Monday, 10 February 2014

Antichi Sapori - Puglia Transplanted!

It has been said, Gentle Reader, that the history of Puglia is written in its rocks: its prehistoric archeological sites, shattered historical sites once settled by the conquering Greeks and Romans, towering Norman castles with remarkable Islamic influences, and the remarkable architectural legacy left by Frederick II and the Swabian Kings.
Yet it suffered immensely under its (later) Arragonese rulers and for many years its inhabitants survived by living off the land, kept from starvation by their flocks, weeds, grano arso, and wild herbs.

Your Humble Correspondent would fain describe fair Puglia as a regnum comedentis, a place where simplicity and freshness and flavor reign supreme, and where food is seen as extremely important indeed. And there is an extraordinary restaurant there, literally miles from anywhere in a small village called Montegrosso di Andria with the captivating name of Antichi Sapori. In English, "ancient flavors" ...

This restaurant is a sort of Avalon for food writers - see this beautifully written piece by Emiko Davies. As she says, "Food is taken seriously. When they say “antipasto” they actually mean twenty portions of the most exquisite, yet simple, fresh ingredients ...". Or as Tom Kingston of The Observer said, it offers "a mind-blowing feast".

The good news for you, Gentle Reader, is that you no longer need brave the narrow mountain roads of the highlands of Puglia to enjoy Antichi Sapori. In some sort of wonderful combination of Merlock and a Star Trek Holodeck a version has appeared in Hiroo - replacing the artless Cicada on Gaien-Nishi. The re-vamped interior (left) is a pure pleasure, and the staff work tirelessly to create that effortless Italian bonarietà that makes a meal a celebration. 

Tempting as it is to waffle on endlessly about the cuisine and viticulture of Puglia, Your Humble Correspondent suggests your look here for a much more coherent and likely concise rendering.

My mission in these modest scribblings is to point rather than prod, to suggest rather than direct. That said Gentle Reader, this is a restaurant you should definitely spend time getting to know. There is ceremony and thousands of years of effort in each spoonful on offer here, and

My epicurean friend Dominic writes more, and better here. With photos [sigh] ...

Pip! Pip!

Antichi Sapori: 5-2-40 Minami Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo (t:03-6277-2073)
Rating: Food: 8/10; Puglia-rity: 8/10; Service: 8/10; Ambiance: 8/10; Price-Performance: 8/10. Total: 40/50 (4 Forks)

Friday, 7 February 2014

Quirky .. Cork-y!

You'll no doubt remember, Gentle Reader, this Humble Correspondent's ramblings about L'AS.
Pshaw! Who's kidding who? Methinks you likely never read it ... [pout]. Nevertheless, your intrepid reporter has continued in his muddled search for hostelries that might tickle your esteemed fancy, and stumbled upon L'AS's beauteous little sister

Tokyo's premier foodie Robbie Swinnerton writes a great review here.
L'AS moved late in 2013 to new premises in Minami-Aoyama, and used the storefront of the site to carve out a new space in the Tokyo dining experience via said Cork. For the simple-minded like Your Humble Correspondent, the switch here is that at Cork one orders the wines from that evening's list and the kitchen then matches the food to your choice. Novel, and quite luxurious in a sprezzatura sort of way. L'AS occupies the rear of the site, giving way to its younger sister in a charming and sophisticated way.
Well might you say "la-di-da", Gentle Reader, but the wines on offer are truly remarkable yet eclectic at the same time. On just one of a number of recent forays, we were able to choose a white from among a Silvaner from Southern Bavaria, a Gros Manseng - Petit Manseng blend from Jurancon, and a slightly flushed-pink Chateau Parodie from Provence. Similarly, the reds on offer were a Languedoc Syrah, a Spanish 100% Mencia, and a highly genki Barbella from Piedmonte. These are bracketed by Cork's bubbles-of-preference Guillaume and a perky Tokay.
The "paired" food avoids gimmick and dominant flavoring while retaining L'AS-esque delicacy and finesse. The teiban is a wonderful fois-gras pate served atop crunchy bruschetta, with a salty caramel waft of saucing. Each dish shows exquisite taste and sensibility, a consummation likely lost on Your Humble Correspondent!
Chef Kaneko and Sommelier Tanabe are still in command of both venues, and continue to do a remarkable job at an extraordinary price. Service is masterful yet subdued, and - given the depth to which the team explains each course - one imagines the pre-dinner briefings for the staff to be long, detailed, and incessant.
Cork is a retreat to visit with friends and impressionable lovers who will doubtless appreciate the slightly snuggly nature of the all-counter seating. As Robbie notes, the whole concept is beautifully executed. And in Your Humble Correspondent's even humbler opinion: wonderful fun!
Reservations (only by telephone, and only between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.) are highly recommended, Gentle Reader, as sadly Cork is remarkably popular. And should you see a florid fat-boy trying to sneak tastes of OPW (Other People's Wine), then pray refrain from smacking his wrist, what-ho?
Pip! Pip!

