This restaurant opened in April 2014 as the younger sister of the restaurant of the same name in Aoyama district in Tokyo. The executive chef is Naoto Kishimoto, who worked in La Promenade in the Loire, Fauche in Paris and the famous L'Esperance in Vezelay. He opened L'Embellir in Tokyo in 2006, gaining a Michelin star in 2008. As an aside, his mentor Mr Sakai was an "Iron Chef " on the cult Japanese TV series of that name, and defeated Alan Passard in the grand final that closed the long-running show. The head chef here in Kyoto is Hideaki Mori, who trained in L'Asseiette Champenoise in Reims and Michel Bras Toya and came here when l’Embellir opened in 2014.
The restaurant is situated at the edge of Maruyama Park, set back a few yards from the road through an attractive wooden gate. The building in which it is housed is a traditional wooden structure, the entrance framed by a tree and a stone statue. You walk up a few steps and along a corridor to access the dining room, which by contrast is a modern room with banquette seating; there are just seven well-spaced, large tables set out.
There is a single tasting menu for €13,000 (£81) at dinner, or a shorter version for just €5,000 (£31) at lunch. The wine list is all French and had bottles such as Chateau de Tracy Pouilly Fume at ¥9,000 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for ¥3,500, Trimbach Cuvee Frederich Emile 2007 at ¥15,000 compared to a retail price of ¥7,000, and Chateau Talbot 1988 at ¥30,000 for a bottle that with a current shop price of ¥13,000. There are grander wines too, with some kinder markups and indeed at times eccentric pricing. Domaine Vogue Chambolle Musigny 2004 was ¥60,000 compared to a current retail price is ¥18,500, and Leroy de Vougueot 1994 and 2005 were both priced at ¥200,000, which is surreal given that the former's current market price is ¥102,000 but the latter's is ¥210,000.
The meal began with an eggshell in which was an egg soup flavoured with maple syrup and flakes of chocolate. This was pleasant enough, though rather rich (15/20). Better was a lightly fried ayu (sweet fish) displayed in a vase renting on flowers, the fish shaped as if swimming (a recurring presentation theme for ayu in Japan). Despite its name, the head of ayu tastes quite bitter, so the avocado sauce that went with this was a clever touch, offsetting the bitterness (17/20). Bread was good but of a pleasant rather than dazzling standard (just about 16/20).
White asparagus with celeriac mousse and green apple sauce came with prawns and micro leaves, a pretty dish that featured superb quality asparagus, noticeably better than specimens I had been eating in the previous two weeks at multi-starred restaurants in Germany and Switzerland. This is a tribute to the generally terrific ingredient quality in Japan. The celeriac mousse was also excellent and the apple sauce brought a touch of freshness to the dish (18/20).
Crustacean mousse with peas was topped with firefly squid from Toyama Bay in Honshu, a little bioluminescent squid that has the misfortune to not only taste excellent but advertise itself to Japanese fishermen by glowing, probably not a good evolutionary strategy. The squid itself was lovely and the mousse had quite deep fishy taste and plenty of umami, but the peas were not quite to the same flavour standard, which is particularly odd as we encountered some excellent peas in a later course (16/20).
This was followed by scallops topped with a little carrot and sweet onion, resting in a grilled bread soup. This combination sounds a little odd but the shellfish were of magnificent quality, beautifully sweet and precisely cooked (18/20). Next was cherry trout cooked in green tea and cherry blossom leaves and served with risotto and peas in a pod that were sweet and tasted considerably better than the ones we encountered earlier. The trout was superb, just lightly cooked with a hint of smoky char flavour (18/20).
The final savoury course was fillet of veal with sweet onions, hazelnuts, vegetable tempura and a reduction of the cooking juices. The dazzling quality of the onions and hazelnuts was even more impressive to me than the excellent veal (18/20). Also excellent was the rock fish with bouillabaisse that my wife had instead of the veal. We also tried a plate of cheese, all classic French in very good condition.
A first dessert was blood orange sherbet, which had lovely texture and plenty of fruit flavour (17/20), This was followed by cherry blossom mousse and sherbet with a delicate sugar tuile and, rather oddly, slices of banana (16/20). Coffee was of high quality, and came with a most impressive set of petit fours. These came on a series of trays each with a bed of "gravel" (actually assorted things including nuts) with the petit fours displayed on the top. The careful arrangement of the trays was vaguely reminiscent of one of the zen gardens for which Kyoto is famous, and was a nice touch. More importantly, the petit fours themselves were superb, including terrific financiers, soft Cassis jellies, gorgeous walnut cake and white chocolate ice, all very impressive and some of the best I have encountered for a while (19/20).
Service was very good, the staff friendly and speaking good English. The bill including plenty of good wine came to ¥59,209 ((£184 a head). With more modest wine you could get away for about £120 head, much less at lunch. Embellir means "beautify" and certainly presentation skills are high in the kitchen here. The ingredient quality was impressive and technically there was little to fault. This meal was right on the border between 17/20 and 18/20, and either way is clearly in two star territory rather than the one that Michelin have granted it.