Thursday, 28 August 2008

Trattoria Tornavento: Bene!

Oh-boy-oh-boy-oh-boy! Drop everything you're doing right now, Gentle Reader, and have some minion make a reservation for you at Trattoria Tornavento. Now ...

This is a splendid establishment [Map], hidden like its near neighbour Epice de Kaneko in the back streets of Roppongi. But it's well worth the hunt, and one feels a certain guilty almost voyeuristic sense of pleasure entering its secret depths. There's a love affair with Northern Italian food going on here, and your Humble Correspondent is happy to be part of it.

I travelled there with the Duchess to meet with the Trendies (all 3 of them) to discuss an upcoming project. In hindsight, it was best that we had most of that talk early on - as dish after scrumptious dish arrived the desire for witty conversation fell by the wayside, and people grew more and more protective of each morsel.

In short order we had a magnificent spread of appetizers including organic vegetable crudites with Bagna Cauda, green salad with Parma Prosciutto, Stewed Tripe, Italian Summer Porcini Tart, and some very sensible charcoal grilled vegetables. Oh dear, this was going to be some meal! Obviously we needed some vigorous wine to match this feast and we went for a Terre da Vino Gavi Masseria dei Carmelitani 2005. Terre da Vino is owned by 14 co-ops who choose the best grapes from vineyards around Piemonte. This is absolutely a typical Gavi, brusque but full of depth, piquant but fragrant, with a nutty palate. Much like your Humble Correspondent, methinks.

On then, to some pasta. What if I tempted you with Italian porcini and suumer truffle tarajin, Gentle Reader? What's "tajarin" ... Tajarin are the delectable fresh egg yolkpasta of Piedmont and take a certain culinary courage with up to 40 egg yolks per kilo of flour. There is no better accompaniment for Italian truffles! Or Gorganzola gnocchi? Cappellini (angel hair)? There is likely no better descent into over-eating than the temptations Tornavento offers, and each was prepared with a delicacy and pride that had your Humble Correspondent grinning maniacally.
The main courses included Beef Cheeks with corn gnocchi, Cotoletta alla Milanese (YHC), Sauted Pigs Trotters stuffed with Pork and Cheese, and charcoal-grilled fish delivered fresh from Numazu. Was the ecstacy ever to stop? How would I pull out of this freefall? When matched with Fratelli Cavallotto Barolo Briccho Boschis 1999, this was a meal quite out of the ordinary and not suited to a business discussion!
Tornavento is a small town in the province of Varese in Lombardy, right up in the north-west corner of Italy. I for one am delighted that a small part of it has been magically transported to Tokyo - the new Hell-Hole is located close nearby, so if you're thinking of going there (and you're paying!) drop by and pick up the fat boy. I'll be eternally grateful!
Trattoria Tornavento [Map]: 3-21-14 Nishi-Azabu, Minato Ward. t: 03-5775-2355
Rating: Food: 8; Wine: 7; Service: 7; Ambiance: 8 Price: 7 ($$). Total 37/50

Monday, 18 August 2008

Dicing with the Sicilian Don

"♪Summer, and the livin' is easy♪"... Gershwin, in the musical "Porgy and Bess". He is, of course, talking to us all. Especially me. Especially when one's hobby - nay, passion - is a food blog. Very little competition for seats, and joy and relief on the part of Maitres d' everywhere when you apologize for not making a reservation, but "might there be seats for two ... or four?"

So I was both delighted and bemused to arrive at Don Ciccio in Shibuya recently, and be whisked immediately to a booth near the kitchen. On a night which was obviously setting up to be very busy. With The Guru, The Duchess, and Lance Links.

I had been to this restaurant before in the delightful company of Sir James and Lady Ina, but confess with considerable shame that imbibing deeply of both the grape and the grappa left your Humble Correspondent so completely senseless that he was incapable of reviewing the establishment. And of walking ...

I now stand ready, Gentle Reader, of rectifying that fall into decrepitude. Don Ciccio is a fine restaurant, with a passion for the cuisine and wine of Sicily. The service is knowledgable, efficient and friendly. The food is interesting, and very well prepared. Think rustic, robust, and simple. In fact, prepare yourself for fuller flavours rather than subtlety. Explanations are detailed, and there's an admirable sense of discovery that seems part and parcel of the experience.

