Food without memory is just digestion

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Suburban Italian - Collina Piccola

People often ask why I focus on restaurants in the "foreigner" part of Tokyo - there's no reason really except that most often the food is good enough to take the trouble to write. Never one to shirk duty though, I thought I would share a nice little Italian in Haramachi, Shinjuku.

Torattoria (sic!) Collina Piccola (sorry, Japanese only!) is a pleasant little restaurant in Wakamatsu, quite close to the Tokyo Womens Medical University - which accounts for the fact that I was the only man in the place on the evening we called. Not that I minded, Gentle Reader, but it means that the menu tends to the softer variety of Italian cuisine and the wine list tends to the light side.

We ordered a Dalbiere 05 Trebbiano de Romagna, which surprised as a perky little thing. Perhaps it was designed to match the younger audience here, but I for one would be happy to order it again particularly at the very reasonable price at which it is offered.

The Caprese Salad with Pesto (2 stars from Terry)! and Zuwaigani Tagliatelle were very suitable starters, which we followed with the Rissoto ala Parmiagiano (very adequate!) and Cotaletta ala Milanese (good). The amazing thing here is not the food - which is quite good - but the prices. We were out the door for just a little more than Y10,000 including the wine ... which means you'll see this humble correspondent back at Collina Piccola soon.

The restaurant is quiet and hums along with the buzz of well-ordered chaos. It avoids the temptation of turning up the BGM too loud, and the staff are attentive and happy to help those who don't speak much Japanese to struggle through.

Try Collina Piccola with your partner or a good friend - it's not a business dinner choice, but it is relaxing and represents good value for money.

Rating:
Food: 6/10; Wine: 5/10; Service: 7/10; Ambiance: 6/10; Price: 7/10 ($). Total: 31/50

Toratorria Collina Piccola: Sunword Bldg, 3-37 Haramachi, Shinjuku. t: 03-5285-8662
Map

Friday, 16 November 2007

My Antipodean Embassy friend The Don had recently been traveling in the wilds of Hokkaido with a colleague from the French Embassy, and had the remarkably good sense to ask that representative Frenchman where he thought the best French food was to be found in Tokyo. Oh prescient Don! Oh perspicacious Don!

The Don was surprised by the response – Le March aux Puces, a little suburban brasserie in Ebisu. Showing even more remarkably good sense, he invited your humble correspondent to join him for a Sunday brunch while the two Childs Bride (or is that Child Brides?) were otherwise detained in far flung regions of the globe. Feeling very European, I cycled jauntily over to Ebisu after church and seized the best table outside this elegant little destination.

We shared a home-made pate de fois gras and some crisp baguette as we started with a palate-cleansing beer (only one of The Don’s customs to be much admired). I went for the Duck main course while The Don ventured into deeper water with the special Lobster Salad for the day. A bottle of 2005 Chablissiene rounded out a pleasant Sunday afternoon.

Gentle Reader, our French friend is nearly right – LMaP serves good-to-great versions of the staples of the brasserie scene, and is a good safe choice when hankering for those French comfort foods we have all grown to know and love. It does not pretend to majesty by over-reaching into the grande restaurante menu range, yet at the same time shows enough individuality for me to heartily recommend it. A modest wine list forces the focus onto the food, and the service is very friendly and attentive.

Try LMaP with a partner or lover on Sunday afternoons, or when looking for space for two during the week.

A final word – Chef was nervous as I tried his Tarte Tatin as by this stage the staff had tumbled to my secret identity. He had no reason to fear: it was just what it should be, and turned me nicely out the door on my journey home!

Rating: Food: 7; Wine: 6; Service: 7; Ambience: 7; Price:7 ($$). Total 34/50
LMaP: Ebisu 2-5-8, Shibuya-Ku (03) 5420-3691 (Map)

45 (floors closer to heaven)

Imagine my joy, Gentle Reader, when presented with an invitation by The Expat to join with him and the lovely Kath at “45” to thank Rachel for her extra effort in a recent business exercise. “45” (Link) is the latest addition to Tokyo’s fine dining scene, located in sumptuous luxury atop the Ritz Carlton at Midtown (Map).

Apart from the slight oversight in forgetting to pick me up, The Expat had done very well to chose this venue given his recent choice of a Mexican restaurant (how can anyone imagine that there is cuisine in chilli?) forgetting that your humble correspondent isn’t good at spicy pap masquerading as food.

While my 3 companions chose from the excellent set courses (although the Heaven, Earth, etc names for the degustations are a little trite), I had over-indulged the day before and took things easy by opting for some fine pate de fois gras with truffles followed by a gamecock dish that was a real delight to the eye and taste buds. The food here is great-to-excellent, and as the kitchen begins to flex its muscles I believe we can expect some pleasant surprises from this team.

One receives a glass of Dom with the set courses, but with Kath expecting another Clark I was first in line to snap up the alcohol she couldn’t drink. Of course, calling Dom Perignon “alcohol” seems a little sacrilegious, but …. I chose a nice little Savignon to accompany the meal, and finished with the tea selection (Note to self: Do this again if only to enjoy the aromas!).

As one might expect “45” is still struggling with some set-up issues, but the fine food and wonderful view make up for it in good measure. I liked the décor and the openness of the space, and I’m hoping to make “45” a regular feature on my calendar.

Rating: Food: 8; Wine: 8; Ambience: 8; Service: 7; Price: 7 ($$$$); Total: 38/50

Saturday, 20 October 2007

The perfect asparagus

What would you do, Gentle Reader, when accosted with the most perfect piece of asparagus? Would you freeze, like me, not knowing whether to devour it with eyes or taste buds?

