Tokyo diners delight in dirt degustation

Updated 13 February 2013
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Tokyo diners delight in dirt degustation

TOKYO: French-style seafood was always the big seller at Toshio Tanabe’s Tokyo restaurant, but the chef for many years had a secret passion — soil.
Now his long interest in soil cuisine has finally culminated in a feast he’s been offering to customers the last few weeks, starting with an amuse bouche of soil soup and ending with a soil sorbet.
“Man didn’t create the sea, the air or the soil. They’re simply all part of nature, and in a sense they are alive in their own right,” said Tanabe. “What I’m trying to do is reflect that feeling in food.”
A professional bantamweight boxer in his youth, Tanabe turned his hand to cooking in his twenties and left to train in France. For the last 20 years he has run a French restaurant in downtown Tokyo, and over the last eight has been slowly introducing his customers to samples of soil-inspired cuisine.
At first, though, the search for a clean and chemical-free main ingredient was tough work.
“I had to go all over the place to find soil, into the mountains and places like that. Places where there was no farming,” he said. “Then of course I had to dig it up from deep under the ground.”
Now Tanabe sources his soil through a Tokyo-based supplier which delivers about a kilo (2.2 lbs) of dirt a day, pre-checked for harmful substances. Previously, limited supplies had meant he could only serve an occasional soil dish or two.
After the dirt arrives, he lightly cooks it to release the flavour, then runs it through a sieve to remove any stray grains of sand. The six-course soil extravaganza starts with an amuse bouche of soil soup, served with the merest fleck of dirt-engrained truffle, and ends with soil sorbet and a sweet dirt gratin.
But Tanabe’s pride and joy is the “soil surprise,” a dirt-covered potato ball with a truffle center.
The feast is not especially cheap, running to 10,000 yen ($ 110) a diner.
Many are surprised by the unusual dining experience.
“It was my first time to have soup made from soil,” said Hiromi Fujie, a nearby resident. “It was a bit gritty but not at all unpleasant, a little like vegetable soup. I liked it.”
If Tanabe is to be believed, it’s healthy too. He says his soil aids the digestion and is full of healthy minerals.




“Humans used to eat soil, back in the day,” he said, though he had to ruefully acknowledge that not all customers are fans.
“Animals eat is as well, so I suppose there’s this impression that soil’s a bit too dirty to eat. We do have some customers who completely avoid it.”


Liza Beirut: A feast for the eyes as well as the stomach

Updated 21 May 2018
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Liza Beirut: A feast for the eyes as well as the stomach

  • Liza Beirut is as much an interior design experience as it is a culinary one
  • The joy of Liza lies in the reinvention of traditional Lebanese recipes

BEIRUT: The work of restaurateur Liza Asseily and her husband Ziad, Liza Beirut is as much an interior design experience as it is a culinary one. This upscale Lebanese restaurant in Beirut’s Achrafieh district was designed by the self-taught interior designer Maria Ousseimi, It resembles a lavishly decorated Lebanese apartment and was voted one of the most beautiful restaurants in the world by Condé Nast Traveler. It’s easy to see why.
There’s the magnificent Ottoman-style windows, the Idarica Gazzoni-designed wallpaper, the bespoke lighting by architect Jan Van Lierde, and the ceramic cityscapes of Marilyn Massoud and Rasha Nawam. The restaurant’s main room, styled as a hotel lobby, even hosts a delightful Karim Chaya-designed corner bar.

“Every room stands alone and yet plays a part in the bigger composition,” said Ousseimi at the time of the restaurant’s opening in 2013. It was the second outpost of the Liza brand after Paris, which had opened in 2005.
Occupying the second floor of a former 19th century palace, there’s something deeply satisfying about dining in such glorious surroundings, where the traditional and the modern have been fused so perfectly.
Although I was unaware of the name at the time, we dined in the ‘Money Room,’ where the lower halves of the walls have been decorated with giant 10 and 50 livres Lebanese bank notes and the upper halves with custom wallpapers. A large, golden lantern hangs from the ceiling and the floors are covered with old Levantine tiles. The high ceilings provide an immense sense of openness. A sense that is only accentuated by the restaurant’s 500 square meters of floor space spread across four rooms.
The restaurant is packed. Opposite our table, beneath the words Banque du Liban, sit a large group of perhaps 15 or 20. To our left, a smaller group. To our right, two young Scandinavian women. There is a general hubbub to the place that only popularity can provide.
Ziad Asseily claims that his primary ambition with Liza was to share Lebanese cuisine the way that he loves it: fresh, light and generous. In essence, to take an array of classic Lebanese dishes and refine them.
As such, dinner begins with a sacred procession of Lebanese mezze: hommos bi tahine, moutabbal, fattouche, sfiha bel fern (small pastries with ground lamb, tomato, and pomegranate molasses), and fatayer sbenikgh bel fern (pastries with spinach, onion, tomato, sumac and lemon). There’s hindbe (chicory with caramelized onion and lemon supreme), too, and kebbe nayye (lamb tartar with bulgur, mint and spring onion). The latter is eaten with olive oil and salt and scooped up with small pieces of Arabic bread.
Of the mezze it is the makanek — small, juicy pan-fried beef sausages — that are the highlight, while daoud bacha bel berghol (lamb meatballs with bulgur) is picked from Liza’s small but intricate list of signature dishes. Its texture is smooth, its flavor rich.
The joy of Liza, however, lies not only in the quality of the dishes and in the freshness of the ingredients, but also in the reinvention of traditional Lebanese recipes. The addition of subtle flavors, the introduction of new ingredients, the reinterpretation of classic dishes. Here and there you’ll find the unusual addition of pomegranate molasses or tahina, all delivered with a finesse that has been fine-tuned in Paris and transferred to Beirut.
Yet, despite the quality and freshness of the ingredients, it is the venue that lingers longest in the memory. Instantly Instagrammable, you may be able to find tastier food elsewhere in Beirut, but you won’t be able to find a grander or more impressive place in which to eat it.
Parked in the road outside are a handful of black SUVs, their red and blue lights flashing furiously. They are not only an indicator of the restaurant’s clientele, but of its continued allure.