Friday, 29 May 2009

Va Tout - No risk!

People more intelligent than I, Gentle Reader, tell me that "va-tout" means to risk everything in French. A colloquial translation - rather rough I admit - might be "go for broke". Apropos of nothing really, save that your Humble Correspondent recently had the pleasure of a risk-free assignation with the Child Bride at Brasserie Va Tout [Map] which decorates rather festively the front of the Axis Building in Roppongi.

I had also touted this venue - much like a guilty secret, perhaps - to El Presidente, vouchsafing that it was not a "fancy" place and that, yes Virginia, lots of Americans ate there too. Lord Jim had introduced me to said restaurant with the promise that it served the best fries in Tokyo, and being converted, your Humble Correspondent is currently on a Belushi-esque "mission from God" to share the secret with as many people as possible.

Va Tout is the sort of comfortable and friendly restaurant that hotels should offer, and never do. Little fuss, and quiet professionalism mean that the dining public can simply relax and enjoy the fulsome array of options that the menu provides. Some time examining the chalkboard for the daily speciality dishes will almost always be rewarded with the discovery of a little gem - the Child Bride's Croustillade de Langoustine being an excellent example on our last visit. The wine list is also worth a close perusal, and you will most often be presented with a small sample before making your final decision. This too is a habit many other establishments should emulate.

But for your Humble Correspondent, the beauty of Va Tout is that it offers simple yet delicious French "comfort food", often a life line for a palate jaded by so much exploration and experimentation on behalf of the multitude of Gentle Readers looking to enjoy the delights of the world's greatest food city. The fries are indeed the best in Tokyo, and my habitual omelet never fails to delight. Or a Croque Monsieur, expertly turned out yet not requiring a second mortgage like some others (think Grand and Roppongi in the same breath) on offer in the neighbourhood. Simple yet delicious meat dishes, and seasonal vegetables and salads round out the palette of flavours.

Va Tout is also pleasantly inexpensive - certainly well under Y20K for two with wine - and excellent value-for-money, a fact that in itself recommends it to your Penurious Correspondent. Perhaps a little too much bric-a-brac, but not so much that one feels like one's in a tourist center.

So I recommend toddling along with friends and familial visitors rather than one's superiors. Light on the palate, light on the fussiness, and light on the purse. And should you happen to see someone resembling the Michelin Man wolfing down an omelet, do pop over for a little chin wag, won't you?

Va Tout [Map] : AXIS Building, 5-17-1 Roppongi, Minato Ward. t: 03-3568-2080
Rating: Food: 7/10; Wine: 6/10; Service: 7/10; Ambiance: 7/10; Value ($$): 7/10. Total: 34/50

Thursday, 28 May 2009

La Cometa - Stellar!

You may have noticed, Gentle Reader, a certain predilection on the part of your Humble Correspondent for French and Italian cuisine. Which is not in itself a bad thing, but which can sometimes lead to monotony. One is always on the search for new venues, with a high likelihood of disappointment.

So imagine my delight when introduced to a "new" establishment within a gentle stroll from the Hellhole - La Cometa [no website, but Tabelog entry here] is in Azabu Juban just below Toriizaka, on the second floor up a gentle set of stairs. "New" is rather an odd choice of words in this case, for La Cometa has been delighting customers for more than 25 years ... and despite the fact that your Humble Correspondent has been disturbing the good burghers of that fine village for the best part of 15 of those years, I had never taken the opportunity to try the fare.

So in the company of the gentle friends of the Tokyo Darkside, I made forth to repair this oversight with the Child Bride. Young Joseph had negotiated a seemly menu with Chef, which more than satisfied for a very reasonable price (Y6,000). He had also been shopping for some wine in the Italian section of Nissen (may their praises be sung for generations!), and had come up with a mouth-watering Gavi de Gavi white wine, and a choice of Chianti Classico or Montepulciano reds.

Make no mistake - the food here is good, wholesome, and thoughtful. While La Cometa is not likely to win a Michelin Star or Silver Spoon any time soon, such a goal is likely the furtherest thing from the proprietors' minds. Full marks to them for focusing on quality and imagination, rather than being all skirt and no knickers like some other "hussies" doing the rounds in Tokyo.

