Food without memory is just digestion

Friday, 21 March 2008

Benoit - Alain Ducasse's Tokyo Adventure

Some little time ago, I had the chance to visit Benoit [Map] with The Expat and a Candidate for an "interview" over dinner. You can imagine, Gentle Reader, the expectations I had for this Michelin-starred restaurant and I'm delighted to tell you that it deserves its rating. But there's something missing ... something I can't put my finger on, but something that leaves me wanting.

The food is stunning, and the bill of fare is full of spectacularly classic french cuisine. Each of us pronounced the hors d'oeuvre selection as marvellous with the stand-outs being the Tourteau facon aspic (Spider Crab in Aspic) and Jambon persille (Marbled Ham with parsley).

The starters and the mains are equally delightful, and I recommend the Vol-au-vent, the Dodine de canard, and Risotto for starters. Follow these with Scallops dorees, Kagoshima pork, or the Filet de boeuf Rossini.

As you would expect, the wine list is excellent and we chose a Sancerre followed by a nice Chateau Neuf-du-Pape that didn't dent the pocket as much as I expected. The service is also exemplary, and both the maitre d' and the sommelier paid us more attention than we probably deserved.

Still, something's missing. Maybe it's the effort to fit a faux French brasserie into a very contemporary building, but something feels false. I'm sure that the sharp edges and the sparkly gleam will fade into a more pleasant familiarity, but now it feels a bit like a new kitchen in a new apartment ... pretty, obviously functional, but needing some dents and dings to make it feel comfortable.

Visit Benoit with someone you intend to impress (you might try asking me!). It's worth every yen, and a wonderful eating experience!

Rating: Food: 8/10; Wine: 7/10; Ambiance: 6/10; Service: 8/10; Price ($$): 7/10. Total: 36/50
Benoit [Map]: 10th floor 5-51-8, Jingumae; 03-5468-0881

Thursday, 20 March 2008

A ta guele - please don't shut your mouth

I've written before, Gentle Reader, about my cohorts in the Tokyo Darkside - a fine assembly of ladies and gentlemen who enjoy gathering once a month for the company and good food. We started this little club because we came to the realization that we rarely took the time for friends, living this expat networking life on the gin-and-tonic front lines of Tokyo.

This time, it was with a touch of regret that we gathered at A ta guele [Map] to farewell brave Sir Roderick, off to the Antipodes on a year's academic adventure as part of something called sabbatical. Funny - no mention of the same in my contract...

What a lovely little gem! This restaurant, which seats only 15, leads one on an adventure through french cuisine with a particular focus on rich and lucious meat dishes. The extravagant menu is redolent with dishes more reminiscent of a chateau than in Tokyo. Game is a speciality, a fact obvious when one sees the partridge and pigeon hanging by the entrance.

Chef George Somura started his career at the Hotel Okura, and after a term at the Japanese Embassy in Brussels, went on to star on the Bangkok-Kuala Lumpur Orient Express and then Raffles in Singapore (your Humble Correspondent's favorite hotel in all the world). Some of you may know him from Stellato, but I for one believe the food and the imperative genius exhibited at A ta guele goes far beyond what I have experienced there.

Chef and his (by now exhausted) waiter did a great job in looking after the 14 of us, and while I probably shan't take a large group there again, we were all well-looked after. The wine list is reasonably priced, and has all the usual suspects.

Enjoy A ta guele with friends or lovers, rather than business colleagues (unless you're celebrating!).

Rating: Food: 7/10; Wine: 7/10; Ambiance: 8/10; Service: 7/10; Price ($$): 7/10. Total: 36/50
A ta guele [Map]: 1-23-15 Ebisu; (03-3449-8757); Closed on Mondays.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Lost in Transition - New York Grill

I rarely write about my disappointments, Gentle Reader, believing my Nana's oft-dispensed wisdom that if one can not say something nice one should never say anything at all.

However, when the venue is one like the New York Grill [Map] and is actively sought out by Japanese and visitor alike, I feel like I should stand up for the rights of all the people who come away from NYG feeling strangely under-done. There is really nothing wrong with NYG - the problem is that nothing stands outs. The venue is spectacular, the design outstanding, but with the murky lighting you fumble and feel your way through the furniture and the menu.

Quite rightly the cocktails are worthy of New York, but some one's made a serious misjudgement with the wine list. I am one of the first to agree that there are some great American wines, but to go overboard with theming by having solely American wines does the guest and the chef a disservice.

The food is well prepared, but lacks imagination or flair. Each ingredient in our food was high quality and the intention was clearly right - however, each dish failed to come together into an offering worthy of the attention the NYG gets after the Lost in Translation fanfare it received.

In fact, one feels that the NYG is waiting to go somewhere. With other great hotels opening elsewhere in Tokyo and each boasting a great restaurant, the Shinjuku Park Hyatt no longer seems a natural fit for this sort of effort. Maybe there's something in the wings that we don't know about, but I get the feeling that the place needs an overhaul.

All the staff go out of their way to be nice, and service is exemplary. Somehow that's not enough, and we left feeling a little short-changed.

Rating: Food: 6/10; Wine: 5/10; Ambiance: 5/10; Service: 7/10; Price ($$$): 6/10. Total: 29/50
New York Grill [Map]: 3-7-1-2 Nishi Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tel: +81 3 5322 1234

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Tuscan Tango

Italian cuisine is one of the joys of life, Gentle Reader, and my month in the Tuscan countryside en famille with The Don and his family remains one of our (shared) treasured memories. Nightly sojourns into nearby venues, the world's best pizza (I swear), and the local grape made our time in Chianti a delicious if somewhat blurry pleasure.