This was the dilemma I found myself in during a recent visit to Taipei. Dining with my Taiwanese colleague Nadia - no, not the gymnast - I had ordered Saltimbocca at the wonderful Toscana restaurant at the Sherwood Taipei hotel. The gnocchi patate beforehand had been a real treat, and the very pleasant Veneto white wine was warming up the taste buds perfectly. Be in no doubt - if you're in Taipei and not in the mood for taitsai, do yourself a favor and make a reservation at the Toscana Italian Restaurant. And do please stay at the Sherwood...

But back to the asparagus. I would never deceive you, Gentle Reader, but I was at a complete loss when faced with the vegetable of kings. To be completely honest, I initially thought that the 2 long, luscious lengths were those plastic or wax imitations. "How odd!", I mused, "that Chef feels he needs to decorate the plate like this."

So I asked Nadia whether the use of artificial vegetables was common in Taiwan. After a brief bout of apoplexy, she assured me that it was not and that the strong likelihood was that these particular pieces of asparagus art were real.

Now the pain was even worse. It would be silly to take them back to my room. Nadia would think I was a weirdo... And besides, the possibility of getting them past Japanese Customs was pretty low. Could I commit the travesty of actually eating these pieces of perfection? How low would I stoop?

You know me well enough to realize that I immediately fell about the asparagus with relish, gusto and absolute abandon. What a heavenly experience! Turned out to a tee, a light standing butter sauce, 100% absolutely right on the tooth...oh goodness, Heaven take me now!

I will never forget these two stems of asparagus. For me, a trencherman from way back, this was a defining moment. Toscana has absolutely ruined the notion of asparagus as part of a meal out forever. Good job, Toscana! Oh cruel and heartless Toscana! The pain and the misery of an asparagus-free existence is all that awaits your humble correspondent.

Needless to say, I have already made a reservation at Sherwood Taipei for the new year. But will I be able to summon the courage to order some asparagus ...?

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Downtown Delight

As a country boy at heart it is not often, Gentle Reader, that I venture into the bullishly bank-littered heart of Tokyo. The contingent liability and risk profile discussions don't bear thinking about, and traffic control seems to be in the hands of a manic depressive.

But hearing only good things about Salt, I took my life into my hands and headed there with El Presidente and The Expat to enjoy the company of bon vivant Richard Cohen of the ever-reliable Village Cellars. Good choice!

Salt has been established by some brave yet insightful investors, with Australian food icon Luke Mangan as both the inspiration and overseas partner. I was first introduced to Luke's Sydney restaurant Salt by his brother, and then was proud to have Luke at the Australian Embassy for a promotional event. Luke has gone on to even greater heights, and I'm looking forward to seeing where this journey ends.

The Child Bride was to descend on the hapless Salt staff in a few days with the Chicken & Chablis coterie, so I was doing my best to maintain a low profile. That option was ruined by the arrival of Roger Moore at another table, but he accepted the glass of sparkling mineral water I had sent to his table with an urbane smile and a pleasant degree of confusion.

Richard feigns to be on doctor's orders to reduce consumption (and to be fair he looks the better for it), so he went a la carte with the Mackeral followed by the Lamb. Undaunted, we Three Amigos waded bravely into a degustation menu - theirs with the Aussie wine tasting option, and me with an eye on Salt's excellent wine list. The tasting is a elegant touch, and serves to introduce the punters to a range of high quality Australian wines without overwhelming the wonderful food.

I chose a Reserve Riesling from the Watervale region - this is how Riesling should taste, delightfully free of the cloying sweetness of its European cousins and fresh to the point of perkiness. Richard followed with a Frankland Cabernet for the latter courses, and the '98 showed all of the best features of West Australian reds and none of the faults.

The food is carefully prepared to highlight the subtle flavors of excellent ingredients (note to self: get an invitation to go to Market with Chef Binnie!), and lavishly presented with a low key explanation of the dish that our friends at Global Dining could benefit from copying.

Salt is a stunning addition to the Tokyo dining scene, and the Australian accent of Head Chef Shannon Binnie immediately fills one with confidence that here is a destination that understands food and wine, and how both subtly combine to create a stunning table experience. The food is great to excellent, and the location has been used to considerable advantage so that a visit to Salt provides both Tokyo residents and visitors with the highlight of any week.

Visit Salt with colleagues and clients, or those pangs of the heart where a full airfare to Sydney seems a slight exaggeration. And visit the bar next door for pre- or post-prandials - at last an elegant and sophisticated location with the energy and verve of New York, Sydney, or London.

The English website seems to be in need of a careful eye to keep up to date with what's happening in the restaurant, and doesn't seem to have been updated for some time. For details of the degustation menus currently on offer, see my poor effort just below the rating line.

Salt Tokyo: Shin-Marunouchi Bldg. 6F 1-5-1 MarunouchiChiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-6506 Japan Tel. 03-5288-7828Fax. 03-5288-7836

Rating: Food: 8/10; Service: 7/10 ; Wine: 8/10; Ambiance: 8/10; Price: 7/10 ($$$$); Total 38/50 (4 Forks) Map

Degustations:

Terry: Mushroom Broth; sashimi of Lobster; Seared Sea Scallops; Roasted Guinea Fowl; Australian Spring Lamb Assiette; Hazelnut Parfait
Others: Shellfish Bisque with truffle; Seafood tasting; Pork Belly Confit; Roast Lobster; Australian Wagyu Beef, Chocolate Plate

Sunday, 14 October 2007

148 - Hero

A recent look at the blog, Gentle Reader, led one observer to comment that I seemed to be "stuck" in my ways. Same old restaurants, same old comments... Little did he know that I had already booked the Child Bride and I into Hiroo 148 for the Singapore night.

I have known Chef Marcus Yip for many years, and have followed his food adventures from Colors at Tsukiji to event catering to his current home in Hiroo. Marcus has followed an adventurous and flavor-filled road to success in Japan, and now with a second restaurant to open in Hokkaido seems busier than ever. Marcus comes from a "food" family with literally tons of experience and his ability to access people and ingredients seems to be a little unfair to other Australians trying to break into the outstanding Tokyo food scene (Marcus is promising new (old?) pleasures now that he has his hands on his great-grandmother's recipe book from Jogja days).

