Food without memory is just digestion

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Chez Tomo - A Pilgrimage

Continuing a tradition of plagiarism that began with The Mysterious Affair at Provinage, we turn to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales:

When June with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of May has pierced unto the root
And bathed each glass with liquor that has power
To generate therein, so sweet words flower;

... And many little bloggers make prosody
That dine through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to praise and rage)
-Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,

... And specially from every divers end
of Japan they to restaurants wend,
The blessed tasty victuals there to seek
Which sustained them when they sat so lorn and weak

Befell that, in that season, on a day
In Mita, near Roppongi, as I lay
Ready to start upon my pilgrimage
To Shirogane, full of devout homage,

Fortunate indeed I was, Gentle Reader, to join with fellow Eaters-Out-in-Tokyo Dominic and Jon on a visit to Chez Tomo, the Michelin 1-star in Shirokane that has attracted plenty of attention. Both of my fellow correspondents, neither of them Humble, have already posted (here and here) about our experience at the hands of Chef Tomoji Ichikawa. I shan't bore you with mundane details, the telling of which they are far more suited to than your Humble Correspondent.

What both comforts and confuses me is, on the other hand, how our palates get jaded here in the Michelin-City of Tokyo. My two companions on this pilgrimage damned Chez Tomo with faint (feint?) praise - splendid venue, superb service, great attention to detail ... what ho! But just a tad disappointed with the fare were my erudite friends. Pshaw! I say to them. The food is creative and highly focused around the highest quality ingredients. Imagination and presentation are at least the grade of many an establishment garnished with 2 stars. And the fact that the main dish was not to our taste may reflect, I fear, more on the diners than the kitchen.

What your Humble Correspondent begs to submit, milords and gentle ladies, is that our collective expectations around haute cuisine in Tokyo perhaps exceeds the reality that surrounds us. Perhaps, indeed, we are all a tad spoiled. For me, Chez Tomo is an elegant and enjoyable addition to both this fair city and the Guide. Remember, one star means "worth a visit if in the area" - not "expect the stars". Visit Chez Tomo when you visit Shirogane, and when you seek to impress rather than entertain. And your Humble Correspondent? He'll blog on ...

But none the less, whilst I have time and space,
Before yet farther in this life I pace,
It seems to me accordant with good manners true
To inform you of the state of every culinary venue!!!

Chez Tomo: 5-15-5 Shirokane, Minato Ward. t: 03-5789-7731
Rating: Food: 8/10; Wine: 7/10; Service: 8/10; Ambience: 7/10; Value: ($) 8/10. Total: 38/50

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Che Pacchia - I pray a benison!

Gentle Reader, I crave a benison (I nearly wrote benefice, which I also crave in its second meaning). Actually, a step beyond a benison to a favor, a benignity. I beg of you to support a little restaurant of my acquaintance, in the hope that our collective custom can sustain its presence within a ten minute stroll of your Humble Correspondent's even humbler home.

Azabu Juban is named thus because historically it was the tenth station on an Edo-period canal system and had verdant fields of flax. More recently, it was also the home of Sailor Moon and her friends - creator Naoko Takeuchi lived there for a time as did your Humble Correspondent. It certainly does not mean "home of many tens of good restaurants". There are some, indeed a veritable concentration of Michelin notables, but a palpable lack of "regular" neighbourhood eateries that aim any higher than the milling date-ers or the chilling crowds of fast-fooders.

Enter Che Pacchia - an Italian establishment that takes its name from its desire to create an atmosphere of quiet calm and serenity where a dining couple might relax, and enjoy. An inaccurate translation might be "What a bed of roses!". I journeyed there recently with the Child Bride, henceforth to be known as The Once and Future Blonde. To forestall tedious correspondence, this new nomen arises from the T.H. White (sadly, no relation) novel Once and Future King rather than any reference to the warehouse of hair products and colorings to be found at Chez Hellhole.

What a spiffing little addition to the neighborhood! Awkwardly located on the 4th floor above a horrid soy drink emporium, Che Pacchia opened during Golden Week 2009 and has built a small coterie of supporters attracted to its simplicity, and superb delivery on the Italian food aesthetic. Chef shows a dab hand at both mainstream and regional cuisines, and despite being open only a short time, Che Pacchia is willing to meet the needs and requests of even its most demanding patrons.

