, and the most amazing mochi imaginable. Dessert is not an afterthought.
The most surprising part of my meal? The restaurant wasn’t jam-packed to the brim. There were empty tables, and I have no idea why. Inua is the beginning of a future masterpiece. There were minor missteps, but nothing worth throwing a fit about. It took too long to get my check at the end and the after-dinner dessert lounge could use a bit more life. I’m just glad I was able to sneak in before the Michelin Stars come. A year from now, you won’t be able to get a table.