While we welcomed a number of new Darkside participants, this venue is small enough to feel comfortable and large enough to accomodate around 20 punters. I like the clean and uncomplicated atmosphere - far too many restaurants that have been running for some time tend to collect more bric-a-brac than the Antique Roadshow (it seems to me that many of these are Italian restaurants ... maybe it's something in the parmesano?).

Service here is happy and bustling, much like one would expect in a rural osteria, and La Cometa has a patina of friendliness that I for one enjoy above all else. Your Humble Correspondent fully expects to become a regular customer of this fine hostelerie, which fact may convince some to stay well clear!

Visit La Cometa with family and friends, and expect to share a variety of well-prepared Italian classics dusted with the occasional dash of magic. Look out for the portly and vaguely familar figure in the corner - he's sure to raise a glass ... and have it added to your account!

La Cometa [Map]: 2nd Floor, 1-7-2 Azabu Juban, Minato Ward. t: 03-3470-5105
Rating: Food: 7/10; Friendliness: 7/10; Service: 7/10; Ambiance: 7/10; Value ($$): 7/10. Total: 35/50

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Harmonie - Bistro de Paris en Nishi-Azabu

Three's a treat, they say, and Harmonie is the third venue operated by Chef Jitsuhiro Yamada of Cogito and Marche aux Vins fame. Your Humble Correspondent is ever vigilant on your behalf, Gentle Reader, and it had not escaped my attention that it remained firmly in the "Must Visit" column of my mental notebook. So, with considerable aplomb and much anticipation, I bobbed off to Nishi Azabu to catch up with my former right-hand girl the redoubtable Ms Motonaga.

A word of advice about the maps on most English language sites who list this venue - do not even try to use them without an Ancient Sumerian Cuneiform dictionary. One needs the luck of Howard Carter's waterboy or the tenacity of Heinrich Schliemann to find the blessed place! Use this one in Japanese from Tabelog, or find a Google or Yahoo variant.

The restaurant has all the charm of a rustic French restaurant and is decorated with antiques personally chosen by Chef Yamada. When I last spoke to Chef, he explained that he established Harmonie to create the sort of place he himself would like to visit once the day's work was done. If so, he has excellent taste. The atmosphere at Harmonie is elegant yet friendly, and the service is exemplary.

Our meal (we both chose the "two plate" option with one entree and one main dish) fitted well with the venue - sophisticated, well-presented, and showing a dab hand in balancing flavor with fashion. I particularly recommend the duck here, as well as the excellent terrine which vanished off my plate in a nano-second (Ms Motonaga? Moto-second?). The servings are generous without being scales-smashing. The floor staff keeps a weather eye on the progress at each table, and dishes are delivered on time at optimal temperature.

We shared a bottle of Graves that was reasonably priced and precisely chilled. A range of excellent wines are available by the glass, and the bar downstairs is small yet comfortable.

Visit Harmonie with friends and lovers, or for a romantic proposal [there is actually a small curtained booth that seems perfect for an assignation, although perhaps a little small for the whole bended knee thing]. Your Humble Correspondent shall certainly be visiting again soon with the Child Bride - this excellent little restaurant is both close by and reasonably priced.

In the culinary desert of this part of Nishi-Azabu, Harmonie is a God-send. Do visit, and be a good chap (chap-ette) by generously adding that you read the blog. Either that, or pick up the tab for the fat boy with the soup bowl eyes ...

Harmonie: Nishi-Azabu 4-2-15, Minato Ward. t: 03-5466-6655
Rating: Food: 7/10; Wine: 7/10; Service: 8/10; Ambiance: 8/10; Value ($$): 8/10. Total: 38/50

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Brin de Muguet - Veni, Vidi, Epuli

Among the coterie that makes up my nearest and dearest, Gentle Reader, Cost Center #3 has always been a little fey. Nice girl and all, but a little fey. Fey enough to have discovered a love for ancient Greek and Latin well towards the end of a degree in Economics. Fey enough to imagine that others are interested in feminine declensions in the votive etc etc. Fey enough, indeed, to actually want to visit 108 temples during a recent Grand Tour of the Ancient World.

