Food without memory is just digestion

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Ristorante Casina Canamilla - Moderna e Classica en Naka-Meguro

There are places, Gentle Reader, when genius sneaks up quietly and taps one on the shoulder. It is almost always precocious, and inevitably surprising. Often, it falls like the gentle rain from a particular individual who seems to set the tone for an entire establishment. But rarely has Your Humble Correspondent found a venue which boasts a double dealing of culinary creativity like Risorante Casina Canamilla [Map].

Casina Canamilla is no humble farmhouse, and is in fact a remarkably effective collaboration between Chefs Konishi and Iwatsubo perched fashionably above the Meguro River between Asahi-bashi and Yadoyama-bashi (?宿山橋) a few short steps from Naka-Meguro station. [Note to self: This spot will be phenomenal in Spring with the cherry blossoms!]. It is well-appointed and very comfortable, and each aspect of the dining experience seemingly mapped out so that the only task for the guest is to engage in pleasant and witty conversation and sip slowly on an apertif of Italian birra.

Casina Canamilla takes extreme care to only use the freshest ingredients to create two menus - Classica being (obviously) classical Italian cuisine and Moderna as a much more creative and contemporary treatment. Canamilla marches its regional inspiration up and down the Italian peninsula in step with the seasons, so that summer sees Sicilian and Calabrian influences on the menu. Lombardy and Piedmonte obviously star in winter.

The service at Casina Canamilla is both professional and knowledgeable, and the wine list verily bulging at the seams with well-chosen selections from all over Italy. One has the feeling that the floor team and the kitchen team are always engaged in a graceful and entertaining minuet that delivers on customer expectations but never intrudes.

To professional gluttons like Your Humble Correspondent, there is really no choice. Moderna throws down a challenge that only the faintest of hearts would resist (see the menu reproduced below). Both chefs contribute to the game, and their contributions are helpfully marked on the menu. Technique and imagination are both on display in every course, although preparations such as the ricci di mare stand out as both stunning ideas and successful demonstrations of the culinary art. This is probably the most-rounded, interesting, and delicious meal put before YHC in the last three months.

This is a very good restaurant, Gentle Reader. In fact, this is a restaurant that is best kept a secret just between us. And good friends ... Visit only with friends and lovers, and take care that they don't talk out loud about it. The walls have ears ....

Pip! Pip!

Risorante Casina Canamilla [Map]: 2F Towa Building, 1-23-3 Aobaidai, Meguro-Ku; t: 03-3715-4040
Rating: Food: 8/10; Wine: 7/10; Service: 7/10; Ambiance: 8/10; Price-Performance: 7/10. Total: 37/50 (3 Forks)

Menu Moderna Buri marinato con porro, acciughe, ed olive nero
Ricci di mare e purea di finocchio
Trenette con Granchio
Tagliolini di farina de segale al ragu di cervo
Arrosto di maiale di YAMAGATA con ANNO-IMO e funghi tronbetta
Mousse di gianduja e polenta croccante, gelato di pistacchio al profumo di Yuzu

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Bistro Aida - Promise You won't Tell

So, Gentle Reader: can you be trusted with a secret?

If Your Humble Correspondent told you about a very good restaurant with a splendid chef, gracious floor staff, and a good wine list - that was also remarkably good value-for-money - would you be able to keep it to yourself? Would the greater good ... in this case, my being able to get a reservation on a whim ... mean that you would forfend all and any attacks on your confidentiality? At this juncture, it seems appropriate to provide a brief explanation of the dilemma with which Your Humble Correspondent is confronted.

The daily commute includes an ambulatory section (rest assured this is taken at a gentle pace!) from the Hellhole to Ebisu Station, and for weeks one's eyes were drawn to a rather nondescript eatery with the quaint name Bistro Aida [Map] (the aida piece being the Japanese for 'space'). An innocent quip like "What ho! I do believe I have found another little gem..." was enough for The Once and Future Blonde to determine that we should visit said establishment (together, apparently). So we went ... but a different "we" than she imagined. As it happened, there was the appointment with The Adjutant that needed some sort of suitable venue. And the rest is history, Gentle Reader.

Chef Seiji Omote has this place humming since its opening in February 2010, and it is a real "keeper". There is only one omakase offering with six courses including the amuse, for the princely sum of Y3,800 plus supplements for various choices in the Plat Principal and Dessert courses. But the food is heavenly ...

Your Humble Correspondent was quite taken with the Hors D'oeuvre of Fois Gros Pate and Wagyu Carpaccio in a Yuzu and Kabu foam, which was served with four ambrosial slices of Kyo-vegetables (white, black, and red turnips along with black daikon). Our excellent Bagna Cauda was served with two very interesting salts as an alternative with the vegetables: sumi-shio (charcoal salt) and smokii-shio (smoked salt) from Fukushima. Only in Japan, one imagines, but these are both real taste treats that are by themselves reason enough to visit Bistro Aida.

The main course meant duck of course, served with a fascinating sabayon (syllabub to some) of fois gros and puree of porcini mushrooms. It must have been the military testosterone, but we both showed typical reserve by plumping for cheese instead of dessert (which was a Sweet Potato and Apple Pie with cinnamon ice cream).

The wine list is good and well priced, and The Adjutant and I shared a very good Domaine Millet Sancerre 2008 and a 2006 Burgundy that escaped detection. In spite of this extravagance, our bill came to less than Y30,000.

Most of the people in the room were considerably younger than YHC, a sad occurrence that is becoming all too frequent in recent years. But if Bistro Aida is a date spot for sophisticated 30-somethings, it is a refined and all together elegant one which lives up to its mission statement as "a restaurant for adults."

Visit with friends and lovers rather than business colleagues, who would no doubt turn Bistro Aida to their own evil ends. And look for the more mature lurker in the corner - it would be nice to make your acquaintance!

Pip! Pip!