The Singapore event promised much, and as gluttons for Singaporean punishment (no, not the rattan!), we trekked off to 1-4-8 Hiroo. Marcus served us some chilli shrimp to start, followed by an Asiatic Salad. The shredded tortilla which "filled out" the salad was a detour, and this dish could have benefitted by a generous slash of chilli sauce.

Marcus needed to up the ante, and powered through with a Chinese Pork on Greens that seemed to vanish out of the "table" dish, unfortunately placed way too far away from me. I seemed to only get about a one-sixth portion, which seems dreadfully unfair given that there were 6 people at the table gathered from China, Japan, USA and Australia.

We had broken into a 2005 Bay of Fires Pinot Noir by now, sharing this good Tasmanian light red with our companions (competitors?) at the free-seating tables. The wine matched the food and the company perfectly, and nearly justifies the steep Y9,500 price.

The Hainan Chicken which followed was serviceable, although fairness dictates that I note that I was getting tired after a long day on the golf course with the Headhunter. I liked the Garlic Rice accompaniment, and the second Bay of Fires was working its evil magic on the multi-cultural table. All in all, Marcus had delivered a variety of well-prepared dishes in serious quantities with all of his customary cheer and bonhomie.

Try Hiroo 148 with friends and family, and ask Marcus about the "other" wines he has hidden all about the place. If you're a merchant-banker or from a cadet branch of a European royal family, ask about the great wine series he has put together which allow vertical comparison of some great Australian wines - and helps you get horizontal!

Rating: Food: 7/10; Service: 7/10 ; Wine: 7/10; Ambiance: 7/10; Price: 7/10; Total 35/50 (3 Forks)

Hiroo 148, Hiroo 1-4-8, tel: 03-3440-1482 Map

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

At last, some brilliance ...

Sometimes, Gentle Reader, I think it's unfair that I'm required to eat out in Tokyo. Every now and again I find a food-geek gem, a refuge from Denny's and Yoshinoya that keeps the smile on the face and the pressure on the waistline. Quelle domage! Ape Reine, my friends, is one of those places... without an English website, I'm afraid.

Ape Reine is found down a little laneway in Omote Sando, set back from the road and with a side entrance that can be difficult to find. Battle on, Gentle Reader, battle on to the door of this wonderful Schezuan-Fusion restaurant in the vain hope that our humble custom can keep Chef Saito serving his wonderful translation of what can be a difficult genre into fine dining.

I ventured here with the Designer, an English "friend" (hush, wash your rugby-loving mouth out!) who has been in Tokyo for many years living in the holo-deck that Aoyama represents. We both are huge fans of Asian food from the Chinese flavor-stream, and I confess to a little nervousness about introducing him to Ape Reine.

Such fears were brushed aside once we started on devouring the menu. Maitre d' Akira Sugata and the energetic staff soon had us on the exit side of some pre-dinner drinks, speaking knowledgably about the food and the wine, and inviting us in to a food journey to Schezuan that promised so very, very much. And, Gentle Reader, delivered on that promise.

I have to admit here that I neglected to notice what my companion ordered and enjoyed. There is a reason for that - I was way too involved in my side of the table, and it took some time before I remembered I was not alone. Let this post serve as my apology!

I started with a Snapper (真鯛) and Jelly Fish Carpaccio with a leaf salad. This was one of the day's special items, and it was a pleasant luxury that set me to thinking that this meal was going to be memorable! Light and delicious, there was a pleasant mix of textures and delicate flavors that made me reach deep into memory for a comparison.

My vegetable dish was a stir-fry of hakusai and dried shellfish. What struck me here was the delightful crispness of the vegetable in comparison to the mouth-melting shellfish. It's hard to keep delicate flavors alive in stir-fries, but Chef Saito was equal to the task. I'm not a huge fan of too much spice, but this was a lesson in balance and a deep understanding of how to enhance a dish rather than dominate it.

Oh dear! Maestro Saito - bring on the meat! And he did - a stir-fry of Sangenton Pork and Cabbage with Miso. Japan and China meet here in a unique dance of flavors, textures and fragrances that ensures I'll be getting back to Ape Reine very soon. Deep, deep flavors ... a dish that delights all five senses ... a touch of brilliance by a young chef who seems ready to make a big impact on Tokyo's food scene.

My Shrimp and Mozzerella Cheese Fried Rice was, similarly, outstanding. I think Gordon sustained not a few wounds as we battled for this simple luxury. Forgive me, Gentle Reader, for perhaps injuring such a lovely man as Gordon - but I've told you I'm not good at sharing. Take my advice and order two servings rather than risk bloodshed.

We enjoyed a Cote de Nuits Village Louis Latour (2003 I think) that served to set off this wonderful meal to a tee.

Get to this restaurant as soon as you can - it's a real treat and this chef has plenty to offer people from almost any background. Take a lover rather than a business acquaintance, for this place is far too good for working dinners. The cuisine demands and deserves attention, and I promise you won't be disappointed. And I avoided making any cheap puns about apes or monkeys ... sheesh! I can't resist ... I'm bananas about Ape Reine!

Rating: Food: 8/10; Service: 8/10 ; Wine: 7/10; Ambiance: 8/10; Price: 8/10; Total 39/50 (3 Forks)
Ape Reine Tokyo: Jingu Mae 5-16-13; tel: 03-5774-1521 (Closed Mondays); Map

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Singapore Sizzle!

Are there times, Gentle Reader, when every bone in your body screams out for Char Kay Teow? When those around you keep talking about Hainan Jeefan Shokudo? When the Singaporean Ambassador mentions a little out-of-the-way place?

You can find Hainan Jeefan Shokudo (map) in the alley behind Food Magazine at the foot of Roppongi Hills. There's also a sister restaurant in Ebisu.

