Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on March 2011
It’s often hard to pin down where inspiration arrives from, but for Chef Koh Kikuchi, it’s easy: his muse is the music of jazz pianist Joe Sample. Koh earned his chops, in and out of Japan, working in Japanese and French restaurants for over 35 years, including his own place in Los Angeles for about 8 years. That’s where he met Joe, and in 2007, with the jazzman’s blessing and the gift of his family name, Koh opened Le Sample in Ebisu.
Koh cooks with a touch as sure as Joe’s on the keyboard. Le Sample offers three course menus individually tuned to the chords of the season. The Yolanda Course, named after Joe’s wife (¥6,300), features four main dishes, while the Joe Course has six (¥10,500). The small course, though, is accompanied by a chorus of four other dishes augmenting the melody line of main ones.
With a lovely smile and manner, Koh’s wife Aki works the front of the room as the sole waitress and sommelier. She says her husband likes to improvise on his art, just as Joe does on the keys.
On a recent evening, Koh began his culinary tune with a creamy hakusai soup textured with diced smoked salmon and tender chorogi (crosne), served with warm focaccia flavored by fresh dill. Next in the progression was a medallion of smooth hotate mousse in Spanish garlic sauce. Encircling the mousse was a bracelet of violet green daikon sprouts similar to broccolini, and a stroke of milk foam added like a grace note.
The melody continued with a small portion of roasted quail set glistening by a Madeira-quail jus reduction, and root vegetables with a cross rhythm of two sauces: lemony wasabi cream and jade green cilantro. The fish interlude was sawara with a tiara of Kalamata olive tapenade and blessed with a saffron-ginger-parsley sauce brightened with hints of orange.
Avoiding the obvious is essential in jazz, and Koh surprises with his signature changes of sauces and tastes. The meat dish, a thick slice of juicy black pork from Kyushu, was paired with a light, translucent sauce of rosemary and chicken broth, made savory with a hint of Roquefort cheese. As a counterpoint, the dish included a portion of Okinawan-style pork belly slow roasted for three hours, and served with a tiny dollop of hot mustard.
Le Sample is a cool blend of beige walls, rose-gray linen, fresh-cut flowers, and a long chocolate-brown leather banquette. Joe Sample’s handwritten score for Melodies of Love is etched into glass panels throughout the dining room. A signed poster is prominently displayed, and the background music is all Joe.
Whenever he comes to Tokyo for a concert, Joe stops in for dinner. Every customer at Le Sample is treated with as much reverence.