The Epicurean's Atlas: Le Restaurant Blanc
ADDRESS 52 rue de Longchamp, 75116, Paris, France
O riginally from Hokkaido in Japan, then a trainee in Sapporo, Shinichi Sato arrived in France in 2000 and, barring a short term in Spain, here he has remained, building a formidable reputation. In 2011, he was the first Japanese chef in France to be awarded two Michelin stars for his artful and inventive cuisine. That was at Passage 53, his tiny restaurant in Paris’ 2nd arrondissement, which was as admired for its exceptional wine list as for his exquisite food. Those wines were, it turns out, picked out by Sato himself. In this, as in his cooking, he has had little or no formal instruction. But then, he has always taken care to seek out the best people to help him learn.
He began his career aged 19, at the Sapporo Grand Hotel because, he says, as a child he loved watching a cooking show that featured the hotel’s chef. But his real interest was in French cuisine, although he is not sure how that happened. “At that point I had never tried truffles or caviar or foie gras,” he says. “I couldn’t imagine what those things tasted like.” He was aware that in Sapporo he was unlikely to find out. His interest in wine was sparked by a stint working for Enoteca, Japan’s leading fine wine retailer. “One by one I was able to try Château Mouton Rothschild, Château Lafite… Those wines were so good, they were incredible!” Sato says, the wonder of those early encounters with great wine clearly still with him, all these years and bottles later. On coming to Europe, he managed to get work at Pascal Barbot’s Michelin-starred L’Astrance in Paris and, for two years, Andoni Luis Aduriz’s legendary Mugaritz in northern Spain, which imparted a light Basque influence to Sato’s cooking. When he became interested in Burgundy, he organised stints at Domaine Dujac and Domaine Roulot – two of the greatest estates in the region. He learned a lot and forged connections that don’t hurt when it comes to accessing the kinds of soughtafter small-production wines that are only sold on allocation. “Wine is my passion,” he says, and his wine list bears that out.
“If you drink a coche-dury or a ramonet it is always good, with everything”
Passage 53 made Sato’s name: he was awarded one Michelin star within months, another six years later, and he became a Relais & Châteaux chef in 2013, but “it was so small,” he says of the 20-cover restaurant. “There was only so much I could do and I wanted to go further.” He began looking elsewhere but the pandemic intervened. Only in September 2023 was he able, at last, to open Le Restaurant Blanc in the 16th arrondissement, in partnership with architects Kengo Kuma & Associates. This place is not exactly gigantic, at 30 covers, but it is beautifully designed, shiny and elegant, with a bar up front (just for serving aperitifs, at least initially, says Sato) and a private room decorated in a Japanese style. On the wine list, Sato wants to avoid legends with five-figure price tags and, at the other extreme, natural wines (“I don’t like them,” he says firmly) but no one will go thirsty: the cellar has more than 7,000 bottles.
Hokkaido is not as far from France, in culinary terms, as one might imagine. This is prime agricultural land, with meadows and cows that provide half of Japan’s milk. Butter, yoghurt, ice-cream and chocolate are all made here: there is even a Hokkaido camembert. Sato doesn’t really use Japanese products – “I don’t know why, they just don’t work for me” – but does acknowledge the inevitable influence of his background on his cooking. “My taste is Japanese but I cook French,” he says. “I like delicacy, simplicity, finesse.” Simplicity, he says, can be deceptive: “It means keeping the original flavour, which is not easy.”
Sato is not enthusiastic about the fine art of pairing specific dishes to wines: “If you drink a Coche-Dury or a Ramonet it is always good, with everything!” But he acknowledges that a talented sommelier can do incredible things to enhance the tasting experience and falls to musing about an especially good pairing of pigeon with a Domaine Armand Rousseau Chambertin that he was once served. In fact, at Le Restaurant Blanc Chef Sato has a highly distinguished sommelier: Pierre Chen himself. Mr Chen is not only supplying the restaurant’s cellar with some of the world’s greatest wines, he will also act as Chief Sommelier, training a team of others to his own superlative standards.
Sato mourns the spiralling prices that mean the fine wines he learned to love at the start of his career are no longer affordable for most people: as a distraction, he has become interested in spirits. “The first time I tried Laphroaig it was too smoky, I thought it was undrinkable, but now…” When those prices began to rise in turn (Sato is clearly reliably ahead of the game) he switched, first to Calvados and Armagnac, and “now I’m passionate about rum!” His open mind is striking: cocktails never interested him, but he has a friend in Tokyo who is a serious mixologist, so he is starting to explore those possibilities. He is also learning about Cognac. All this while preparing to open a restaurant where there will be considerable pressure to regain the honours he held at Passage 53. Still, awards aren’t his focus; not when there is so much to learn, so many exciting flavours to explore. Blanc, of course, means white in French, and it is clear that for Sato, the most exciting aspect of the new restaurant is that he has been handed a blanc slate.
All Images: Le Restaurant Blanc