My recommendation is that you find it, soon. The continuous cycle of customers probably means it's going to be around for a while yet, but this place is one way to impress even the most insidious Tokyo-Termite (a long-termer who just eats away at the insides of your Tokyo experience) with your knowledge of restaurants.

Accompanied by the Child Bride, I stopped by with The Expat and his Lovely Wife Kath. The Ambassador's right - this is the real deal. The Child Bride grew up in Singapore and Malaysia, and can spot a fake Fish Head Curry at 100 paces. This experience didn't affect her too much, except for a intermittent craving for Bee Hoon at all hours of the night and day. If one can ignore the slightly gauche birdcage lamps on the wall and the dorky "lightbulb" ceiling lights, the fragrances and sounds at Hainan Jeefan Shokudo were all authentic and the bustle was pitched just right.

We started with Singapore's own Tiger Beer. There is a wine list, but it's tedious and I'd stick with beer if you're headed towards curry. Thus fuelled, we promptly started salivating over a menu that promised much. In the end, we "shared" Char Kay Teow, Hainan Chicken Rice, Fish Head Curry, Vegetable Curry, Laksa, and Chicken Curry.

Gentle Reader, I'm not good at sharing (particularly good food!) and see no place for it in a civilized society. Sharing is so~0 lovey-dovey, and is sort of like that weird ritual of twining arms to drink champagne - which wastes time and risks spilling perfectly good champagne. I'm supposed to pretend that I care what others think??? Let them rise and fall on the basis of a poor palate and a lack of decisiveness!

Trust me, I won the sharing competition. This food was good, good enough to get me to recall slightly different variations I've had (out on the East Parkway etc ...) at some out-of-the-way place in Singapore or Malaysia.

Apart from a slight mix-up over the order, utter confusion, and difficulty attracting the attention of the staff, Hainan Jeefan Shokudo is a perfectly adequate Singapore restaurant. [Actually, that probably makes it even more like the real thing.] Except it's in Tokyo - which makes it very special indeed! By the way, try the Lime juice...it's special, and desperately authentic!

Rating: Food: 7/10; Service: 5/10 ; Wine: 6/10; Ambiance: 7/10; Price: 8/10; Total 33/50 (2 Forks)

Hainan Jeefan Shokudo: Roppongi 6-11-16. [Behind Food Magazine at the southern end of Roppongi Hills ] Open 11:30am-1:30, 6-10pm (LO). Closed 3rd Monday. Tel: 5474-3200

Friday, 14 September 2007

Shopping - Bon Repas

14 September 2007

Try this for a deal - you join a members club for Y10,000, which entitles you to a spoonful of caviar and a glass of champagne every time you visit, and 25% off everything you buy. Wine tastings, imported jambon and smallgoods, fresh Italian olive oils from the barrel, great wine from all around the world, hard-to-find ingredients, etc etc.

You're right - a touch of food-geek heaven. You're thinking New York or Paris, right? Try Azabu-Juban, here in Tokyo.

The Don was the one to introduce me to Bon Repas, and we spend an hour or so here most Saturdays. I was lucky enough to join during a Y5000 campaign, but have already "saved" more than Y12,000 by my reckoning - and I haven't started adding to my Riedel collection or bought wine with more than 4 digits yet.

The store is open and airy, perfect for tasting the latest addition to the Bon Repas cellar or the cold meat from Germany, Spain or Italy. If you've been looking for a whole Jamon Iberico for a party, or just a few slices of Bavarian Hunters Pressed Ham, this is the place for you.

Trying to put together a cheese plate? Bon Repas will let you taste the various cheeses on display to get the balance just right - or will recommend one of the selections it has thoughtfully pre-packaged.

Pasta? Fresh Tuscan olive oil? Sauces and toppings? Sheesh, don't get me started.

Bon Repas specializes in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Italian and German wines (although you can also get a 5 liter mini-keg of Czech Pilsener) and the ground floor shows an excellent selection. There are wines from other countries as well, although there's a little up-and-down in the quality. Still, better a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.

After something a little more special? Wander upstairs and you're suddenly immersed in an Alladin's Cave of great wines, brilliantly stored and presented, and available at reasonable prices. Life Hint: ignore the final zero and divide by 2 if you're a member. Otherwise some of these wines will need your bank manager's approval.

There are regular tastings for members, and I think I've convinced them to stock fresh olives to round out the offering.

Bon Repas is a life-support system for a food geek, and an innocent pleasure for those of you less mono about it all. Take my advice, and drop by (map; gmap) next Saturday. I'll be the fattie upstairs drinking champagne in the deep leather lounges.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Magnifico! La Taperia

12 September 2007
Tired and frustrated after another "ho-hum" day in Tokyo, I put in a quick call to the Child Bride and Cost Centre #4 to have them join me at La Taperia in Yotsuya. I had just found it on the Web while searching for an Italian restaurant in Ichigayadai-machi (I know, don't take me there...). Ever sensitive to the complaint, Gentle Readers, that I tend to the upmarket side of the Tokyo dining scene (and having dined at Twenty One the night before), I decided we should try to re-capture the magic of our one month soujourn in Spain almost 10 years ago to the day.

What a find! This is a delightful little restaurant with 32 seats, run by Carlos Berrocal, and tucked away in Yotsuya 3-Chome. Carlos is quite a character, who first came to Japan about 15 years ago in search of Aikido nirvana. He's a Madrileño, and very typical of the gatos we came to know and love. It's fortunate for us all that he's still here. He's been running La Taperia for a little more than 3 years after refusing numerous requests by Japanese owners "to cook spaghetti". I agree - there's no such thing as Mediterranean cuisine unless you're a thousand-store US budget chain operation, and as a supporter of regional cuisines within the traditional Spanish pantry I'm grateful for people like Carlos with the integrity and passion to make a difference.