Bistro Aida [Map]: 1F No. 2 AS Bldg, 1-16-33 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku; t: 03-5422-9685
Rating: Food: 8/10; Wine: 7/10; Service: 7/10; Maturity: 7/10; Price-Performance: 8/10. Total: 37/50 (3 Forks)

Saturday, 4 December 2010

EOIT rates the Michelin 2011 Tokyo 2-Stars

What is it, Gentle Reader, that makes the difference between a 3-Star and a 2-Star?

One could be tempted to suggest that at least for the Tokyo Michelin Guide 2011 that difference lies in some gourmandesque battle between Japanese and Western cuisines among the beknighted Inspecteurs Michelin. The proportion of non-Japanese venues among the 2-Stars "feels" higher than the 3-Star list, but reading between the lines of the commentary one can't help but get a feeling that there is some sort of jingoism at play.

And yet, if one assumes that the target audience for said Guide includes the Office Ladies and Gentlemen plus the faux-gourmands of the "international set" (kokusai-ha) of Japan then the preponderance of Japanese restaurants may indeed be a mathematical oddity as the good people at Michelin claim. Not likely, but certainly a possibility.

Still, it might be interesting to survey Guide buyers to determine how many of the starred restaurants which seat 11 or 15 people they are actually able to afford to visit. A less kind perspective would be that these are "wrapping paper" rankings and not meant to guide any sensible diner's selection. You will no doubt notice that Your Humble Correspondent has a slightly different set of ratings.

Aimee Vibert French Tel: 03-5216-8585; 14-1 Nibancho, Chiyoda-ku. EOIT Rating: 3 Forks
The setting is elegant, and the Ile de France cuisine gentle on the fork and perhaps the imagination. Chef Wakatsuki is hugely talented, yet one gets the impression that tradition and pomp are rather over-weighted to keep up with the "tone" of the neighbourhood. Think Knightsbridge, Belgravia and Chelsea. Think cuisine classique. Think JPY35K per person.

Ajiman Fugu Tel: 03-3408-2910; 3-8-8 Roppongi, Minato-ku. EOIT Rating: 3 Forks
There is a awful lot going on here at Ajiman, and it is perhaps a little unapproachable for fugu novices. At the same time, there is a warm sense of professionalism and the Matsubara clan make for a tight counter and "floor" team (there is actually no floor to speak of). Getting reservations can sometimes be a chore, and the JPY40K+ bill at the end can leave one shaking one's head at the profitability inherent in audacity.

Argento Aso Italian contemporary Tel: 03-5524-1270;9F, ZOE Ginza, 3-3-1 Ginza, Chuo-ku. EOIT Rating: 4 Forks
The wonders of alphabetical ordering make this the first of the Hiramatsu Group restaurants in the Guide, although it perhaps does not deserve such prominence within the HG's 24 venues (and counting!). The formality and precision of the operation is typical of a Hiramatsu venue, and this military style can sometimes carry over to the food. Still, a very feminine venue that is bound to impress first-time visitors. JPY30K.

Chugoku Hanten Fureika UP! Chinese Tel: 03-5561-7788; 3-7-5 Higashi Azabu, Minato-ku. EOIT Rating: 3 Forks
This is the jewel in the crown of the five restaurant Fureika group, and boasts an elegant setting to match the very high quality Chinese cuisine on offer. This is Japanese-style traditional Chinese fare, so don't expect any surprises in terms of contemporary cooking. The service style and high-end customer service strike some as a little hide-bound. Expect a bill of about JPY30K each.

Crescent French Tel: 03-3436-3211; 1-8-20 Shiba-Koen, Minato-ku.  EOIT Rating: Barely 3 Forks
Hmmm. The first impression here is faux Victorian - the splendid building was constructed seventy years too  late for the dumpy Dowager Queen in 1968. The cuisine follows the same basic trend: this is definitely cuisine classique with a heavy dose of fin de siecle trills and frippery. The business was originally an antique dealer, and based on the food likely still is. The addition will be about JPY30K each.

Cuisine Michel Troisgros French contemporary Tel: 03.5321.3915 Hyatt Regency Hotel 1F, 2-7-2 Nishi-Shinjyuku , Shinjuku-ku. EOIT Rating: 4 Forks
Good friends swear by this place, and this is one Michelin rating that Your Humble Correspondent can wholeheartedly support. The cuisine matches the very contemporary architecture of the Shinjuku area, and at times leans heavily towards a constructionist approach. Service is, of course, excellent. While the location is a little down-market, this restaurant certainly is not and well worth the JPY20K you'll pay.

Daigo Shonin Tel: 03-3431-0811 Forest Tower 2F, 2-3-1 Atago , Minato-ku EOIT Rating: 4 Forks
As far as we know, there are no other 2-star Buddhist temple cuisine restaurants in the world. While this alone is ample reason to visit, you will be amazed at the stunning food and the remarkably tranquil experience at Daigo. Although the overarching philosophy is ahisma or non-violence, "vegetarian" is an entirely adequate shortcut. This may be the most refreshing JPY20K you will spend in Tokyo.

Fugu Fukuji Fugu  Tel: 03-5148-2922; 3F Koda Bldg, 5-11-13 Ginza, Chuo-ku  EOIT Rating: 3 Forks
Here they go with the poisonous fish thing again. To be sure, EOIT rates this place above Usuki which somehow garnered a 3-star rating. There's a whole lot more originality at Fukiji for a start, and everyone seems frightfully busy although JPY30K seems a little steep. Perhaps the rent is high ...

Fukudaya Kaiseki Tel: 03-3261-8577 6-12 Kioicho, Chiyoda-ku. EOIT Rating: 5 Forks
An invitation to Fukudaya is a sure sign one has finally made the "Big Time". This kaiseki-ya has been serving refined food that pleases both eye and palate for 70 years, although there are those who see that tradition as a mere bagatelle compared to other venues (mostly un-Michelin-ed). Be invited rather than inviting, as JPY50K + per head can empty a bank account faster than YHC can drink a coupe de champagne.