Cork: 4-16-3 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo (t: 090-6008-4069_the_skype__of_the_skype_highlig)
Rating: Food: 8/10; Ecletic-icity: 8/10; Service: 8/10; Ambiance: 8/10; Price-Performance: 8/10. Total: 40/50 (4 Forks)

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Riva degli Etruschi - Live like a Lordling!

Back in the days of our betters, Gentle Reader, it was the want of the heirs to aristocratic fortunes to spend some time travelling to the Continent after the rigors of Oxford and Cambridge in something affectionately known as the Grand Tour. While the routes and ramblings of the Tour were as wide and varied as the participants, one of the "must-sees" of the journey was Florence (that gem of Tuscany!). 
And as befits the English colonial mentality, this led to hordes of Englishmen settling in and around Florence from the start of the 19th Century. While one expects that this resulted in a calamitous reduction in the collective IQ of the City of Leonardo and Michelangelo, it likely also gave rise to much more appropriate levels of sarcasm, pomposity, and general spontaneous gaiety (as shown in this portrait of Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland). Yes, those Spencers - including Winston, and Diana. Seems all together logical really ...

Happily, it also brought about the birth of bistecca Florentina (T-Bone steak) as said lordlings would demand their pound of flesh (and pay handsomely for the privilege). What they didn't realize was that the beef was actually only a by-product of the leather industry and they could have had it for the price of offal...

All of which is apropos of nothing except that Riva degli Estruschi has become part of Your Humble Correspondent's piccolo Grand Tour of Tokyo's Italian restaurants. And the name translates as "The Hills of Tuscany".

Housed in a purpose-built facility in the quieter back streets of Minami Aoyama, Riva is at once a joy and a rather imposing sight where those of my ilk wonder whether we're "right" enough to win entry. But after one battles through the admittance procedures, the dining spaces are bright and airy and redolent with Tuscan motifs and accouterments. Service is suitably Italian bipolar, hovering between genuine joy and sullen resentment but always prompt and correct.

The cooking at Riva degli Estruschi is superb. Simplicity is paramount in the Tuscan culinary practice [see this excellent article], which characteristic endears it to Your Humble Correspondent. Riva makes this simplicity into a virtue, and brilliantly highlights seasonality together with some sprezzatura to make the arrival of each dish a small discovery and a wholesome joy in its own right. Spencerian really ...

As befits an area so saturated with glory, Tuscany is home to some grand DOC including Chianti, San Gimignano, and Brunello - and of course the Super Tuscans. So the wine list at Riva is extensive, ebullient, and expensive. But grand, in the best Medici fashion.

One fears, Gentle Reader, that it is best to dine at Riva on somebody else's credit card. It is therefore appropriate to go with colleagues and visitors... or an English aristocrat.

And should you happen on a chortling little fat man, perhaps with a cigar and glass of bubbly, do the right thing and send over a bottle of the best!

Pip! Pip!

Riva degli Etruschi: 3-15-12 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo (t: 03-3470-7473)
Rating: Food: 7/10; Tuscaniness: 8/10; Service: 7/10; Ambiance: 7/10; Price-Performance: 7/10. Total: 36/50 (3 Forks)

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Monkeying around at Saru

Time, Gentle Reader, to update you on Saru. Your Humble Correspondent (YHC) is loathe, however, to tell you too much for fear that you will love it as passionately as he and it will then become impossible for this anti-social Fat Boy to get a reservation. As the new "go-to" option for oneself and The Once and Future Blonde, this would be tiresome. Nevertheless, ... sigh! Once more into the jaws of death ...

The art in "mine-host"-ing, Gentle Reader, is to ingratiate your venue with a certain group of customers (oft referred to as the Punters) by virtue of relentless focus on one of four or five factors: (1) extraordinary cooking; (2) extraordinary (or unusual) ingredients; (3) extraordinary service; (4) extraordinary ambiance; or - how crass - (5) price. Factors 1 to 3 will get you a Michelin star or two - ambiance is not part of Bibendum's calculation. A discussion about price for Michelin is so... well, cheap.

Zoning in just on Factor 5 is a McDonald's experience ... again, ambiance is not part of the calculation.

In Your Humble Correspondent's even humbler experience to date, an 5F performance is a very rare experience, a consummation devoutly to be wished. In a stupefying career involving more than a thousand restaurants, YHC has perhaps had two or three 5F's. Saru is not quite 5F, but it is on the journey and should be encouraged via your custom. 

Quibble not at the view from the street ... Saru comes from humble beginnings and is proud of them. Nor quail at the two communal tables inside (the pleasant summer balcony becomes a covered deck in the colder months and has two tables for four) each seating ten. After all, feasting is a benison best shared and has the pleasant benefit of permitting intrusive stickybeak-ing in the interests of friendliness. There are also four seats at the counter, but balancing has never been Your Humble Correspondent's strong point.

The menu presents as a simple "carte", but YHC counsels close study before committing to an order. The focus is on centemporary with a capital "C".  Each dish features delightful eccentricity, making the most of some amazing ingredients carefully selected from all over Japan and showcased by a very skillful chef. Serving are fulsome, and even the most valiant trencher-man will come away sated after choosing three dishes. The Bagna Cauda is excellent, and the Lotus Root and Sakura Ebi Pancake has been known to bring braver men to their knees.