We started with a platter of Iberico cold meats, with the heavenly Iberico jamon that melts in your mouth, chorizo, and salchichon. Meant to be eaten with the fingers, ours threatened to turn into an arm-wrestling contest as we jostled for more of this pleasure.

Now I'm sorry to disappoint our Pacific neighbors, but tortilla in Spanish is not a flat unleavened bread. Maybe it is in Mexico, but in Spain it is an omelette typically containing potatoes and onions with herbs designed to serve as an accompaniment or as a tapas offering in a small cervecería. The Tortilla Espanola at La Taperia is light and filling, and immediately brings to mind the efforts of Africa our Spanish chef during our soujourn in Campo Salobrena 10 years ago.

Having enjoyed a CruzCampo Spanish beer, I was delighted when the wait staff produced an Antonio Barbadillo Palomina Fina 2005 as the white wine choice. This wine had been the lubricant for many a world-saving conversation in Spain with The Don and his Bride. Maybe Antonio had lost some of his skill over the last 10 years or my palate has changed a little, but this wine is only enjoyable after the second glass these days. Darn!

We also enjoyed Pata Campagna, Gambas al Ajillo, and Champinon a la plancha as well as a wonderful peanut-butter ice-cream served with Carlos' "secret" ingredients. "Secret" - Humph...that's a challenge!

La Taperia is a great place to enjoy with family and friends if you want good food, engaging staff and the warmth of the immediate friendships typical of everyone we met in Spain. We'll certainly be going back, and I fully expect to upgrade my rating as we get to know Carlos better.

Rating: Food: 7/10; Service: 7/10 ; Wine: 7/10; Ambiance: 7/10; Price: 8/10; Total 36/50 (3 Forks) Beware: NO CREDIT CARDS ARE ACCEPTED
Restaurante La Taperia, B1 Stream Yotsuya Building, Yotsuya 3-3, Shinjuku-Ku, Tokyo. T: 03-3353-8003.
Map

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Cicada tries hard

10 September 2007



I spent a very pleasant couple of hours with the Expat at Cicada, not one of my favorites. Greg enjoys this restaurant, for reasons I can easily understand - and to be fair, it's not as bad as I often pretend. I remember going there with David Satterwhite just after it opened, and although the menu probably hasn't changed since that time, the food is still reliable and prices reasonable. It seems the website hasn't been updated in some time - the concept page explains the restaurant as "aaaaaaaaa" [sic].

We were forced to start with a TY Brewery beer (we chose the Organic Lager), a niggle I have railed against before. I understand that ownership wants to promote its other ventures, but restaurants are for customers not owners. Just give me a choice, and you may be surprised by the result! At the very least it would be an interesting experiment in consumer testing.

We had a bottle of forgettable Pinot Gris from Trent (Tiefenbrunner, Pinot Grigio, Trentino Alto Adige '06) to accompany our appetizers of Spicy Moroccan Crab Cakes and Mushrooms stuffed with Chorizo. The wine list strikes me as slightly immature - it tries to express its character through eclectic small label vineyards, much like a teenager looks for something "cool" or a band that no-one else has heard about. TY Brewery is the same, and I guess it's a management policy to be bleeding-edge for unknown wines.

Both of the appetizers were tasty and filling. Chef David Chiddo has chosen a tapas theme for this part of the TY Express operations, and it works well. The restaurant always seems to be buzzing with excited punters, although there were a few too many OL's "wah - ing" in the main dining room.

For mains, we chose Lamb with Anchovies and Rosemary (you can guess this wasn't me) and Ricotta Ravioli. This little number turned my head - ricotta dishes are easy to do badly, but hard to turn out well. Chef Chiddo succeeded in achieving the latter, and my hat's off to him. Perhaps I should re-evaluate this place, as they really do try hard and the bilingual staff make navigating the menu and wine list relatively simple and straightforward. Not to mention pleasant to talk with and about. Last time I scored Cicada at 26.5 (1 Fork), and as you can see below I've upgraded my rating. A little less "talent" on the wine list, and at least one degree of freedom in the beer list, and they'll get to 3 Forks (which means you can take your boss there!).

Try Cicada early in the week, when you're in the mood for something light and an easy dining experience. Take a work-mate or client, rather than a lover.

Food: 7/10; Service: 7/10 ; Wine: 6/10; Ambiance: 7/10; Price: 7/10; Total 34/50 (2 Forks)
Cicada: 5-2-40 Minami-azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0047; T: 03-5447-5522 (See the website for a map)

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Angolo

7 Sep 2007
The last time I was at Angolo was almost six months ago when I was slugged about Y60,000 for a bottle of Dom Perignon - or a mark up of over 300%. Makes me wonder whether I'm in the wrong business...

After wandering all over the planet and pitching into some high-level brainiac meetings in Tokyo, it was time to just get out and relax with friends. We invited Greg and John with their lovely brides Kath and Elizabeth to join us at Angolo (conveniently located close to Chateau Expat in the event that the babysitting by Cost Center No. 4 ran into trouble). The Child Bride had threatened Angolo with 20 of her closest friends towards the end of the month, and I felt compelled to offer some sort of olive branch well in advance!

Angolo started as a hobby restaurant for a successful businessman, and sometime reflects his eclectic tastes in wine and food. A good thing too, because he has extraordinarily good taste. The Child Bride and I had enjoyed meeting this technology entrepreneur, and were looking forward to a relaxing time with some good people. Angolo could improve the ambience by turning down the background music a little, but it is well laid out and succeeds masterfully in creating private and public spaces.

We started with beer to take the edge off the post-typhoon heat - (Note: Angolo, consider offering Italian beer (Moretti?) or something other than Malts!). The cocktail listed as Bellini flummoxed the bar, who suddenly noticed he was out of peach juice and somewhere out of a tortured imagination produced the world's first Blood Orange Bellini. Things were not looking good...