Fukuju UP! Kaiseki Tel: 03-3571-8596 5F, 8-8-19 Ginza, Chuo-ku EOIT Rating: 2 Forks
Fukuju has lifted its rating from 1- to 2-stars. Heaven knows why! Perhaps the service and quality goes up as the inspectors become jourenkyaku at some of these venues. There are 8 counter seats and a private room for 8 - and the experience will cost a massive JPY60K per person. You're paying more for exclusiveness than excellence - this is one kaiseki where you won't bump into Your Humble Correspondent!

Harutaka UP! Sushi Tel: 03-3573-1144; Kawabata Building 3F, 8-5-8 Ginza, Chuo-ku. EOIT Rating: 4 Forks
If you ask sushi chefs and industry-insiders where they head for sushi, they will invariably tell you Harutaka. It may be an age thing, but there seems to be more energy and a greater sense of a shared journey of discovery with Harutaka Takahashi. An excellent thing, and a welcome change from the discipleship required at some venues ranked higher. Dinner will cost about JPY20K. Visitors: You should choose to go here!

Hatsunezushi Sushi Tel: 03-3731-2403; 5-20-2 Nishi-Kamata, Ota-ku. EOIT Rating: NOT YET!
One needs to be an explorer to find Hantsunezushi, way out in Ota Ward (Actually, it's only a little over 350m from JR Kamata Station). YHC refrains from restaurants where one needs sustenance en route, so we haven't ventured out this far into Tokyo's suburban jungle. On Tabelog, it only rates 3.62 out of 5, which suggests a little elitism on the part of the Guide. The rumor is that you'll need about JPY20K per person.

Hishinuma Kaiseki Tel:03-3568-6588 B1F, AXIS Bldg, 5-17-1 Roppongi, Minato-Ku EOIT Rating: 4 Forks
Gadzooks, Gentle Reader! Les Inspecteurs have snuck one in on us here. Probably the most approachable kaiseki in Tokyo, with a natty little wine list to go along with it. Very popular, and you should get the butler to make a reservation ahead of time. Easy to find (if you can get past the French Fries upstairs at Va Tout), and well worth the JPY20K per head.

Horikane Japanese Contemporary Tel: 03-3280-4629 ; 1F, Maison ITO, 5-10-13 Shirokanedai, Minato-Ku. EOIT Rating: NOT YET
That ravenously popular Japanese site Tabelog only rates Horikane at 3.37, although that probably reflects the expectations of the younger crowd who contribute to said site. The menu sounds sublime. Expect about JPY30K per person in "damage". YHC will toddle along shortly.

Come back regularly, there's MORE TO FOLLOW ...

EOIT rates the Michelin 2011 Tokyo 3-Stars

Tokyo is, apparently, the culinary capital of the world. So much so that it boasts 266 venues that rate at least one Michelin star. That number is even more impressive when one considers that there are only 7 inspectors (all Japanese) and they can only visit a small percentage of Tokyo's 200,000 eating establishments.

But methinks it is time for some kaizen, laddies. One gets the overwhelming impression from the 2011 edition that Tokyo is rather the capital of Japanese cuisine, which it absolutely should be. I'm all for celebrating washoku-arity, but something is amiss and the whiff of a synthesized Japo-Gallic arrogance is in the air.

At the same time, Tokyo is home to a stunning array of non-Japanese restaurants which I fear M. Michelin is ignoring in order to keep sales of the guide at 150K. A nice little earner, I'm sure, but in the view of Your Humble Correspondent sells the Edo dining experience considerably short. Perhaps, Sir, you might enlist even one non-Japanese reviewer so that we can see balance restored.

Here's the list of this year's Michelin 3-stars listed alphabetically:
Araki (Debut) Sushi Tel: 03-3545-0199 Sunlitte Ginza II 1F 5-14-14 Ginza, Chuo-ku
If any sushi restaurant deserves the express elevator straight to the top of the Michelin rankings, then it is surely Araki. In my particular and peculiar opinion, there is more show than sushi - but then again, see the "trencherman" comment to the right of the page!

Esaki Japanese Contemporary Tel: 03-3408-5056 Hills Aoyama B1F, 3-39-9 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku
For a place hidden away in the residential part of Jingu-mae, Esaki gets a lot of well-deserved attention. This kaiseki restaurant focuses on food purity and "safety". Ask for the details of their organic vegetable supplier ... the produce is stunning!

Hamadaya (Rank Up) Japanese Tel: 03-3661-5940 Ningyocho, 3-13-5 Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku
Hadayama is the real deal - a passion for great ingredients, delightful presentation, and an angelic balance of flavors and textures. If you're visiting - or living here and need to impress visitors - you can't go wrong at Hamadaya.

Ishikawa Japanese Tel: 03-5225-0173 3-4 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku
Kagurazaka needs another fine restaurant in the same way that London needs another pub. But if you're in this part of Tokyo, and you're in the mood for both some exploration (it's hard to find) and high-brow kaiseki, then Ishikawa fits the bill. It all seems a little pretentious for Your Humble Correspondent, but there's no doubt the food is first-rate.

Joel Robuchon French Contemporary Tel: 03-5424-1338 Ebisu Garden Place, 1-13-1 Mita, Meguro-ku
One has to question Michelin's definition of "contemporary", but this restaurant would deserve three stars whatever city it chose to grace. Probably the best cheese board on the planet, and more varieties of bread than one can possibly comprehend without reaching for multi-dimensional mathematics. Excellent wine list that doesn't forget older whites (no pun intended). Unfortunately one needs to rob a bank to enjoy the full spectrum of what M. Robuchon has to offer, but it might be worth the gaol sentence if there is time off for good behavior.

