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)