We opened a light white from Chianti, produced in a vineyard where the Child Bride and I spent a month last year enjoying Tuscan Tourismo Agricola. Forgive me Gentle Reader, but the scrap of paper listing the wines we enjoyed has disappeared into a wormhole. Look for something that includes quercia.

The Insalata Caprese was a big hit with the table, but I ventured out to the Asparagus Salad with Truffle Chip and Pecarino. This was plated brilliantly, and the taste matched the sweet balance of colors that teased the eyes and the taste buds at the same time. Angolo was living up to the challenge, and that called for another bottle of the white. Our noise levels were rising nicely, which for me is always a sure sign of people enjoying themselves.

4 out of 6 opted for the Chef's Risotto, which our waiter had blithely informed us was done with a crab sauce. Fish and fowl aside, we were surprised when it appeared with Fois Gras. Never one to complain, I tucked into this delight with alacrity. When I paused my spooning (because I was beginning to risk getting porcelain chips by scraping the bottom of the bowl) to look up, 4 out of 4 plates were empty. Press on, brave Angolo.

Now was the time to bring out the Tuscan red - Chianti Classico Gallo Nero. This wine demands attention, and got it from our table. I think there may have been a hole in the bottle, because it seemed to empty pretty quickly.

Greg and Elizabeth had opted for the Sea Bass - which they agreed was wonderfully well prepared and successfully avoided the taste white hole that mock Sea Bass can so easily fall into. I had spied a Cotoletta di vitello being enjoyed at another table and spoke quietly to Chef. I was overwhelmed by the flavor and delicacy that this very traditional veal cutlet is famous for, and I recommend it over any of the other carne on the menu.

All in all, a delightful evening with great company and splendid food at a reasonable price (if you don't buy the Dom!). Chef was kind enough to come out at the end of the meal, and was roundly congratulated by the six of us. In the Child Bride's words, Angolo features delicious food that leaves one feeling full without being bloated. Angolo is best enjoyed with friends, particularly if you can get the staff to turn down the music.

Rating: Food: 8/10; Wine 7/10; Ambience: 7/10; Service: 7/10; Price: 7/10. Total: 36/50 (3 Forks)
Angolo: Cnr Gaien Nishi-dori and Meiji-dori (Tengenji-bashi) Minami Azabu 4-2-42, Minato-ku TEL:03-5447-7055

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

French Kitchen, Roppongi Hills

4 September 2007

Just a quick post this time around - this past 2 weeks I've been in the USA so no new posts. I was back at Cheers in Shibuya the other night...a little disappointing although my guests were badly jetlagged so maybe the atmosphere was not quite right.

Last night was a sad occasion as we farewelled our retiring President at French Kitchen in Roppongi Hills. But I did get to try the great cooking here for the first time in a few years, and that was a great pleasure. So sorry, David, but ...

I had an appetizer of Hokkaido Veal and Fois Gras Terrine - the veal was tender and succulent, melting away and the terrine was brilliantly constructed with great plate-ing. This dish, of course, is one we could all put together given some veal, some fois gras, and some aspic but still...!

My main was duck (a weakness I know Gentle Reader, but what the hey!) confit. I think that this was probably the best confit I've had in Tokyo (and that's saying something!). Soft and succulent, with no struggle to see the meat off the bone. Now I'm thinking this guy can cook, so I will look for an opportunity to take the Child Bride there as soon as possible.

I'll stay clear of a rating for the moment, but think somewhere between 36 and 40 although I think the l'addition is a bit steep. If you need a map, it's here. Otherwise, saddle up the taxi driver for the Hyatt at Roppongi Hills, duck inside the main foyer, and bound up the stairs two at a time to French Kitchen!

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

So I was wrong - La Bisboccia

Everyone who knows me recognizes how reasonable and sweet-tempered I am, so the fact that I had sworn off La Bisboccia should surprise no-one. Faced with the unfortunate intersection of o-Bon and a Hiroo-domiciled friend, I reluctantly dragged the burgeoning belly to this old gaijin haunt.And was pleasantly surprised…

From the Moretti beer (God bless the Moretti’s and all who enjoy their munificence!) and the Gavi La Rocca 2005 to the poor hapless soul behind the bar who had to suffer through my Italian, this was a fun experience made even better by the company of the Expat. La Bisboccia used to suffer from confusion and too much noise, but new floor staff seem to have this under much better control and our 2 hours in their hands was smooth and flawless. Tha place is still energetic and busy, but the focus is now back on the punters rather than pretty-boy waiters preening themselves in front of the OLs. GOOD!

We both started with the Caprese (Tomato, Basil and Mozzerella Salad) which was outstandingly flavoursome. The texture of the buffalo milk cheese was exactly right, and the tomatoes obviously NOT hot-house replicas of real Roma tomatoes.

The test of any Italian restaurant is the risotto, so I went for the Parmigianno (mainly for the performance when the waiters mixes it inside the cheese wheel!) while the Expat went for the Mushroom version. Both were prepared just to the peak of the Arboreo rice balance - soft yet ‘on the tooth’ fighting back just a little.

OK, this restaurant was looking good and please - onto the finale, good sir!Home-made Italian sausages turned on an open grill has to be one of the reasons Saint Peter went to Rome. We both agreed these were definitely not American Brats - real meat, hand-minced and flavored to entice rather than conquer. And forget size as an issue - each of the two on each plate was 8 inches long.

We finished with Mille Foglie for the Expat and Affogato (literally gelato “drowned” in expresso coffee) for me.

Ok, so I was wrong … La Bisboccia is the real deal. Get along there with friends and lovers rather than customers, but do yourself a favor and get there.