Kanda Japanese Tel: 03-5786-0150 3-6-34 Moto-Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Your Humble Correspondent's previous Hellhole was in Moto-Azabu, and Kanda was that place that one always wanted to visit but never got around to ... Lack-a-day friends who have visited (but failed to invite) say that the food here is remarkable even for a three-star.

Koju Japanese Tel: 03-6215-9544 8-5-25 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
If you were, God forbid, at a gastronomic short end in Ginza then Koju is restaurant enough to restore your faith in food. Exceptional seasonal produce, with the finesse and delicacy of Japanese cuisine on display here. Chef Toru Okuda is a proudly confident master of his trade.

Quintessence French Contemporary Tel: 03-5791-3715 5-4-7 Shirokanedai, Minato-ku
Not on your Nellie! There is way too much ego and energy on the table at Quintessence to deserve a three star rating. While Chef Shuzo Kishida is still only 36, there is no doubt he can cook. But he can't control an agressive floor team whose poor manners drag down a good restaurant.

7chome Kyoboshi (Rank Up) Tempura  Ozio Ginza Bldg 6F, 5-5-9 Ginza, Chuo-ku
Interesting choice by Michelin ... no doubt the best tempura in the world, but 3-stars? For sheer virtuosity and creativity, this is one restaurant you should try if visiting Tokyo. Save you pennies, because it is certainly not cheap. Sakakibara-san does amazing things with batter and bits, but after all it is just a fish-fry. This is one sign that the all-Japanese Michelin inspector team has got things a little out of whack. In Japanese, a little too マニアック (or, the dude's gone mono on us)!.

Sukiyabashi Jiro Honten Sushi Tel: 03-3535-3600 , Tsukamoto Bld. B1F, 2-15 Ginza 4-chome, Chuo-ku
Jiro Ono is 84 years old and he's not going to be hurried by anyone. He says he has one more year at the helm of the best sushi restaurant in the world. The thing to notice here is the quality of the rice, and the intensity of the food - to the eye, to the mouth, to the brain. English speakers are only entertained at the Roppongi venue, so if you don't speak Japanese you need to find a friend... quick. This is seriously the one sushi experience you don't want to miss.

Sushi Mizutani Sushi Tel: 03-3573-5258 Seiwa Silver Building B1F, 8-2-10 Ginza, Chuo-ku
Mizutani-san is very serious about sushi, and you had better be as well if you get along to this fabulous 10 seat temple to fish. The location near Shimbashi station is good, and the price is good value (actually, that's a relative statement because good sushi is never cheap). The art is in the selection of the fish, they say, and there is no better example than Sushi Mizutani.

Sushi Saito Sushi Tel: 03-3589-4412 Nihon Jitensha Kaikan 1F, 1-9-15 Akasaka, Minato-ku
Sigh! Why on earth one would take a superb sushi-ya and move it to outside the US Embassy well away from "sushi alley" in and around Tsukiji / Ginza is beyond me. I think the 2009 rating of 2-stars is probably closer to the mark. Sushi Saito is all about Saito-san, and he's always happy to lecture diners (in Japanese) about the art and cant of sushi. Perhaps it's that personal attention that has attracted the eye of Michelin inspectors. Calm down boys!

Usukifugu Yamadaya (Rank Up) Fugu Tel: 03-3499-5501 Fleg Nishi-Azabu, 4-11-14 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku
Nothing like a little poison to spice up your ranking! The Japanese passion for the poisonour puffer fish is well know, although it's all a little over the top if you ask me. If you're lucky to be one of the 23 people seated (22 if you go with me) here, you had better have about JPY30K in your pocket because this place is not cheap. Perhaps the fish fly first class on their daily journey from Usuki in Kyushu. But remember, several people die every year from Fugu poisoning in Japan ... although no-one can remember the last time it happened here.

Yukimura Japanese Tel: 03-5772-1610 3F, 1-5-5 Azabu-Juban, Minato-ku
There is no doubt this place is the pick of the kaiseki 3-stars. You'd never know, as it is located on the 3rd floor in a nondescript building in the Azabu Juban. But the things he does with food ... oh be still my racing heart! Be warned: no tables, only 11 counter seats, and a prix fixe. You should be thinking JPY40K.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Restaurant J - Prithee, A Moment's Silence

Gentle Reader, it is with deep regret that we advise that master chef Masahito Ueki is soon (actually, today!) to leave Restaurant J for destinations as yet unknown. It seems that there is some considerable difference between Chef and his business partner in terms of direction and policy for Restaurant J going forward.

What an pity! While Your Humble Correspondent does not pretend to understand the gritty details of foul commerce, it is obvious even to him that some level of profit is essential to good financial health. At the same time, stand-out quality in a city that boasts a galaxy of Michelin stars is a must-have and Chef is within his rights to demand a free hand in the kitchen.

This outcome is sad for all of us who are fans of Ueki-san, although his commitment to delighting diners - and to opening again soon in a new venue - leave us with the hope that he will rise pheonix-like from the ashes of a spoiled relationship to even greater heights. Chef is a singular talent; and if greatness comes at least partially from passion and unwillingness to compromise in matters culinary, then we have a treat on our hands once he finds new digs.

One faint (feint?) glimmer of light from all of this is that spills and tumbles are always signs of an active and energetic gastronomic culture, and the rejection of "gaman" in favor of integrity augurs well for a bright future for diners in our fair city by the bay.

Your Humble Correspondent will no doubt wend his weary way to "The J" to document the fall of a good restaurant, and will race to put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard?) as soon as possible [although not this evening as I am off to Bistro Aida!].

Until then, then ...

Pip! Pip!