The wine is remarkably cost-efficient, although it is unlikely to bring Robert Parker much joy. We had some difficulty with one bottle which the sommelier agreed was only at 70% of its best (but which unfortunately still appeared on the bill).

I think the staff "make" the experience at Don Coccio - there seems to be an infectious atmosphere of fun and gusto in the air. It's easy to get caught up in it all, and with very reasonable prices, one can imagine making Don Ciccio a regular haunt. Well done to the redoubtable Ms Motonaga for finding this first time around, and to the Duchess for the second visit.

So take my advice and get around to Don Ciccio. You'll get an offer you can't refuse - good food and good wine in a happy and refreshing atmosphere.

Don Ciccio [Map]: 2-3-6 Shibuya, Shibuya Ward. t: 03-3498-1828
Rating: Food: 7; Wine: 6; Service: 7; Ambiance: 7; Price: 7 ($$). Total 34/50

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

No num-nums at Burdigala!

I must confess, Gentle Reader, to an almost childish delight in the humour of the Goons and in particular the special style of silliness that was Peter Sellers. In one famous outing, he plays an Indian actor who repeats the phrase "birdie num-nums" a number of highly inappropriate times in the movie "The Party". Apropos of nothing really, except it always came to mind when I saw Burdigala in Roppongi Hills. And gave rise to a giggle ... so I couldn't go there for fear of embarrassing myself!

I have no doubt, Gentle Reader, that you know that Burdigala is actually the Roman (Latin) name for the city of Bordeau in the Aquitaine region of Gaul or modern-day France. It was originally named by the Celtic Bituriges Vivisci tribe who settled the area in about 300 B.C. So it's a splendid and honorable name for a restaurant, and shouldn't give rise to mirth at all ... if not for that rascal Sellers.

With The Expat heading back to the United States for some undeserved vacation time, we decided to try Burdigala literally as we walked by. What a happy accident! From the honest and cheerful welcome we got on arrival through to the happy and restrained farewell on leaving, Burdigala makes sure the dining experience is thoroughly pleasant. This is a welcome change from many other places in Roppongi-Azabu, where one sometimes is an unwanted distraction rather than a guest.

The Menu Degustation came as a welcome relief - Burdigala has a wide-ranging menu and we were finding it somewhat difficult to make up our minds. It also offers excellent wines by glass at reasonable prices. We opted for a glass each of the 2005 Domaine Jean Claude Courtault Chablis, an excellent choice for the two hors d'oeuvres of Sea Bream Tartar au Vermouth and warmed Pate de Canard. The tight construction of this wine means it doesn't dominate food ... and the vermouth seemed to bring the flavours together into a neat package. Nice touch, Chef!

As we pressed on towards the fish and meat dishes, The Expat demanded red wine and I had little choice but to go for the big artillery. I ordered the 2004 Gevrey-Chambertin Geantet-Pansiot. Gevrey-Chambertin is often called the "King of Burgundy" and is one of the finest examples of the surprising intensity that Pinot Noir can achieve. Given that it was Napolean's favorite wine, it was likely to suit our little emperor as well.

The fish - isaki, much less attractive in English as Striped Grunter! - was whimsically served in a bouillabaisse broth. This was a well turned-out variation, deeply redolent of the traditional Provencal treatment and delightfully full of flavour.

Your Humble Correspondent has seen a bit of beef in his day, but few as delicious as the Wagyu and Fois Gras with Summer Truffle Sauce that Burdigala now presented. With the Chambertin, this created a taste sensation that was stunning. Ah le beau Burdigala ... your Celtic forebears would be proud of you!

Visit Burdigala with friends and visiting relatives you wish to impress. It's not quite Bordeau, but it's as close as you'll get in Tokyo. Look for the fat boy in the corner, and raise a glass to me!