So I was curious to try Goutte d'or Achiano in Nishi-Azabu [Map], which boasts of a deep connection to the food traditions of Florence and surrounds. So imagine my surprise to discover that Chef Akira Watanabe had spent more than two years training in a Medici country house right by Florence, and my delight as it became obvious that he had spent his time there well. Once he uncovered my secret identity as your Humble Correspondent, he spent nearly thirty minutes with me replete with photo albums and shared acquaintances.

There with my Stern friend, and the effervescent Lance, we tried a variety of dishes that spoke most eloquently of Tuscany. Some worthy of special mention include the Grilled 30cm sausage as a starter (no need to measure, it's all there), the pork sourced from Ibaragi (I had the Milanese Cutlet which was heavenly), the Bifstek Firenze, and Venetian Risotto. A brief aside for the Bifstek - not a historical Florence dish, but actually created for English lordlings on the Grand Tour in about the start of the 18th century!

The wine list seems a little more confused, but well-chosen. I would have imagined a Tuscan and Super-Tuscan selection might be in order, but expect to see French and Italian wines jostling for attention and all rounding out a very pleasant experience. One word of caution, however, must be reserved for the ventilation system which seems a little challenged by the kitchen team.

For mine, though, Goutte d'or Achiano is a great little find and a venue that deserves your attention - soon! Look for the fat boy wrapped in 30 cm of sausage, and come to my rescue!

Rating: Food: 7/10; Wine: 7/10; Ambiance: 7/10; Service: 6/10; Price ($$): 7/10. Total: 34/50
Goutte d'or Achiano [Map]: Nishi-Azabu 4-10-7 3rd Floor. Tel: 03-5467-2648

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Longing for More - De' Longhi

Imagine, Gentle Reader, my sense of foreboding and dank depression when I invited Sir James out recently for a meal. James, one word from whom has been known to stop seasoned chefs in their tracks. James, whose predilection for French wines is both a notorious and expensive habit to support. James, whose palpable intelligence and predilection for cigars and cognac is legendary.

We journeyed to De'Longhi in Daikanyama, where I had previously been deeply impressed by Chef's care and light touch at a dinner with The Ad Guy.

When I was a young thing growing up, "da longie" was the stick we used to get the tennis ball out of the creek. But it seems to have morphed into a very attractive and laid-back cathedral to Italian lifestyle solutions offered by this innovative firm. Well done, brave De' Longhi!

The food at De'Longhi is exquisite and despite the diverse tastes and background of the group I had assembled at table (English, New York, upstate Washington, Germany, and Australia), we were all delighted with the food and most of the wine. James is not fond of Italian whites, but I sincerely believe that De' Longhi's list is well-balanced and worth exploring.

De'Longhi also offers jazz and other events that absolutely require a booking. It's wonderful to see this place offer a new view on lifestyle, and I'm a confirmed fan. If enough of you go there with lovers or friends, then it will remain a highlight of this Tokyo life.

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

DeLonghi Tokyo: 24-7 Saruraku-Cho, Shibuya (Daikanyama is the closest station). Tel: 5428-4631

Thursday, 6 March 2008

La Cite - Casual elegance and great food!

One struggles, Gentle Reader, when asked to choose a casual yet sophisticated restaurant in Tokyo. So much choice, and so little shared knowledge. I suppose that is the point of this blog and others - to battle through the Michelin and Zagat hyperbole, yet provide you with (hopefully) an amusing guide to foodie life here in the Big Mikan.

At this point, let me introduce with considerable chagrin my friend Dominic Carter ( who writes exceedingly well about the topic at hand. His mother advised a hobby, and he has certainly taken to this one with abandon. I like the airline class metaphor he uses, and he has exquisite taste.

Looking at a dinner opportunity with The Expat, I took Dominic's advice on Bistro de la Cite [Map] in Nishi Azabu. We wanted to talk work stuff, yet dine with at least a little casual elegance at a mutually convenient location.

I hadn't ventured here for some 10 years, having a vague recollection of a bland and disconcerting disappointment around a duck confit. Pshaw! Put such thoughts out of your mind, Gentle Reader. From the marinated olives we enjoyed with a 2005 Sancerre through to the cheese and Tarte Tatin finale, this meal was carefully prepared and served with friendliness and considerable care.

I chose a French Onion Gratin Soup which The Expat matched with a Terrine de Campagne. Both of these were excellent, and filled the plate without burdening the eye. Our main meals were the Fish of the Day (flounder) for me during my Lenten fast, and a Duck Confit for His Eminence (gris). He pronounced the confit as "delectable", and the potato gnocchi+dried tomato+shrimp sauce that dressed the fish was outstanding.

The check surprised at less than Y20,000 including the wine. All in all, Bistro de la Cite is well worth a visit with colleagues or lovers, offering a pleasant yet sophisticated environment together with fine food and great service. Vive la Cite!

Rating: Food: 8/10; Wine: 7/10; Ambiance: 7/10; Service: 8/10; Price ($$): 7/10. Total: 37/50
Bistro de la Cite: 4-2-10 Nishi-Azabu, Minato Ward. Tel: (03) 3406-5475. Closed Mondays.