Monday, 29 November 2010

Restaurant Davis - Hidden Treasure

The article in the Japan Times about Restaurant Davis some two years by the effable Robbie Swinnerton caused Your Humble Correspondent no end of consternation, Gentle Reader. The Once and Future Blonde pointed out said article, and asked why we had not yet visited such a fine establishment. To which one could only respond "dunno", in the best traditions of conjugal communication. That started a brief but energetic campaign targeted at Mr. Davis in a vain attempt to earn an invitation. Foolish, really ... he was really far too busy with matters economical, and had the undoubted good taste to murmur something soothing before turning his face away to concentrate on other, more socially reliable interlocutors.
Mrs. Davis, on the other hand, has been welcoming vagabonds for some 12 years in the Takanawa edition of Restaurant and Wine Bar Davis, along with a brief interlude in a second venue in the vicinity of Daimon. In my humblest of opinions, this is a restaurant that you should mark down in your little red book as a "keeper". Well-oiled and efficient are words that come to mind at first blush, but that would take something away from the wonderful food and wine; and the atmosphere redolent with ... umm ... restaurantness. Mrs. Davis has a very good chef with her here, and the home-made (jikasei) anything is well worth trying. Meats - particularly those that might cause another less-capable to tremble - roll out of this kitchen. One hears that Christmas sees roast goose and traditional Xmas pudding available to the lucky few with the foresight to book early.

The seafood is sourced from reliable providors all over Japan, and Chef shows a deft hand here as well. Firmness and flakiness are the mark of any good fish, and the dish that YHC shared with The Texan Ranger (Note to self: I wonder if he found it difficult to find R&WBD?) was testament to a deep vein of experience and flair. The pastas should neither be overlooked, with excellent seasonality and full flavors.

Above all, one mustn't ignore the wine list. Others have offered fulsome praise, which can only be echoed in these dreary pages. But the refreshing thing about Mrs Davis' list is that it is both eclectic and representative of the world's major vignobles, showing discernment and a firm hand on the rudder.

There are those who complain that Restaurant Davis is hard to find: Pshaw! It is actually quite simple really, and only took Your Humble Correspondent about 30 minutes from 150 meters away. One feckless approach might be:
  1. Ask your reinsman to take you to Takanawa Police Station...
  2. Across the street is the Takanawa Fire Station with a natty fire observation tower (rodai) adorning the roof ...
  3. It may be useful to take the tour of the Fire Station which includes the observation deck so that you can eyeball your eventual destination ...
  4. Head north along the road towards Tokyo Tower until your reach the first street to your right ...
  5. Delight your companion by buying a flower, and then ...
  6. Turn right (east) until you hit the first road on your left...
  7. Turn left (north) until you see the sign for Restaurant Davis on the left...
  8. Complain that it is difficult to find. You'll be in good company.
A word on the l'addition - Restaurant Davis is remarkably ... well, cheap ... for the value received and one should not doubt Mrs Davis' arithmetical skills. The bill is correct and represents real value for money.

 Restaurant and Wine Bar Davis should only be enjoyed with friends and lovers, and it may benefit the rest of us if you only take them once. There is no chance they will remember where it is with only one visit, and then reservations will still be readily available for Fat Boys and vagabonds!

Pip! Pip!
Restaurant Davis: 2-5-6 Takanawa, Minato-ku; t: 03-3440-6007
Rating: Food: 7/10; Mrs Davis-ness: 7/10; Service: 7/10; Ambiance: 7/10; Price-Performance: 9/10. Total: 37/50 (3 Forks)

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Ristorante FRICK

So what does one do, Gentle Reader, when confronted with a restaurant with a name like "Frick" [Map]? Wouldn't you, like Your Humble Correspondent, be tempted to give one just out of common courtesy? At the very least, we could then answer the eternal question of just who gave one anyway.

Now that the cheap puns are out of the way, you will no doubt be relieved to learn that "Frick" is in fact "FRICK" (well, one hopes you fr^*king care) and serves the laudable purpose of commemorating the founding team of this treasure of a restaurant. Each of them were generous enough to donate the initial letter of their given names to the venue's title. One wonders how that worked out for them ... Isao would be somewhat bland as "Sao". [Most Australians will recognize the previous sentence as another 'crumby' pun.]

Ristorante Frick is, though, a thoroughly happy surprise. Perched somewhat skittishly between Omotesando and Nishi-Azabu opposite the Nezu Art Museum, it seamlessly combines the youth and energy of the former and the fine dining and tradition of the latter. Owner-Chef Fukuda Kei (or is that now "Ei"?) is out to cut a dashing figure on the Tokyo dining scene, and his opening of FRICK in May 2008 has served to create and sustain an enviable reputation. He is often seen at major events, like the recent "Interior" exhibition, and is developing a presence as a personality.

One earnestly hopes that this does not "go to his head", because celebrity and chef-ing go together like costume jewellery and decolletage. The former is trashy and flashy, and takes away one's attention from the latter. Based on this admittedly arbitary yardstick, Gordon Ramsay is thus a celebrity and Joel Robuchon a chef.

Meanwhile, back in Minami-Aoyama ... FRICK sources its produce daily from the best suppliers all over Japan - literally from the farm gate or mooring. The goal is to present the very best of seasonal ingredients in prime condition, in an atmosphere that is both welcoming and subtly familiar. And it all succeeds surprisingly well. Whether Fukuda-san can become the Japanese Rick Stein remains to be seen, but anything that celebrates the food heroes of Japanese gastronomy gets Your Humble Correspondent's approbation immediately!

On a recent visit (perhaps we were early, but we seemed to be the only people there not on a wage), there were a number of excellent examples of what regional produce is all about, with Chef showing considerable knowledge and selectivity. It must be a courier's nightmare, getting all of these "MUST DELIVER TODAY" and "DELIVERY BEFORE 3PM" packages to Ristorante FRICK. A jolly nuisance, one imagines, but the resulting vegetable dishes and delicate pastas and wonderful risottos are testimony to both the skill of the FRICK kitchen team and the Japanese logistics network.