Which came to mind - somewhat haphazardly I'll admit - when the Child Bride and your Humble Correspondent travelled to Ogikubo recently for a wine tasting hosted by the genial Eric Dahler at Brin de Muguet. Ogikubo is quite a journey from the more civilized areas your Humble Correspondent typically haunts, and the good man we engaged to deliver us to the restaurant confessed little more than a passing knowledge of the area apart from the railway station. Truth to tell, I felt a little like Julius Caesar conquering the Gauls. Or Hannibal crossing the Alps, although our mode of transport only resembled an elephant in the same way that a banana resembles an Airbus.
Brin de Muguet has been adding a different face to Ogikubo for more than 10 years as the first of Richard Rodot's culinary enterprises in Japan, joined later by four branches of Le Jardin de Gaulois. One senses the revenge of Asterix in all of this, but with successful establishments in the Shin-Maru Building and Printemps in Ginza there can be little doubt that Richard has hit on a successful model.
There is little of the rustic about the menu - on our visit, YHC and the Child Bride particularly enjoyed the Mousse de carotte et son consomme de homard en gelee, a delicate Gratin de fruit de mer a la creme safranee, and a very well-prepared Daube de boeuf au vin rouge au parfum d'orange. Considering Chef was cooking for around 20, the kitchen did a fine job.
Eric's wine, as ever, were a highlight of the evening. I was impressed with the 2006 Pessac-Leognan and the 2005 Margaux Chateau d'Arsac. At Eric's mostly reasonable prices, you can do little harm, Gentle Reader, by ordering these for your next dinner party or soiree.
Were one ever to consider crossing the Yamanote barrier again, Brin de Muguet would be high on my list of potential destinations. This is a good restaurant with a professional floor crew matched by a very competent kitchen team and I suspect - given a little encouragement - the menu de jour could be well worth exploring. There seems a sense of play and experimentation, or perhaps confidence, that is missing in most surburban French establishment in Tokyo. I should not be surprised if it might rise to 4 forks.
Brin de Muguet is a restaurant to enjoy with friends and lovers. And should you visit, please consider a small donation to the Cost Center #3 Relief Fund whereby we shall do our very best to rescue said fey Child from the fairies. Or at least buy a bottle of La Grande Dame to enjoy with The Child Bride, and toast eccentricity!
Brin de Muguet: 5-14-4 Ogikubo, Suginami Ward. t: 03-3220-5448
Rating: Food: 7/10; Gallic-ness: 7/10; Service: 7/10; Ambiance: 8/10; Price ($$): 8/10. Total: 37/50

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Obika - Bravo Signor Ursini!

One does not often find, Gentle Reader, a happy fusion when meeting a western food tradition built around a neo-Japanese concept. On the contrary, one generally finds con-fusion... as evidenced by such abominations like California Roll sushi or Teriyaki Chicken pizza. On the other hand, your Humble Correspondent is the first to admit that Tokyo may well be the weird "capital" of the world.

Enter Obika, snuggled into the unfashionable side of Roppongi Hills and being the Nipponica variant of the global phenomenon of Grupa Obika. This contagious (epidemic?) outbreak of mozzarella eateries is the brainchild of Signor Silvio Ursini of Bulgari fame. An ardent fan of Japan and a dedicated devourer of sushi, he was one day struck by the brilliant thought that it would be a good idea to serve his beloved mozzarella similarly presented with delicacy and wonder. One's mind boggles at just what said S. Ursini was doing at the time this particular thought struck, and how bears are related to buffaloes.

Obika is brought to us by the omnipresent Wondertable restaurant and bar company. With more than 20 establishments (all seemingly with different thematic thrusts), one "wonders" how they remember what to serve every day and how they judge performance and quality. Would that I had the providor contract!

The Roppongi version of Obika is pleasant and airy, well laid out around a service platform and sushi-esque counter that at least pays tribute to S. Ursini's original inspiration. It seems that perhaps Japanese - especially the bevy of young women who were dining at Obika when I visited with the Child Bride - are not perhaps as taken with the romance of sushi as the Italian gentleman because they overwhelmingly preferred the stylish cafe tables to the counter.

Now I need to warn you, Gentle Reader, to be prepared to be Office-Lady'ed to death when you visit Obika. During my visit, the entire male population of the restaurant would not have filled a five-urinal rest room, and the air was rent with giggles, Waa-ahs, and sugoi's. The tables have clever hooks designed to hold Gucci or Bulgari handbags and to auto-eject anything from a French brand (actually, that's not true). There are plenty of mirrors, and a broad selection of desserts which strangely do not feature mozzarella. Wine seems more decorative than consumed, perhaps a pity given the Napoli background of S Ursini.

