From Japan: Low-Fat French Food

Who doesn't like a rich French meal with all the courses? And who wouldn't like it better without the calories? Two years ago, chef Tomohiro Nakatani was wondering the same thing. The 53-year-old mastermind of the ++Boeuf D'Or++, [[]]a luxury restaurant with a great view of skyscrapers located on the 30th floor of Hotel Pacific Tokyo, set out to devise a meal that is classically French but doesn't pack the several thousand calories. What he came up with is a meal that is satisfying and authentic enough not to seem out of place in Paris but which he claims clocks in at a slender 360 kilocalories—about the energy content of a milkshake. It may be the world's leanest full course meal.

We set out to see if such a low-cal meal could possibly be worthy of being called French. Boeuf D'Or has a great view of skyscrapers surrounding the hotel. The dining room is spacious, but guests can enjoy cozy ambience thanks to a chic use of lighting and colors. Our table was dimly lit and next to a wall-to-wall window. "I hope you'll be surprised [at our achievement], on top of finding it delicious," says Nakatani. I must confess that I had thought I would get to eat something rather small, if sophisticated, and not fulfilling, given the low calorie content. But I was wrong.  Nakatani has somehow managed to achieve a substantial gourmet meal that isn't fattening. "It's the corpus of what I have learned over the years," says the 20-year veteran, who has eight years of training at three-starred restaurants in France, including those of Paul Bocuse and Georges Blanc.

The origin of the impressive menu goes back two years when a group promoting a healthy diet asked the chef to come up with a menu that one can fully enjoy while maintaining good health. It was a tall order; the entire meal must deliver fewer than 360 kcal and less than 2.2 grams of salt. Ingredients must be of high quality and fresh, look beautiful on the plate, taste good and be satisfying.

This culinary invention is all about control and craftsmanship. Our dinner began with Filet de Sardine Marine Herbe de Courgette (Sardine marinade with herb) at 59 kcal. The chef carefully relies on the sardine's own fat rather than olive oil. In place of salt, he effectively uses different kinds of vinegar. The next dish, Bouillon de Poireau et Pomme de Terre Parfume Truffles (leek and potato soup with truffles), at 20 kcal, is delicious and intriguing. To flavor the soup, he smokes finely cut vegetables such as leeks and celery to yield a flavoring called umami (a Japanese word meaning "savoriness," one of the basic tastes sensed by the tongue). He measures out exactly 2.2 grams of salt and dissolves it into the water. He uses only this salt water for the entire course, in place of dry salt, to stay under his .1 gram limit. Once the broth is made, the chef won't touch any more dry salt except for a few grains he sets aside to be used later as the topping. "Your tongue will find the grains of salt on top of the fish," he explains. And indeed, Filed de Rascase Grille au Champignons (kasago fish with mushrooms), 72 kcal, which followed the soup, was a joyful dish with fresh lean fish served with several different tasty mushrooms.

The steak plate, Filet de Boeuf Grille au Madere (166 kcal), was incredibly soft and satisfying. Nakatani uses foie gras sparingly--only 5 grams, just enough to generate rich flavor when mixed with egg--as a key element of the sauce for the filet steak. The meat is broiled to reduce fat.

Behind the meal is an exacting precision that one has come to expect of Japanese cuisine. Nakatani hands us spreadsheet that lists each ingredient used for each dish (60 items in total) by weight, caloric content and how many milligrams of salt, oil, protein, vitamin, iron and calcium each ingredient has. His exactitude is stunning.

To casual observers, his approach may sound a bit extreme. (I, for one, wouldn't care too much if the meal strayed into 400 kcal, for example.) Nakatani insists that he must stick to a strict regimen because some of his customers may be under dietary restrictions. His approach as a chef to perfecting a medically sound menu seems to mirror that of Japanese engineers, whose task is to make smaller and lighter products, such as automobile parts and cell-phone handsets, without losing their features.

I had thoroughly enjoyed the rich but natural taste the chef had skillfully extracted from fresh ingredients. In the kitchen, a team of chefs divide their time between attending to the low-cal course and regular ones, Nakatani says. The process of preparing the low-cal meal is far more intricate and time-consuming as the chefs not only have to weigh each and every single seasoning and piece of food after it is cut, but also cool and warm them many times. These convoluted preparations pose a difficult problem in logistics.

Boeuf D'Or's  "chisyoku" course is 12,000 yen ($112) including taxes and services. (Reservations are recommended at least four days in advance.) The restaurant also offers a "special luxurious dinner" featuring Paris cuisine (15,000 yen) and a winter dinner course (11,550 yen). It's your call.