FRICK also has a reasonable wine list with more-than-reasonable prices, and excellent advice from an observant sommelier. More importantly, it also serves Moretti birra ... which was the only thing between Your Humble Correspondent and The Once and Future Blonde withering in the Tuscan heat a few summers ago. A delicious beer that cleans the palette in true PCB style, and never over-powers the flavors of the meal!

Get along to FRICK with friends and lovers - this is not a place one would want to waste on a Boss. It is far too refined and elegant for that. Should you see a fat boy counting delivery vans somewhere in the vicinity, be a good chap or chappess and ask me in for an aperitif. After all: someone, some time soon, is going to have to enlighten these brave lads on the alternative meaning of Frick.

Pip! Pip!

Ristorante FRICK: Home SQ 2F, 4-24-8 Minami-Aoyama, Higashi-Shinbashi, Minato-ku. t: 03-6905-7311
Rating: Food: 7/10; Moretti-ness: 7/10; Service: 8/10; Ambiance: 7/10; Price-Performance: 8/10. Total: 37/50 (3 Forks)

Thursday, 25 November 2010

China Blue - A Slice of Chinese Heaven

It's been some time, gentle Reader, since we last shared thoughts epicurean on these pages. What with my beloved Mater passing on, two of the Cost Centers being wed within eight days of each other, Your Humble Correspondent's forced exile in Yokohama, and The Once and Future Blonde being variously abroad, absent or otherwise occupied - it has been slightly frantic to say the least. Not conducive to bacchanalia at all, really.

It would be silly to suggest one hasn't dined sumptuously in the interim, but we have relied on various favorites like Trattoria Tornavento, Restaurant J, Tanger, Le Recamier, and Le garcon among others. Not content to rest on any ill-deserved laurels, we've tried some new (to YHC) venues like Restaurants Davis and Frick (Reviews coming soon). And our eyes are on some new places like Aux Chats Qui Peche in Hiroo, which opened its doors in October.

But while digression is always the better part of valor, the purpose at hand is to sing the praises of China Blue in the Conrad Tokyo [Map] at Shiodome. Awarded a Michelin star for the last three years in a row, this is a very good restaurant where Chef Albert Tse (originally of Jiang-Na Chun in Singapore) crafts elegant yet wonderfully contemporary Chinese food with a flair and élan that leaves Your Humble Correspondent begging for more. Combine this with the superb views over Hama Rikkyu park, and one might just imagine that one is part-way to Heaven … or Elysium at least!

The recent “Jasmine” lunch set that The Banker and YHC enjoyed was at once full of whimsy and weft, with peeks into many corners of the Chinese cooking genre. We started with Singapore Rice Cake, and after the mutual rapture (see Heaven, above), we immediately agreed that we were in for something special. The delicious slow-roasted pork with bread is a highly original take on both Char Siew and the soft Chinese dumpling. The Seafood Noodles combines lovingly-crafted and toothsome noodles with a veritable aquarium of seafood in a broth that brings to mind the best Tom Yum Goong. The dessert plate included sweetened sesame-ed fried noodles and an elysian elixir of passionfruit soup – a sure way to YHC’s heart!

Speaking of Michelin stars, our fair borough recently reinforced its standing as the most-starred city with 3 new restaurants at the highest level to move to 14 three-starred establishments, 54 with 2 stars, and a huge 198 one-star hostelries. To be fair, the Guide included Yokohama (2 two-stars and 14 one-stars) and Kamakura (10 one-stars) this year for a massive total of 266 venues. Nothing for it but to start at the start, and end once the doctor discovers … maybe 100 restaurants in!

In any event, do yourself an enormous favor and find an excuse to visit China Blue in the near future. It’s certainly more deserving of a star than Gordon’s co-located and eponymous place next door, and you will impress any and all punters with your choice of venue.

And if you’re one person short of a full table, a quick e-mail should be enough to have YHC present himself in all his full fat-boy glory!

Pip, pip!

China Blue [Map]: Conrad Tokyo, 1-9-1 Higashi-Shinbashi, Minato-ku, Tokyo. t: 03-6388-8000
Rating: Food: 8/10; Jasmine Tea: 8/10; Service: 8/10; Heavenliness: 8/10; Price-Performance: 8/10. Total: 40/50

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

With abject apologies ...

It has been some time, Gentle Reader, since your Humble Correspondent forced his way in on your attentions. Truth is, I have been away - literally, emotionally, and gastronomically. For this I beg forebearance and forgiveness.

While it wouldn't do to bore you with the details, it has been a frenetic year. What passes for a mind has been taken up with hatches (one), matches (two), and dispatches (one) in The Year of Our Lord 2010 ...

Still, it is surely about time to come up for air. Having moved to a new Hellhole in the decidedly un-chic part of Hiroo, there are a whole postle of establishments that are about to have terror brought upon them by a slightly rotund yet well-intended individual. Who just happens to be a little picky about food. And wine. And service. And who is unstinting in his own 'umble efforts to serve you, the dining aristocracy.

Stay tuned for posts on (in no particular order) China Blue, Ristorante FRICK, Restaurant Davis, and some other random thoughts. We will share some unabridged commentary on the new Michelin ratings.

Look for some reviews of more of my Hong Kong favorites. Perhaps even some hints on where to source the best ingredients for that special dinner party ... provided you promise to send an invitation! Shameless self-promotion, by Gad!

Until then, then:

Pip! Pip!

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Le Clos Montmartre - Worth further investigation!

Only an unfortunate rapscallion like your Humble Correspondent would find himself with a teetotaller in a Kagurazaka bistro like Le Clos Montmatre that had been established by renowned French sommelier Jannic Durand. Hard to fathom really. Considerable lack of foresight, and world-class lack of planning.