We paired the excellent home-made breads that came out on arrival with some Moretti beer (bless his name!), and chose a very reasonably priced Gavi di communa di Gavi to accompany the meal. Attentive and knowledgeable staff made light of my many foibles, and went to great lengths to ensure we were well looked after during the meal and after.

We enjoyed a delightful artichoke and seafood salad for her, and asparagus risotto pour moi ... Your Humble Correspondent actually has a niggling dislike for those like Chef who can prepare risotto well, having failed in the effort himself an extraordinary number of times. This was followed by Saltimbucco Romagna for the lady, and a pretty little breaded veal cutlet with a lovely butter sauce that I asked to be accompanied by a juicy lemon. A small triumph, given that our last Italian excursion in the vicinity had more in common with packaged pasta than flavor or finesse.

Che Pacchia should be enjoyed with friends and boisterous colleagues rather than first-time acquaintances, but it should be enjoyed. So again, I beg those of you within wan mi-ta- (one turn of the taxi meter or Y780) to join me in patronizing this charming addition to Azabu. Its fate is in our hands, I fear. That is a serious responsibility that I feel sure you will see fit to assume. Who knows, I may never have to leave the area again!

Sadly, there is no web site to point you at.

Che Pacchia [Map]: 4th Floor Manivia Bldg, 2-5-1 Azabu Juban, Minato Ward. t: 03-6438-1185 Rating: Food: 7/10; Wine: 7/10; Service: 8/10; Ambience: 7/10; Value: ($) 8/10. Total: 37/50

Monday, 15 June 2009

Special Event at Brin de Muguet

Gentle Reader, you may recall that I recently gushed effusively about Brin de Muguet in Ogikubo. Splendid place, really, if a little removed from the hubbub and crush of areas closer to town (and the Hellhole). Delighted to let you know that there are still some seats available for a very special wine tasting this Friday at said venue for the miserly sum of Y12,600 . The menu sounds scrumptious:

Tartare and white asparagus toast (Feste lente)
Marinated Bonito, black olive sauce (Hmm?)
Snails profitroles, parsley cream sauce (persile...)
Toulouse sausage with two kinds of mustards (Oh my!!)
Pan fried french duck filet devil sauce (Be quiet my groaning scales!)
Pineapple crumble (I shall)

All of this is matched with some special wines from Wine Prosperite:

Cristian Senez Champagne brut rose
Le blanc de Lynch Bages Bordeaux 2005
Domaine de Baron'Arques Limoux 2004
Domaine la Cabotte Chateauneuf du Pape Rhone 2005

Your Humble Correspondent shall definitely be there to bore all and sundry. For a seat, e-mail Wine Prosperite. But hasten, for with only some 11 places left it will be first-in-best-dressed. I promise to sit at the far end of the room, and speak only in a small voice. E-mail Wine Prosperite for a place at the board!

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Le Petit Courageux - a little brave indeed!

The more faithful of you, Gentle Reader, will likely be aware that your Humble Correspondent rarely takes advice on restaurants. This unpleasant character flaw is the unfortunate result of too much time around those who believe that nachos constitute food, and that Budweiser stands for beer. There has also been little willingness to lend an ear to those from the Old Dart, on the assumption that there is even less likelihood of sensible conversations about food, for reasons that should be obvious. [Disclaimer: There are a number of you from the UK and USA whom I obviously listen to avidly. Please ignore the claptrap above. You know who you are...]

So you can imagine my consternation when a British acquaintance suggested recently that we dine at a "little place" he had noticed. My pulse rate climbed when he mentioned that he had never eaten there, and I was almost quivering with fear after he told me that said restaurant had pushed a flier under his door some time ago entitling him to a 10% discount.

What a horrid man I am! How dare I doubt a man obviously seized with a passion to impress! What detestable arrogance! The restaurant, Le Petit Courageux, is two streets behind the main Motomachi shopping area in a residential area and might be a little difficult to find. But on entering, one is struck by a sense of simplicity and quiet elegance. A glance at the menu was enough to quieten my restless spirit and quicken the appetite. We were in for a treat!

Chef spent a considerable time at the famous Michelin 2-star Restaurant Richard & Christopher Coutanceau at La Rochelle in Poitou-Charentes. La Rochelle is one of the more beautiful towns in France, and the port has an extraordinary history from the time of Eleanor of Acquitaine all the way through to the present day.