In short, exactly right for Roppongi Hills which is perhaps a 21st century Japanese version of a vestal virgin House or a medieval nunnery... which would explain the prevelance of Ophelia-like long dark tresses and pale complexions.

All of that said, Obika is well worth a brief dalliance. It is significantly better than the other food outlets in Roppongi Hills, with the exception of Joel's Atelier. The food is well prepared, and the Ricotta and Spinach ravioli I enjoyed was a real stand-out. Of course, the mozzarella tasting dish (3 varieties from sweet to smoky to firm) also deserves your attention and the salads are both elegant and green. A daily pasta dish adds variety to an otherwise mundane menu.

The Obika site also has an online reservations function for the technologically gifted, and an offline telephone reservations function for the vocally gifted.

And should you spy a little round man being a little too metriculous with the Balsamic and the double-virgin olive oil, do please offer to pay the chit. It would help me meet the monthly payments on the handbags.

Obika: 6-10-2 Roppongi, Roppongi Hills (Keyakizaka-side) B1F t: 03-5786-6400
Rating: Food: 7/10; Girly-ness: 7/10; Service: 7/10; Ambiance: 6/10; Price ($$): 8/10. Total: 35/50

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Leeuwin Estate Concert - What an experience!

Before the wretched Jon gets to be able to post on his upcoming visit to El Bulli (Wikipedia; Restaurant), I am sure you'll agree with me, Gentle Reader, that it is entirely seemly that your Humble Correspondent should report on his recent expedition to the Leeuwin Estate Concert.

The Child Bride and I have oft been invited to this spectacular in the rolling hills of the wine country of Margaret River - but sadly, have never before been able to take up the opportunity. So, suddenly alone together with the Princess departed off to university, we threw caution to the winds and sallied forth per Singapore Airlines (Oh, may their name be praised!) to Perth via the Island-City.

Your Humble Correspondent has often regaled audiences with the story of Leeuwin's founding (see the sanitized version here) at the urging (and scratching, but that's another story!) of Robert Moldavi. All very jolly, but there was always an aching pain / pang in our conjugal hearts that we had not hobnobbed with the creme de la creme at the Concert.

Gentle Reader, this is something you simply have to do. The Concert takes place in an extraordinary natural amphitheatre, set among the gums and gardens of one of Australia's premier destinations. Chris Isaak was a wonderful performer, although a little too pink for your Humble Correspondent's taste. The stars burned brightly under the Great Southern skies, and the picnic basket provided by Leeuwin was gnawsome and fitting both to the setting and its guests.

Prepare to salivate:

Estate made chicken liver pate
Baguette
Estate made pork and duck terrine
Organic wafers
Pear paste
Wild olives
Black pig prosciutto
Chicken galantine, sage & apricot stuffing
Yarra Valley smoked salmon
Honey cured leg ham
Estate made chutney
Fresh salad, Vinaigrette
Maffra cloth wrapped cheddar
Pear and frangipani tart
washed down of course with premier Leeuwin Estate Art Series wines (Your Humble Correspondent prised an extra bottle of the awesome Riesling out of the Estate!). The Child Bride even got to wiggle (she terms it 'dancing') with some friends. What a marvelous event, and a highlight of life on the gourmet front lines braved on your behalf by your Humble Correspondent).
Special thanks to Dennis and Helen for the invite, and the Hills clan extended for their company.
Top that, Jon!

Monday, 18 May 2009

Delizioso Italia - bene, bene!

I venture, Gentle Reader, to suggest that Ebisu has a strangely Italian feel to it. Not the station area, of course, which is frenetically and savagely commuter-esque. But in the narrow side streets one feels a patina of casual enjoyment and genuine social interaction that reminds one of a piazza rather than a chome.

And so it is with Delizioso Italia. Feeling a little like a lordling on The Grand Tour, your Humble Correspondent dragged his portly frame to Ebisu 4-Chome to enjoy a meal with The Guru. As a historical aside, the sumptuous Biftek so much a part of contemporary Florentine cuisine was actually developed in Florence to accomodate these 17th and 18th Century English tourists who would spend one or two months among the Italo-English priviliged classes of Florence before heading on to Rome and points beyond. They needed beef, and lots of it.