At the same time, the recommendation of my vinetarius Eric the Cork was too good to pass up, Gentle Reader, especially when one was journeying to Suidobashi anyhow. Lavish praise is due to Eric, for this is indeed a splendid little spot! To my mind, the most accurate and concise description of Le Clos is provided by our erudite and amazingly informed friends at Pig Out Diary who described it as "authentic". Pig Out Diary is one of the best Tokyo food blogs we have encountered, Gentle Reader, although sadly it doesn't link to this Humble collection of mutterings.

"Authentic!", it is (note the added exclamation mark). Le Clos Montmatre prides itself on refusing to Japonicize its food and service style. Your Humble Correspondent likes this approach - the food is prepared and delivered with an eye more to quality and taste than sugoi-ness or performance.

We sampled a variety of dishes - pretty little quiches, meaty terrines, comfortable confits, a splendid little salad, and some quite remarkable seafood. The single terrible disappointment was that one was reduced to drinking apple juice (although there was a slight indulgence in a pleasant little pinot which appeared to one's left, and deserved a modicum of attention). The service was attentive yet non-intruding, and M. Durand's steady control of proceedings was evident despite the homme himself being rather retiring.

M. Durand believes that there are many wonderful wines to be discovered in the space between the grand chateau and 2-shilling plonk. He is of course correct. His goal is to - bless him - sacrifice himself on our behalfby finding these wines. One has to admire his dedication, for the wines on offer are amazingly varied and remarkably well-chosen. This chap is a bit of a globe-trotter, and after a stint at a Paris 2-star babysitting 28,000 bottles representing about 3,000 labels he was sommelier at Belle Epoche at the Hotel Okura for 8 years. He opened Le Clos in 1998.

Finding information on this restaurant is almost as difficult as finding the place itself - to achieve the latter, intrepid travellers should walk up Waseda-dori from Sotobori-dori to the Royal Host. Without entering that house of pain, turn right and then take the next right down the alleyway.

Your Humble Correspondent will be visiting Le Clos Montmatre again soon. You will be able to identify me through the conspicuous lack of apple juice on the table. Cast a weather eye over the clientele, Gentle Reader, and should you glimpse a likely and furtive rapscallion you might consider sending over a glass of said juice. For which you would earn my undying enmity ...

Le Clos Montmatre [Map]: Ryo1 Kagurazaka Bldg. 1F, 2-12 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku Ward. t: 03-5228-6478 [Closed Sunday]
Rating: Food: 7/10; Apple Juice: 7/10; Service: 7/10; Ambiance: 7/10; Price-Performance: 7/10. Total: 35/50

Daikichi - A Stroke of Luck!

It was with melancholy tread, Gentle Reader, that we wound our way to Daikichi in Daikanyama [No web site, but this summary in Japanese] [Map] to bid adieu to dear Lady Piffle and Lord Schatzie. The Once and Future Blonde had arranged to meet this delightful couple during the very hectic lead-up to their departure from these fair shores, and finding himself at a loose end your Humble Correspondent toodled along as well. Schatzie himself had promised that this was an entirely admirable yakitori restaurant, and so the evening promised much enjoyment despite the impending sadness.

Most casual observers would assume that yakitori is a firmly traditional Japanese addition to gastronomy, although in cheaper establishments it perhaps is more often pabulum than delicacy. Truth be told, Gentle Reader, yakitori is a relatively recent addition to the galaxy of Japanese food styles. It is rather a surprise that the food took the generic name yakitori, because most skewered dishes in the Edo period (1603-1868) were in fact oden and tofu treats. Gradually, street hawkers began to grill a range of fowl (but not chicken) as well.

Japanese in general did not really start eating meat until the Meiji Period (1868 - 1912), and chicken meat was actually more of a luxury then than beef. Sukiyaki also raised its pretty head at this time (Sidestep: suki is a hoe or spade, and yaki means "to broil". This was predominately a fish dish until about 1900), as well as meat-based donburi like gyudon.

Chicken yakitori made with Cochin chicken achieved some measure of favour with the more well-heeled during the Taisho Period (1912 - 1926) but the style really only enjoyed wider popularity from the 1960's when broiler chickens from the United States started to be imported in appropriate quantities. Indeed, if one opts for the non-chicken varieties one will closer to the roots of this cuisine than one might imagine. For a more "authentic" selection, try pork with the tare sauce or the very rare venues that still offer historically accurate but perhaps kawaiso-challenged skewered fowl like Japanese pheasant, quail, duck, geese, sparrows, bulbuls, and lark. Or not, as is your wont.

Your Humble Correspondent is quite the fan of good yakitori, and on this measure Daikichi is a skewer above its competitors. Those in the know advise that Daikichi buys produce on a daily basis, depending on quality and likely number of diners. That means ingredients are not frozen or otherwise culinarily abused, and it shows in the wonderful flavours that the restaurant turns out. Service is cheerful and prompt, despite the fact that Daikichi is a family affair (Father, Mother, Daughter) and often gets quite hectic.

We tried (in no particular order) hatsu chicken heart, rebā liver, tsukune chicken meatballs, kawa chicken skin, tebasaki chicken wing, negiwa chicken and scallions, and nankotsu chicken cartilage as well as a scrumptious salad and the to-die-for yaki-onigiri grilled rice cakes. Brau Meister beer from Kirin is on tap, and there is a reasonable selection of sake on offer.

Try Daikichi with friends (only). And spare a thought for Piffle and Schatzie, who will sadly be sans yakitori in Berlin only too soon. It's enough to make a man weep, dear Friends. Until the next course comes ... Irrashaimase!

[Note: I am still to visit Serata in Nishi-Azabu, which I am reliably informed is the best yakitori in the world. Hmmmm ... we'll see!]