Charcuterie seems to be a specialty, and everything is (of course!) hand-made en place. Fruits and vegetables are given as much attention as meats, and the cheese selection (while limited) is excellent. In an excellent sort of way ...

It should come as no surprise that the wine list is similarly peripatetic,and offers incredible value. No grand labels or chateaus here, but almost every option shows refined insights into mariage and a better palate than mine.

Saru keeps its Punters happy and lubricated, and you will never want for attention. The floor team at Saru is informed, impassioned, and infused with energy. English is de rigeur and the people are genuinely pleasant. For those as impecunious as YHC, Saru is remarkable value - remarkable enough to be a weekly habit. Think a tenner for two.

So do toddle along, but perhaps choose a day early in the week to leave space on the dance card for this humble servant of gastronomy on le weekend. And if we happen to hang our coats on the same evening sometime, just smile and forgive!

Pip! Pip!

Saru: 3-49-1 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo (t:  03-6450-4836)
Rating: Food: 8/10; Regionality: 8/10; Service: 8/10; Ambiance: 7/10; Price-Performance: 9/10. Total: 40/50 (4 Forks)

Friday, 11 October 2013

Recent Victuals

Apologies for being a little absent (minded) recently ... not one's first choice, but the result of having to earn one's daily sustenance. At the same time, it is a matter of some joy (and considerable waistline consternation) that Your Humble Correspondent has sampled a range of hostelries which will be blogged in these unremarkable pages over the next few weeks. Try them - it will surely be worth your while, and you may get to spy a culinary vagabond in your travels. A (?) notation signifies one needs to re-visit to confirm the rating.
Aila (LINK): 1-16-3 Ebisu-Minami Shibuya-ku Tokyo (t: 03-5721-6063).
A pleasant little Frenchie, with a deft hand in the kitchen (try the Foie Gras Omelette) but less skill on the floor with slow and uninformed service. YHC spent a week here the other night, ... but the food!.
Rating: 35/50 (?), 3 Forks

Marzac (LINK): 2-2-3 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo (t: 03-6418-5063).
Marzac is not your grandfather's sort of restaurant, and one occasionally feels chronologically challenged amongst the young and boisterous crowd. But it boasts robust and daring variations on standard dishes (try the Amaebi al ajillo or one of the daily confits). An eccentric but delicious wine list, and remarkably economical.
Rating: 36/50, 3 Forks

Saru (LINK): 3-49-1 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo (t: 03-6450-4836)
Thank you Mr Lacoste! Saru focuses on regional ingredients in an extremely serious way, yet manages to sustain a casual and friendly atmosphere that matches its excellent menu and highly original wine list. Chef Muramatsu seems to be having more fun than legally possible (try the Bagna Cauda or the Ezojika), and the staff are remarkably informative and helpful.
Rating: 38/50 (?), 4 Forks

Riva degli Etruschi (LINK): 3-15-12 Minami Aoya, Minato-ku, Tokyo (t: 03-3470-7473)
An elegant and enjoyable Italian that borrows significantly from Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence, seasoned by more than 15 years of experience in Japan. This is Tuscan cooking at its best (try the Gnocchi with ricotta or the Roast Pork fillet), and although the wine list is a little pricey it does offer some of the best examples of the Italian oenological tradition in Tokyo. Best visited on someone else's credit card or immediately after pay day.
Rating: 38/50 (?), 4 Forks

148_@AzabuJyuban (LINK): 2-18-4 Azabu Juban, Minato-ku, Tokyo (t: 03-5765-2148)
 Marcus has moved his 148 conglomerate from Hiroo to the Juban, and YHC for one welcomes the move. A feisty chef who won't allow him (Marcus) in the kitchen, and a much more navigable venue mean you should pay this fine little venue a visit. The wine list is extravagantly fulsome, and the menu retains the favorites from before (try Dad's Prawn Toast and the scrumptious Smoky Chops). And, as ever, Marcus always has something new on the boil (no pun intended)!
Rating: 37/50 (?), 3 Forks

Le Terroir (Link): 3-4-15 Mejiro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo (t: 03 6915-3857)
A beautiful rustic room in a very sophisticated storied area of Tokyo. With an almost maniacal range of French wines, and an interesting menu (try the French Mussels in White Wine Sauce and the Skirt Steak [harami]), this restaurant is seriously worth the journey. And it's delightfully easy on the purse. Yves and his team go out of their way to make you feel at home, and hopelessly inadequate in the face of the wines of the Rhone, Languedoc-Roussillon and Loire vignobles.
Rating: 37/50, 3 Forks

 Sourire (Link): 1-15-2 Aobadai, Meguro-ku, Tokyo (t: 03-5784-2036)
Ah, this place is a joy! One leaves the cooking and the portion details to Chef Yuzawa, and concentrates on the company and the conversation. The menu is highly seasonal so it is pointless to make a recommendation, but experiment with full confidence and courage. Be brave.
Rating: 38/50, 4 Forks