Azuki to Kouri elevates Japan’s classic summertime sweet
Azuki to Kouri. “Red Beans and Ice.” Whichever language you prefer, the name of Tokyo’s newest, hottest dessert counter evokes one of Japan’s classic summertime treats.
Azuki beans have been eaten in Japan in sweetened form since ancient times. Meanwhile, ice has been used in desserts for almost as long, most famously to make kakigōri, the shaved ice that is a national staple in the enervating heat and humidity of mid-summer.
In the hands of pastry chef Miho Horio, however, these humble ingredients are the building blocks of a dynamic menu that is as attuned to the changing seasons as traditional Kyoto cuisine.
Azuki to Kouri, her chic-gray, seven-seat restaurant, which opened in January, is already proof of this.
Horio is part of an ongoing wave of kakigōri artisans who are transforming and elevating this formerly low-budget mainstay of festivals and summer food stalls into a year-round delicacy.
Using seasonal fruit and syrups made in-house with creamy espuma foams and a variety of textures and toppings, these ice artists are developing a sophisticated genre of desserts to rival the most elaborate ice cream parfaits.
Miho Horio layers ice shavings behind the counter at Azuki to Kouri, her new restaurant offering both sweet and savory creations. | ROBBIE SWINNERTONEach day Horio offers four or five of her creations. For her signature dessert, she combines the sweet azuki beans with cream and crunchy meringue.
Other combinations include bright yellow kinkan (kumquat) and cubes of herb tea jelly; and Amao strawberries from Fukuoka, some of the best and sweetest in Japan, using both the fresh fruit and a sauce of her own homemade strawberry jam.
Another matched white cacao butter with the aromatic floral bitterness of wild fukinoto (butterbur buds). Contrasting this quintessential flavor of early spring in Japan with the smoothness of the Amazon cacao, this daring, inventive and totally successful crossover has, sadly, been retired — at least until fukinoto season rolls around again next year.
In its place, Horio has introduced a blood orange kakigōri that balances the bittersweet citrus acidity with an espuma that hints at mozzarella. As a finishing touch, she adds a drop or two of rich, dark green olive oil and a garnish of edible petals.
To mark the onset of cherry blossom season, Horio sprinkles a powder of salted sakura over a kakigōri concealing small cubes of strawberries in cream. In autumn, she will serve her take on the classic Mont Blanc recipe by piping on chestnut cream and adorning the ice with whole chestnuts.
And as an extravagant (and very popular) limited winter special, she even grated black truffles over dark Amazon chocolate.
But to focus solely on these premium toppings is to ignore the most critical part of the kakigōri. Just as the shari (vinegared rice) underpins the quality of all sushi, from Azuki to Kouri the ice is fundamental.
Made from natural spring water frozen slowly each winter in the mountains of Nikko, it has a clarity and purity of flavor that allows the other ingredients to shine.
Miho Horio adds techniques from her career in Michelin-starred restaurants to traditional kakigōri treats. | ROBBIE SWINNERTONHorio operates her ice machine with expertise, adjusting the blade and pressure constantly to create a nest of feathery shavings that contain as much air as frozen water.
She adds syrups, fruit, and other ingredients, builds the ice up further, and then adorns the creation with final toppings.
The results are remarkable. But this will come as no surprise to those who know Horio from her five-year tenure as pastry chef at Florilege, the two-Michelin-star restaurant run by chef Hiroyasu Kawate, who oversees operations at Azuki to Kouri.
His influence runs through everything but is especially obvious in other menu items. Florilege prepares the seasonal soup — initially a warm potage of kabu (turnip) seasoned with roasted konbu (kelp) oil; currently a light tomato broth — that offers a welcome contrast to the kakigōri.
And then there’s a French toast to rival any in the city. Panfried to order in ample butter until crisp and golden, the thick tranche of brioche comes served with both azuki beans and azuki espuma on the side — further evidence that this classic component of Japanese cuisine remains just as satisfying in a contemporary, crossover setting.