Rating:Food: 8/10; Wine: 6/10; Service: 8/10; Ambience: 6/10; Price: 7/10.
Total: 35/50 (3 Forks from Terry!).
La Bisboccia: 1F SK Bld, 2-36-13 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo Tel. 03-3449-1470 / Fax. 03-3449-1809

Revisiting Esperia

Rewind to August last year - the venue is Esperia (map), the occasion is getting back together with friends after summer, the food is …

So now it’s 2007 and I’m back again, this time with the Child Bride as my partner in grime entertaining the New Yorker and his Japanese bride. Planning to go on to Body & Soul for some jazz, we fix on Esperia as the ideal place to rendezvous. Good choice!

The food - as always - was great…simply great. The wine was copious, and full of flavor. All at a reasonable price, the Chevalier de Fromage who is the chef here works hard to find superb ingredients from all over Japan, ranging far and wide from Kyushu to Hokkaido.

Although I’ve had it before, all my companions were stunned by my main course - Chicken wrapped in Cherry Leaves. This dish is delightfully baked in a salt casing - needless to say the result is stunning, slightly tangy yet soft and succulent. The dish is disassembled at the table for a little more theatre.

I also recommend the Parmesan crepe and the risotto. There is always a sheet of specials, thoughtfully translated into English for the linguistically challenged.

This is an elegant venue - I’ve entertained 20 here, and enjoyed quiet meals with just one person across the table. Quiet enough for a business discussion, yet with loads of energy and plenty of good humor provided by the staff. Almost “Slow Food” in its approach, this restaurant is a great example of how to concentrate on just getting better as you go.

I’d recommend making a booking. It’s been a favorite of mine ever since it moved from Akebono-bashi 3 years ago, and I’ll be going there plenty of times in the future. Let’s meet up there!

Food: 8/10, Wine 7/10, Ambience: 7/10, Service: 8/10, Price 7/10. Overall: 37/50 (Three Forks)
Esperia: 03-5485-1771. Nishi-Azabu 4-11-25.

Casita

Everyone’s been in one of those situations where you’re asked to come up with a restaurant recommendation at short notice, right? (Especially if you write a blog about restaurants ). The deal is a table for 4, Pacific Rim food, Japanese beef, reasonably quiet, on Friday … and it’s payday in Tokyo. Oh, and the guy asking is the new Boss. Hmmm…

I hadn’t been to Casita since I’d started this blog, so maybe a quick call to my mate the Maitre ‘d can scrounge up a table - ah, I see, Gerard’s left the restaurant, (he’s now at Hiroo 148, I believe). Oh boy! From challenge to potential disaster in less time than it takes to peel a banana. Maybe it wasn’t a good sign, but “yes, of course we have a table for the Old Bastard” seemed like a whole lot better than any other option with 5 minutes to go. And to their credit, I’ll say up front that they did a great job in finessing a plea into a bargain.

Maybe it was something about the way I looked, but after the apology for the temporary lack of Australian beer (how could they know?), the staff raced out some ice cold Asahi for the Expat and I while we waited for The Boss and The Consultant to finish a hushed-tones conversation. I’ll never know what the discussion was about, but I’m still convinced it was something to do with my lime green socks and how you can never trust those sort of exhibitionists to choose a good restaurant. Gentle Reader, can you imagine the shame of it all after I had moved heaven and earth to get this reservation?

All 4 of us decided on the set course menu #2, which I imagine was a great relief for the wait staff with the OB the only Japanese speaker on the table. Take my advice and try the set menus here - it gives a good idea of the versatility of the kitchen, although there are some yawning crevasses when they get too het up about a West Coast view of food (West Coast Rule of Thumb: Always add one flavor too many).

We (I) chose the William Fevre 2005 Chablis Premier Cru to start the wine. A good example of how to do Chardonnay right, this is a pleasant wine drinking well right now. Pity The Boss was there actually, as I had suddenly developed an overwhelming urge to get on the outside of as much of this Chablis as possible. I was saved by the Amuse, which appears poorly translated on the menu as “Well-Being” Spoon. The Japanese is much better (一杯の幸福) - A Spoonful of Heaven is a better description. Seafood in Aspic with a Tomato Relish seemed to compliment the wine well, and I was probably grinning like a maniac at this stage. We’d been in brainstorming and strategy meetings for 7 hours, so my brain was mush by this stage … and the Expat starts with a disadvantage anyway.

The Cold Appetizer was Snapper Carpaccio with a tropical fruit salsa. This course, simple to prepare and delightful on the eye, is a good example of Casita getting it right. A delicate balance of textures and colors, that tastes good yet doesn’t dominate a conversation with either friends or a good wine.

This was followed by Caramelized Fois Gras with Apple & Ginger Confiture. Perhaps Chef was having some of the Chablis as well, but mine was over-crystallized and reminded me more of county fair toffee apples than fat geese. Better to take back control of this one, Chef, and leave the Sous to the salads, I think. Our fish course was Sea Bass - Chef followed Google’s advice and did no evil here, but it wasn’t a stand-out and perhaps lost something to the last drops of the Chablis.

Japanese beef deserves a delicate wine, and the Sommelier’s recommendation failed it badly. Hint: The drawing of the lizard on the label of the LaGarto 2005 Merlot gives some idea as to the origin of this wine . Way too powerful, still bruised from fight to get it into the bottle, and a good example of what can happen when a grape variety is taken out of context and geography. Better to admire Argentinian rugby and soccer than oenology and viticulture, in my book.
Our beef, with a Radish Vinaigrette Sauce, was excellent - while the Consultant was expecting a marbled peice of Kobe Beef, my personal view is that there is room for both a contemporary treatment like this as well as the traditional and somewhat hackneyed cattle and beer metaphor (not true by the way). Well turned out, and full of flavor.

We finished with a sample of desserts, and retired to the balcony to drink some good coffee in the balmy evening air. All in all, a good but not great meal that often threatened to disappoint but somehow struggled through. Casita would do better to focus on developing a reputation for clarity in its food direction, rather than trying to carry the “resort restaurant” metaphor too far. Less concentration on the dating behavior of Japanese females, and more effort on the dining experience please.

