Located near the mountains of Nagano, Karuizawa is a resort town that has been promoted as an upscale retreat since the late 1800s. The Canadian missionary who popularized the area, initially saw it as a brilliant place to summer away from the searing Tokyo heat, but Karuizawa was soon discovered to be an excellent destination all year round. Because of its popularity among Tokyo's circle of Western expatriates in the Meiji and Taisho periods, Karuizawa boasts one of the first Western-style hotels to be built in Japan. The former Mikasa Hotel opened in 1906, and has since been converted into a museum.
As our tour had brought us to Karuizawa not for its rich history, but for the Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza, we decided that with the limited time we had in the town, we'd pay homage to its past by having a Western-style meal. French cuisine, to be exact. Using her impressive Google-fu, M found Le Bon Vivant. A quick cross check with TripAdvisor revealed consistent five star ratings from discerning Japanese diners, so we immediately booked a table for that evening.
Chef Masakatsu Umeda's "Bistro Plus" concept makes for highly accessible fine dining. Fresh produce from all over Shinshu (信州) - present day Nagano Prefecture - is used, so the day's menu changes depending on what the kitchen is able to get its hands on. Their wide array of a la carte options was dizzying, so we opted to do things Omakase-style with the 5 course Menu Bistro Plus, and letting the chef surprise us. Our meal began with a platter of fresh-out-of-the-oven cheese puffs and cheese sticks to whet our appetites. The deceptively simple little morsels were so well-executed: light, airy, yet highly savoury.
Our Amuse came in a dainty cup, but packed lots of flavour. The smooth, creamy carrot mousse was just the right amount of mildly sweet, and came topped with a gelée shrimp consomme studded through with nice firm bits of fresh raw sweet shrimp.
If we had a family vice, it would probably be greed. Liking the taste of everything we'd had so far, D decided he'd order a few more dishes, just so we'd be able to sample what else the restaurant had to offer. A basket of piping hot bread, freshly baked as we sat there, came in very handy to mop up the last dregs of buttery oil of the plate of escargot we got as an extra. It was too light on the garlic for my tastes, but the panko topping gave it a nice crunch.
Our starter was a juicy langoustine, deep fried with a thread-like crust. Drizzled with a balsamic reduction and dipped in the special Spanish almond and paprika sauce that came along with it, it was utterly amazing. It was so delicious that we didn't even quite have words for it - all of us just went "Mmm..!". D was wildly impressed by it, and decided on the spot that it was probably going to be his favourite dish of the evening.
The langoustine was a definite highlight, but the next course - fish - didn't disappoint either. We each had a beautifully cooked filet of pregnant flounder, which was topped with rich, deep fried flounder roe. The texture of the roe reminded me so much of the time I had calf brains in London, and much like the brains, the roe took on the gloriously buttery flavours of the champignon sauce the fish was served in. Bits of chopped seasonal vegetables and whole pink peppercorns suspended in the sauce jazzed up the flavours further.
The kitchen perfectly timed the service of all of D's extra orders, so it flowed in unison with our set dinner. Prior to the main meat course, they brought out the foie gras dish. Two slabs of it came sitting pretty on a bed of mashed potatoes, and garnished with generous flakes of black truffle. D and BB split the liver, while I helped to mop up the mash. It came with a very tasty sauce that was weirdly light for all that it was laden with foie gras drippings.
This winter, we were on a mission to fatten up BB, whose figure has always tended towards looking somewhat malnourished. To that end, we got him an extra plate of roast lamb, which he put away with surprising speed.
Our main was roasted Australian beef with a red wine sauce. Most people believe that Japanese beef is superior, and as an ingredient it probably is. What really matters though, is how good the chef is, and under the capable hands of Chef Umeda, the resulting dish was so beautifully juicy and tender.
The service at Le Bon Vivant is superb. After finding out that BB wasn't all that into chestnuts in his dessert, they made him a special chocolate fondant, served with a dollop of home-made rose ice cream. BB usually never touches the ice cream that comes with his cakes, but it was such a nice counterpoint to the dark chocolate that he cleaned his plate. The rest of us had the Mont Blanc, which had a whole chestnut hidden within. It was creamy and flavourful, but thankfully not overwhelming in the least.
The meal was rounded off with tea and coffee, paired with some homemade petit fours. D very quickly became addicted to the milk cookies, while I enjoyed the fragrant bergamot marshmallows immensely. It went so well with my chamomile tea.
It was such a lovely meal, and at the end we had to tell Chef Umeda how much we'd enjoyed it. As a parting gift, they presented us with a small bottle of their home made peach jelly to bring home. I'm sure it's delightful, so I'm saving it for when I need a sweet pick me up. If you ever find yourself in Karuizawa, Le Bon Vivant is definitely worth a visit.