Pros: charming interior, high-level cuisine, judicious mix of genres, fine selection of sake and wine, highly attentive service
Cons: no natural wines, rather expensive, unremarkable dessert
It seems like everyone in Paris has been talking about Kunitoraya II, piquing my desire to try this new Japanese restaurant. Surrounded by many others in the area between the Opéra Garnier and the Palais Royal, Kunitoraya II is the new, upscale sibling of Kunitoraya, already Paris’s best Japanese bistro in my personal ratings book. I go there often and love to sit at the counter and watch the cooks chop, fry and combine ingredients for the famous udon soup, made with the long, thick wheat-flour noodles that are meant to be slurped up noisily in one go (cutting them off with your teeth is a no-no). In Japanese, the art of slurping is called “zuru zuru.”
At Kunitoraya II, however, these rules are forgotten; there’s no way you could stick your head into your bowl of soup and greedily lap it up in this lovely setting. This is a place where you must take your time and savor the food.
The owners have retained and spiffed up the stunning interior of a former turn-of-the-20th-century bistro, with its mirrors, wood paneling, brass rails and plain white beveled tiles like those in the Métro, with an ornate clock hanging like a jewel in the middle. The open kitchen in the back offers a glimpse of the chefs at work but is far enough away and well-ventilated enough that you won’t leave smelling like tempura.
My dining companion and I decided to share everything. After an appetizer of raw beef with pepper, we ordered the €50 fixed-price menu, which included an assortment of tapas, followed by a rich, bacony udon soup garnished with arugula and then vegetables and shrimp tempura (for a supplement of €8).
When the tapas starters arrived, we controlled the impulse to make short work of them and first admired the artistic design of these colorful and intriguing mini-compositions. The excitement over, we embarked on the subtle exercise of trying to identify the ingredients not revealed by the waitress’s descriptions: scallop carpaccio in shoyu jelly with a touch of fresh wasabi; mushroom and watercress salad; calamari with sea-urchin miso and a dab of caviar; sea bass with Japanese radish; and housemade foie gras artistically wrapped in dried fish (one of the restaurant’s signature dishes). The tempura was light and non-greasy but otherwise did not stand out in any way.
After an à la carte dish of finely chopped whelks on on a bed of crunchy leeks, the star dish of the evening arrived: petals of Breton lobster sitting on a crispy risotto cake, like a true Parisian delicacy. The waitress solemnly poured a light dashi – the stock made with dried bonito that is so essential to Japanese cuisine – over it.
After all that, the dessert – mango sorbet with a honeyed chestnut – went almost unnoticed, but the restaurant had already worked its charm.
We had asked for sake that was neither too dry nor too fruity (it turned out to have flowery notes), which came in a pretty little engraved crystal decanter.
The way the smoky, acidic flavors of Japan mingle with French traditions at Kunitoraya reminded me of the films of Miyazaki Hayao, in which Japanese mythology meets a fantasy version of Old Europe.
I will certainly return to this old-fashioned yet very modern dining room. With its delicious food and attentive service, it is not far from a zero-fault restaurant. Next time, though, I’ll try Kunitoraya II at lunchtime, when the atmosphere is apparently very different and the prices more reasonable.Favorite