The influence of the Coutanceau father and son combination flows through the menu. There is a very commendable effort at authenticity, and one can readily appreciate the classique approach once the well-crafted dishes begin to arrive. The wine list is simple yet well thought through (some of which is supplied by the omnipresent Eric Dahler - my goodness, that man gets around!), and though my dinner companion was a self-imposed teetotaller I was able to enjoy a nice Macon by the glass.

The menu, which also has an a la carte option, features four courses - a light option at Y2,500, a 3 course option at Y 3,800, and a premium menu at Y8,000 where the diner conspires with Chef to develop a special one-off haute couture menu. Your Humble Correspondent was both intrigued and delighted by a special Yokohama 150 Year Anniversary menu at Y5,800 which features dishes from historically important identities or facilities over that 150 years. So impressed, in fact, that he plans a return visit within days to enjoy this wonderful opportunity together with the Child Bride!

Gentle Reader, this restaurant is a discovery! You simply must keep it in mind when looking for something out-of-the ordinary to impress friends and lovers, particularly those resident in distant Kanagawa. While Yokohama seems a trifle distant from the spires of Roppongi or Nishi-Azabu, the Shinjuku-Shonan Liner takes a mere 23 minutes from Ebisu to Yokohama station and from there it is a mere hop to Ishikawa-cho. Or couple a visit to this restaurant with an overnight stay in Minato-Mirai.

But whatever you do, find an opportunity to visit this interesting and satisfying venue. I am sure you'll come away both impressed and satisfied. And should you come across a obviously sated and happy garden gnome sitting on the roadside, do him a favor and help him to his feet. Otherwise I might miss the train!

Le Petit Courageux: 5-211-20 Motomachi, Naka Ward, Yokohama. t: 045-681-2665
Rating: Food: 7/10; Wine: 7/10; Service: 8/10; Ambience: 7/10; Price: ($) 7/10. Total: 36/50

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Le Pre Verre - Something different

Omotesando strikes this casual observer as a cacophony of trends and trendies, something that does not quite fit well with the demeanor of your Humble Correspondent. Too many fashionistas, Gentle Reader, and too much strain on the neck as one swivels to and fro observing the constant ebb and flow of young pretties all seeking to out-do one another.

But when faced with the need to choose a restaurant that was both within reach and sufficiently sophisticated to dine with two long-term colleagues of the female persuasion, Le Pre Verre seemed a sensible yet affordable answer. I wanted to have a sensible business conversation with people who know the beauty and people business deeply - the fact that a corner table looked out of floor-to-ceiling windows meant that our chatter would be somewhat private. So putting on my best "crowd" face, I determined to push through the milling hordes of date-ers and date-ees and be a genial dinner companion despite the location.

Now, I should first register considerable surprise that the restaurant was not full - in fact, we were perhaps one of four or five tables for the entire evening. While that meant that we received excellent service, it was also slightly disconcerting. Was there something I had missed? Had some hapless Harajuku harpie cursed this fine establishment? Was the financial crisis extending its fickle finger so far?

Let me reassure you all (well, the two of you who read this blog) that your Humble Correspondent is completely baffled by this strange happenstance - Le Pre Verre (trans: The Glass Meadow??) is a good contemporary French bistro located in a fashionable and eminently visitable part of Tokyo. In fact, methinks this provides an excellent opportunity to enjoy good food at a reasonable price (Y4,800) and a very respectable carte des vin without the cat's chorus of out-of-place OLs interrupting gentile conversation.

Our entrees covered the entire pallette - we chose an excellent Bresse chicken and fois gras terrine, Tomato farcie, and a superb chilled cucumber and mint soup (YHC) and considerable debate ensued as to who "won" this round. I, of course, was in no doubt and as a very reluctant sharer refused my two companions even a teaspoon of this elixir.

The plats were even better - my veal cheeks were served with a vanilla custard that was both inspired and delicious, an often too rare combination. A red bream dish looked and tasted good, and the duck lived up to expectations by being moist and rich with a delightful lingering aftertaste.

Le Pre Verre bills itself as providing cuisine et vins d'auteurs which defies sensible translation, but delivers on a promise of creativity and fun. The restaurant would be better served by being full of mature diners, of course, but despite the somewhat "empty" feeling this is a very comfortable venue. It also represents excellent value-for-money and value-for-time-invested.