Food: 7/10, Wine 6/10, Ambience: 8/10, Service: 7/10, Price 6/10. Overall: 34/50 (Two Forks)5-51-8 Jingumae, La Porte Aoyama 3F (Just east Of the UN University). 03-5485-7353

Friday, 10 August 2007

Felicita - A Happy Meal

10 August 2007

There’s nothing quite so nice as an old bastard who offers to buy you lunch, so I was delighted to accept The Engineer’s invitation to Felicita in Minami Aoyama. Although it’s a little difficult to find coming from the South (where the taxi drivers will drop you off), it’s well worth the effort.

It’s three stories worth of Italian heaven for the intrepid traveller, with a very attentive and knowledgable staff who make every possible effort to make the experience one you’re sure to remember. Urbane and elegant, this venue achieves Einstein’s dream of being able to stop time - even if only for a couple of hours at lunch. The parade of patrons seem a sophisticated lot, far from the madding crowd of OLs that seem to jam other good venues.

The Engineer, who has built a small mountain of debt creating a wine importing and distribution business, went straight to the right place for the wine - a cool, refreshing Italian white. Presented with three choices produced by magic from somewhere else than the Wine List, we went for a Coenobium 2005 (Lazio) Monastero di Vitorchiano. What a delightful occupation for a community of Trappist nuns - bound by a vow of silence, they produce a wine that is enjoyably feminine with good flavor and plenty to surprise the more it sits quietly in the glass.

We both enjoyed a Crema fredda di mais (Cold corn cream soup/冷製トウモロコシのスープ)...freshly made from real corn rather than a can, this soup had a pleasant summer feel combined with a fleeting impression of the corn fields that I found quite impressive, particularly for lunch.

Felicita’s chef seems to have a deep love affair with pork - more power to him - so I then moved onto Verdura mista al vapore con prosciuttocotto salsa di scalogno al pomodoro fresco (Steamed vegetables with Parma ham/様々な野菜の蒸し焼き プロシュットコット添え). Stop - Italian chefs in Tokyo should quietly find their way to Felicita to learn how to manage Parma’s subtle flavors along with the fresh cheerfulness of summer vegetables. This dish is a celebration of the Italian countryside, suggesting that Chef ducked out the kitchen door and gathered a basket of bounty to delight this humble patron.

Always a pig for pork, I moved on to the Fusili al ragu di verdore verdi e cotenne di miaile al pecorino grattugiato (Fusili in green vegetable and skin of pork/自家製フジッリ豚皮と緑野菜のラグー). By now I’m floating away, as this dish teased the senses and delights the nascent gourmand hidden deep inside all of us. I was beginning to wonder why I’d never had this before, when I noticed The Engineer looking deep into my eyes as he tried to wrestle the plate away. An obvious ploy, which might have worked if I hadn’t had already finished. Absolutely try this if you get the chance. It’s a lesson in simplicity, and yet has deep and luxurious flavors that dance a mistrel with the taste buds.

Well, where else to go but the Cotechino all rete di miaile della casa con purea di fagioli (Home-made Pork sausage Country-style ‘Cotechino’/自家製コテキーノのロースト). Never easy, Italian-style pork sausages like this lend themselves to very simple treatment. Perfect in every way, there could have easily been a pitched duel with raised forks at 10 paces had not there been five(!) sausages on each plate to sate even the most ravenous old bastard.

In summary, a delightful experience made all the more enjoyable by the company, an excellent light wine, and a friendly and knowledgable service team. My hat’s off to the Chef, because I thought I’d have to go a long way to top Osteria Nakamura. And 5 forks to The Engineer for a great choice of venue at short-notice.

Well, the choice is clear - Felicita for lunch, Osteria Nakamura for dinner, early morning appointment at the heart specialist...

Rating:Food: 8/10; Wine (list): 7/10; Service: 8/10; Ambience: 8/10; Price: 7/10. Total 38/50 (4 Forks from Terry!).
Felicita: 3-18-4 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-Ku 港区南青山 3-18-4; TEL:03-3408-0141 FAX:03-5775-2895

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Oh my goodness - Osteria Nakamura

9 Aug 2006

For 5 years, I walked past a restaurant in Roppongi every week thinking I should try it out. The trouble was, it was shut on Sundays and there was no obvious signs - save Via Ropphongi which I took to be the name of the place. Wrong! So I quickly forgot every Monday morning...Well, time has a way of making us all smarter so I eventually figured out that my able assistant the redoubtable Miss Motonaga was obviously more skilled at that sort of thing than me. Lo and behold, we had a booking in moments!

Osteria Nakamura (Roppongi 4-6-3 Umezawa Bldg; 03-3403-8777) is a blessing. I had sworn off Italian food for a month after 3 weeks in Tuscany, knowing that I’d be desperately disappointed after having experienced the best food on Planet Earth.

I was wrong...this Nakamura guy is a genius! The place seats about 12-14, each of whom must count themselves lucky to be there. There is a menu, but if my meal is any guide, ignore this and just go with the many different options offered as the xxx of the day.

Four of us tried in some sort of crazy order Anchovy and Garlic Drizzled Salad (Y1600), Chintasenese Salami straight from Toscana (Y1800), Pork and Chicken Liver Terrine (Y1700 - don’t get between me and a plate of this heavenly treat!), Sea Urchin Hand-Made Spaghettini (Y2000), Partridge Ragout Pasta (Y1800), Lamb Cutlets that the Medici’s in Florence would have been proud of (Y2500), and a Pork and Renza Beans Stew (Y2800) washed down by a tankful of great Tuscan wines the best of which was a Castello de Rampolla 2002 Chianti Classico from Santa Lucia in Faulle.

This is a simply wonderful restaurant that you want to keep for friends rather than business acquaintances. If you’re going, give me a call!

Rating: Food 9/10; Wine 8/10; Service 8/10; Ambience 7/10; Price 8/10
Overall: 40/50 (4 Forks)