Burdigala [Map]: Roppongi Hills Keyakizaka-dori, Roppongi 6-15-1; t: 03-5786-7708
Rating: Food: 8; Wine: 8; Service: 7; Ambiance: 7; Price: 7 ($$). Total 37/50
*** Interesting aside: Years and years ago (1,200 to be precise), the village of Gevrey followed the example of many of its counterparts throughout the Cote d'Or and took the name of its most famous vineyard - "Les Champs de Bertin" (the fields of Bertin). That was shortened - no doubt by thirsty drinkers - to Chambertin. The vineyards were eventually gifted to the Abbey de Beze.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Sprezzatura - L'Estasi

First things first - welcome to Jon, who has joined the ranks of the Eating Out bloggers with his Eating Out in Tokyo with Jon blog. He has a nice touch, and I'm sure you'll enjoy working with him to eat your way through Roppongi and Monzennaka-cho! Good call on Chartreuse, Jon!
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I am sure by now, Gentle Reader, that you will have come to appreciate the wildly elegant Italian notion of "sprezzatura" [See the Wikipedia definition]. There is a marvellous book called Sprezzatura: 50 Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World by Peter D'Epiro and Mary Desmond Pinkowish.

Suffice to say that your Humble Correspondent has now given up all worldly ambition in pursuit of this sainted ability to make difficult tasks seem effortless ... my brilliant but risky approach is to exert no effort at all on difficult tasks and hope that people assume a certain negligenza about all I do. I have every expectation of success, and hope to one day sprezzature for Australia on the world stage.

Certain restaurants seem to resonate with sprezzatura in the same way that cats seem to be audaciously indifferent, and L'Estasi [Map] is one of them. The renovation of the former Sadler Estasi - itself a brand extension for the famous Milan 2-star - has paved the way for a reasonably relaxed venue which begs for o-makase much like a sole begs for Meuniére (I am sure that people as obviously gifted as you, Gentle Reader, know that meuniére means "miller's wife" and refers to the way one dredges the sole with flour before gentling cooking it in salted butter).

Other reviews seem to be relatively neutral or negative to L'Estasi, and I wonder if this is a result of relying too much on the English menu rather than encouraging Chef to have at it with all his might. As explained below in the secondi piece, this restaurant simply excels when left to its own devices.

My recent visit with The Expat (who'd like to reassure you all that there is a delightful tinge of gold in the marble of the mens' rest-room) tossed two lonely summer-bachelors tired of decision-making into the maelstrom of menu meditation. None of it! - we immediately recognized that our waitress was much better equipped to make these decisions and grilled her in Japanese about ingredients, styles, and plating.

We started with the sauteed Fois Gras (T.E.) and Grilled Summer Vegetables (Your Humble Correspondent), which were both well above average. The vegetables were crisp and warm, yet redolent of the garden and full of good nutritional, eat-your-greens-Terry self-satisfaction. Our wine, the very excellent San Gimignano Verdacchia Riserva 2001, was tooting its very special horn. Bravo San Gimignano, and God bless all of your towers!

Our shared Primi was a Ricotta and Parma Ham Calzone - ah, Toscana breezes wafted through what remains of my brain cells. This dish, prepared in the traditional flat style rather than falsely lifted and gastro-gothic, was excellent. Simply, excellent.

On, then, to Secondi. The Expat went for the Veal Marsala straight off the menu. He had failed to appreciate that there was the option to choose the ingredients and style for a variety of main courses (silly boy!). Hmm, a challenge! YHC asked about the 120-day-old veal, was reassured that it was wagyu, and asked for it to be lightly crumbed and gently cooked in a bath of melted butter, and then finished with a lemon sauce. I was trying to replicate a dish I had tasted in a trattoria just outside the walls of the Vatican City which, as I recall, was called Scallopine di Limone.

Time to take a deep breath, Gentle Reader. This dish was the ultimate sprezzatura, turned out with sublime simplicity and almost distainful ease by a very skilled chef. It brought The Expat to his knees, and he claimed the sorry crown of Diners Remorse - the gut-wrenching disappointment one suffers when one realizes that the item on your companion's plate is seriously better than the nonsense in front of oneself.

While dessert was an excellent Mango and Passionfruit Meringue, I was still far too overcome by the Scallopine to really appreciate the luxuriant texture and flavours. But it, too, was excellent and I shall be finding an excuse to try it one more time in the very near future.

Visit L'Estasi with friends and gastronomes, but be sure to push the menu to its furthest edges and don't be afraid to give the excellent kitchen a chance to show just sprezzatura it is.

L'Estasi [Map]: 3rd Fl, Roppongi Hills Keyakizaka-dori Gate Tower, Roppongi 6-11-1; t: 03-5770-4565
Rating: Food: 8; Wine: 7; Service: 8; Ambience: 8; Price: 7 ($$). Total 38/50