So take my advice, Gentle Reader, and stroll down the faux Parisien avenues of Harajuku to Le Pre Verre. Not only is getting a reservation straightforward, but you'll be able to enjoy both a little civility and a delightful meal at one stroke. And if you see a chap bibbed and lolling in the corner, have pity ... and be generous!

Le Pre Verre: 4th Floor, 5-10-1 Jingumae, Shibuya Ward. t: 03-3486-1603
Rating: Food: 7/10; Wine: 7/10; Service: 7/10; Ambience: 7/10; Price: ($) 7/10. Total: 35/50

Friday, 5 June 2009

Antonio's - the quintessential Italian institution!

Some may have noticed, Gentle Reader, that your Humble Correspondent rarely reviews the grand dining institutions that grace this fair city. There be dragons there, I fear, because people have strong views about these culinary icons. There is also the worry that one might be institutionalized oneself, having crossed the stile of middle age and started down the steep slope of decrepitude. So I have always refrained from discussing Petit Point (still my favorite restaurant in Tokyo), Les Saisons, and others. But, as Lewis Carroll wrote in The Walrus and The Carpenter:

"The time has come," the Walrus said,"To talk of many things".
Antonio's is, verily, an institution having been in continuous operation in various locations around Japan for more than sixty (yes, 60!) years. The main branch, in Minami Aoyama, is redolent with that tradition and boasts many happy regulars (Japanese: 常連 jouren) who both sustain and celebrate the Cancemi heritage. Said Antonio (see this history) chose Japan to ply his trade after Italy's surrender in 1943, having happened to be here at the time. Over the years, Antonio built a burgeoning culinary empire and the family continues to be deeply involved in operations.
With the Child Bride engaged in trade nearby, it was obvious that I should remedy an omission of near 20 years by magnanimously offering to escort her to dinner ... hoping my lack of readies would be overlooked in her surprise at such an invitation. We were greeted by the fair Ms Cancemi - surely the grand-daughter or great-grand-daughter of the gallant Antonio - and whisked off to a table that allowed us to enjoy a view of the main dining room and its curios without seeming to intrude on the dining pleasures of other guests.
Your Humble Correspondent(s) dined sumptuously, although she had the temerity to order the Cotoletta Milanese despite the fact that I wanted it. Ever your ready servant, Gentle Reader, I am always loathe to order the same dish as another at table - so I suffered through a wonderfully delicious Cotoletta Parmesano with that sad pout and quivering lip that so endears me to dining companions. We had both tried some frighteningly fresh salad before this, toasting the occasion with some fine Italian beer served in chilled tall glasses before moving on to a luscious Soave Classico that - while a little over-priced - matched the strong flavors of the food to perfection.
Antonio's is a very, very good example of traditional Italian cuisine backed by a noble record of success over three generations - all of this in one of the most difficult "foodie" cities in the world. I, for one, will use it as the yardstick by which I shall measure other Italian venues in Tokyo. It deserves your respect, Gentle Reader, but it also deserves your custom. Too good to waste on flitsome corporate fly-by-nights, take friends and colleagues to Antonio's.
And cast an eye around for a portly gent obviously escaped from an institution. I shall, no doubt, wink knowingly!
Antonio's [Map]: 7-3-6 Minami Aoyama, Minato Ward. t: 03-3797-0388
Rating: Food: 8/10; Wine: 7/10; Service: 8/10; Antonio-ness: 7/10; Price: ($$) 7/10. Total: 37/50

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Sens - A little faux

A life on the gin-and-tonic front lines of business, Gentle Reader, leaves one somewhat gnarled and immune to the blandishments of luxury brands and "bling". A gentleman nevers pays attention to decoration, but rather focuses on companions and the purpose at hand. He certainly never takes price into account, preferring quality to fashion.

This is rather difficult to achieve at Sens, given the omnipresent and overwhelming effort that has been put into paying homage to Louis XIV style magnificence and gild. To get some idea of what confronted your Humble Correspondent on a recent visit to Sens, suspend disbelief and click on this link.