This little trattoria had been recommended by Nick, of Wall Street fame, and I thought to humor him by taking a colleague there rather than someone important. Dear me! How fey of me ... how dismissive; how very, very poor form! Abject apologies and copious beers for Nick on our next assignation!

This is a splendid establishment with a bustling sense of busyness tending to mild panic that thrills the gastronome and invites exploration. Many of the guests are couples, deep in conversation with one another instead of the audience, and seriously trying to enjoy the evening. The restaurant "buzzes", with a sense of pleasure and an electricity that gradually draws you under its spell.

The Guru and I enjoyed three dishes each (yes, thus "portly"), all prepared with vigor and passion by a potentially superior chef, and delivered to table by an engaged and informed floor team. TG's Antipasto Mista might have fed a small barbarian horde, and my salad showed an excellent balance of texture and taste. The pastas were excellent, and the kitchen listened patiently to my peccadilloes about veal cutlet Limone before delivering a dish way beyond my expectations.

We also enjoyed a lovely bottle of San Gimignano Verdecchio that sang of the Tuscan spring, and some Italian beer that was appropriately chilled and served in small glasses rather than pint buckets [Note: English beers and ales should be drunk in larger glasses, but chilled beer tends to warm too quickly in tankards!].

I recommend taking a friend or lover to Delizioso Italia, or a colleague who understands your eccentricities. And should you see a Grand Tourist in the corner, Gentle Reader, raise a glass to toast the benefits of a classical education and a generous sponsor (yes, he paid!). I shall undoubtedly return the compliment!

Delizioso Italia: 1st Floor Lupinas Bldg, Ebisu 4-27-17, Shibuya Ward. t: 03-3440-5510
Rating: Food: 7/10; Wine: 7/10; Service: 7/10; Ambiance: 7/10; Price ($$): 7/10. Total: 35/50

Sabado Sabadete - Dali-esque Dalliance!

Have you ever hankered, Gentle Reader, after a Spanish fling? An Iberian tryst, robust and energetic, yet never crossing over the chasm to romance? The Knights of the Tokyo Darkside group recently sallied forth to Sabado Sabadete in Shirokanedai for just such an opportunity, and came away both satiated and entertained.

Your Humble Correspondent first visited this unassuming establishment for a tasting of some magnificent Spanish Rioja wine with the effervescent Eric from Wine Prosperite. A grand evening it was, with plenty of good campesino food and a splendid performance by the Chef and Master with drinking beer out of a ceremonial decanter. Said chef, Gentle Reader, models himself on Salvadore Dali and has a penchant for those silly little red hats. But he is a jewellery designer by vocation, so perhaps forgiveness is more virtuous than aspersion.

So back we went with the Darkside, and filled this small restaurant. A good selection of Iberico cold meats and filling salads, along with Catalan meatballs (and achingly good quaffables from dear Eric!). Paella is prepared in a massive dish in the center of the small kitchen, and presented to the assembled multitude - at which point the performance begins. I'm told Sabado Sabadete uses beer and soda water instead of the customary red wine out of deference to its guests' attire, but the raucous hand-clapping and rambunctious challenges make this a quaint yet engaging exercise taking this aging rake back to his university drinking game days.

The point of Sabado Sabadete is its atmosphere and energy, and it is a welcome alternative in the fuss and bother that is European dining in Tokyo. This is a venue that excites with its broad smile and deep bosom of friendship, but is never going to get too committed. In short, Gentle Reader, it is a flirtation best visited on occasion and never with serious intentions.

Take your friends in some numbers rather than anyone you're trying to impress, and leave everything up to M. Dali. It will be light on the wallet and on the mind. And if someone steals into your group when the free beer is passing around in the decanter, you should smile knowingly and toast your Humble Correspondent's complete lack of pride.
Sabado Sabadete: 2nd Floor, Genteel Shirokanedai, 5-3-2 Shirokanedai, Minato Ward. t: 03-3445-9353
Rating: Food: 6/10; Wine: 7/10; Service: 6/10; Ambiance: 8/10; Price: 7/10. Total: 34/50