The French word "sens" can mean the physical senses like sight, touch, taste, and scent. I would counsel the operators of Sens that they may have gone a little overboard with the "sight" element, and perhaps a little under-board with the "taste" element at sister establishment Ginger's Beach in the Bay Quarter area of Yokohama. It's odd really - Sens serves reasonable food but the decoration lacks "taste"; and Ginger's Beach is light on the ocular senses, but the food lacks "taste". Ginger is apparently a Hawaiian chap, so perhaps there's more logic to this than your Humble Correspondent imagines. But I digress (again).

The menu at Sens is what one might expect - inspired by both French and Italian cuisine, there's little that can be poor, and less that might be excellent. My terrine was passing pleasant, and the beef fillet was better than most at this price. The menu feels like it was designed to be both sophisticated and approachable for less experienced punters, rather than reflecting Chef's particular preferences or peccadilloes. The wine list is similarly predictable and affordable. (Note the lack of the adjective "imaginative" in the previous sentence.)

But a word of warning - Sens is without doubt a "date spot", where the ganging (Scot: to go or walk [Old English: gangan]) hordes of nearly-30's and professional singles gather to mutually gauge matrimonial suitability. [Thought: Perhaps the feckless Jon may want to visit ...]

The decor should have been a siren warning to me, I admit. But at the same time, this restaurant is a (slight) cut above most of its colleagues in the Azabu Juban and the B1 dining area is less gaudy than the opulent ground floor... which is like saying that The Winter Palace in St Petersburg is less gaudy than Versailles.

I wouldn't recommend a special trip to Sens by any stretch of the imagination, but should you find yourself in the vicinity and wanting something more than yakiniku or pale imitations of Spanish tapas you could do worse than drop in.

But perhaps you might want to make sure the RayBan's are in ready reach. After a visit to Sens, the Taj Mahal will seem like a sensory deprivation experience!

Sens: 4-3-1 Azabu-Juban, Minato Ward. t: 03-3453-6515
Rating: Food: 6/10; Wine: 6/10; Service: 6/10; Bling: 7/10; Price: ($$) 7/10. Total: 32/50

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Wolfgang Puck - Enough Already!

I'm told, Gentle Reader, that Wolfgang Puck is a chef of some renown in the United States. But so, for that matter, is Colonel Sanders. There are excellent chefs in the USA. There are excellent restaurants as well. There are elements of Californian cuisine, and the passion of its foodies for quality ingredients, that thrill me. I have eaten well in San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Monica and many other places.

But in my limited dining experience in that fine country, outside the more famous dining venues, finesse and consistency often run a very sad second to imagination and innovation. Except in New York, which seems strangely blessed with a bevy of fine dining establishments. Perhaps it's some esoteric influence of the Statue of Liberty, holding up her hand lighting the way to epicurean enjoyment. Or perhaps not ...

For most of us, Puck is a character in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream - the "shrewd and knavish sprite" and "merry wanderer of the night", officially Jester to the Fairy King Oberon. Which might explain the fact that most of Wolfgang's food is insubstantial, ephemeral to the point of being tasteless, and presented as if the magic is to be found in the mouth rather than the eyes. But I digress ...

Your Humble Correspondent has now braved four of Mr Puck's venues here in Japan, and two in the United States. All have been unmitigated culinary disasters. My first experience, in SoCal, was after a 22 hour flight from Sydney so I thought my taste buds were jet-lagged. My most recent sortie in Yokohama was only redeemed by a charming gentleman companion, sweet service from the dedicated staff, and a bottomless 7-Up on a warm day.

The salad was salad-y, the bread was doughy, and the olive oil was oily. But these were a tempting fairy illusion, Gentle Readers, compared with the noxious pap that presented as Herb Chicken. One fears Mr Puck is on an economy drive, as the pan was obviously not hot enough to give the chicken any body or toothiness. The skin may have been browned with a blowtorch, but it was not crisped unless one's definition of "crisp" is something south of the wrinkles on the late George Burns' face.

All of which is a great pity, because the location calls for something a little better. Forewarned is forearmed, Gentle Reader, so don't go looking for your Humble Correspondent in one of Mr Puck's establishments. And keep your friends and children away, for fear they'll come to think that this is American or Californian cuisine.

Wolfgang Puck: Various locations with maps on the website, should one be curious enough to want them
Rating: Food: 2/10; 7-Up: 7/10; Service: 6/10; Ambiance: 3/10; Price: 2/10 (it was free, and represented poor value for money). Total: 20/50