Dai Kichi [Map]: B1F, 12-18 Daikanyama, Shibuya Ward. t: 03-3496-9222 [Closed Wednesday]
Rating: Tori: 7/10; Sake: 7/10; Service: 7/10; Skew: 7/10; Price-Performance: 7/10. Total: 35/50

Friday, 9 April 2010

Aux Gourmands - Entirely Apt!

If Aux Gourmands [Map] (Japanese only, review here) was in any other city in the world, Gentle Reader, it would be championed and feted with considerable passion. And it would be impossible to get a reservation for one of the 12 table seats or 5 counter stools. Despite the fact that it is deliberately location-disadvantaged down a laneway in Azabudai ... But with blessed happen-stance, it competes for attention in Tokyo - so that mere mortals like your Humble Correspondent get to savour its superb eccentricities and sharply-focused commitment to quality.

It had been some time, Gentle Reader, since my last chance to dine with Sir James. At his suggestion, we repaired to Aux Gourmands on a cold winter's evening for the serendipitous reason that neither of us had ever been there before. My delightfully Oxbridge companion was not at his best, having joined an Indian business partner singing Beatles songs at karaoke until slightly before 6:00 a.m. Despite that, he had bravely chosen to honor our engagement and was determined to battle on.

It would be false of me, Gentle Reader, not to admit to having getting no little thrill out of the mere name of this establishment. "How entirely apt for an erudite couple like Sir James and moi", I thought. Perhaps he had deliberately chosen this restaurant as some sort of subtle compliment. Perhaps, oh happy thought, he had finally recognized your Humble Correspondent's finer side. No, it was just coincidence he advised, neatly pricking the bubble of ego.

Chef Yokosaki has wended a different road to most chefs. You should know, Gentle Reader, that he boasts a ten year career as a professional boxer prior to starting in the world of gastronomy. This information is offered in your best interests, so that you might avoid overt criticism of the meal. After time studying in France, he was chef at Bistro Mars for four years before opening Aux Gourmands some six years ago.

Our meal was just before your Humble Correspondent's Lenten observance, so we agreed that we would 'omakase' and leave the food up to Chef. Wherein, we were presented with some wonderful small plates of oysters, boudin, and a splendid mousse. You will recall, Gentle Reader, that one doesn't share at table, so this approach by the floor staff seemed appropriate and, well, apt. In terms of libations, Sir James had chosen the Morey St Denis Domaine Paulot 2001 ... thereby demonstrating considerable skill and a certain understanding of my predelictions on the wine front.

Then came some startling courses - firstly a brave Game Terrine followed by a stellar Fois Gras and Truffle risotto and then a simply delightful Porc Couchon. Since my earliest times breasting the table (these days, more like 'belly-ing' the table!), your Humble Correspondent has delighted in carefully prepared crackling as the only proper accompaniment to pork - and Aux Gourmands produces a version that would have the staunchest of friends fighting to the death for the last piece. We finished with a selection of cheeses.

This is a restaurant that deserves your custom, Gentle Reader, as both its name and its food are entirely apt. Suited to people like you, ... and me. You should dine there with friends and colleagues rather than visitors, given the tight seating arrangements. But should you happen to notice a rather noxious individual hunting for crackling in a sort of "Precious" ring-seeker fashion, be kind and look the other way!

Aux Gourmands [Map]: 3-4-14 Azabudai, Minato Ward. t: 03-5114-0195
Rating: Food: 7/10; Wine: 7/10; Service: 7/10; Aptness: 7/10; Price-Performance: 7/10. Total: 35/50

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Restaurant Hiromichi - Elegance emerges in Meguro

There is little that has previously commended itself, Gentle Reader, to the tiresome thoroughfare between Ebisu and Meguro that parallels the railroad tracks. It has been consigned to a dreary existence since it was the scene of some discombobulation by your Humble Correspondent many years back when he tumbled from a motor-scooter and tore the seat out of a new suit. Regardless of the heroics. Regardless, again, of the children thereby saved from perfidy.

But that has all changed now that Restaurant Hiromichi [Map] has landed, as if from some gastronomic Elysium. Or more precisely, now that Chef Hiromichi Kodama has landed from the 1-star Chemins in Akasaka. While it still has some way to go before becoming a gourmands' mecca - after all, there is only one place worth visiting and this is it - there is suddenly a reason to wander lonely as a cloud along this very carriageway. At which your Humble Correspondent is somewhat of an expert.

Chef Kodama aims to produce "jitsuryoku-ha" French cuisine. He succeeds, brilliantly. The Japanese word jitsuryoku is normally translated as capable and effective, but it also has a feeling of "the power behind the throne" in certain uses.

This is more than "capable" cooking; it is a mastery that expresses itself in food that is quietly confident and an unrepentant expression of sublime virtuosity. Chef Kodama represents the younger generation of highly experienced French chefs in Tokyo, the presence of which group goes a long way to explaining the continuing rise of this fair city in the gastronomic halls of fame.

Your Humble Correspondent first ventured there sometime back to meet The Duchess in a vain effort to convince here to add her considerable skills to the burgeoning team in Yokohama. Got my just desserts, actually, because one should never mix business with pleasure - particularly when the pleasure component is as Xanadific as Restaurant Hiromichi.

For entrees, we enjoyed Les Bonbons de boudin noir et pommes de terre croustillantes (nuggets of boudin noir wrapped in crispy potato with a caramel and apple reduction) and Bien fait des mer du printemps,montagnes,et de nature (Goodness, how poetic ... Blessings of the Oceans, Mountains, and Fields, or much more mundanely 'spring salad'). Oh the decadence, oh the delicacy! Delightfully prepared, and each dish a feast for the all the five senses.

Our main courses were Ballottine de "Shamo Kawamata" parfum de romarin (Ballotine of Kawamata gamecock fragranced with Rosemary) and Canard challandaise rôti et Crème de confit de canard (Roasted Challandaise duckling with Cream of Duck Thighs). A coarser scribe might tend to a rampantly sexual description but I shall forbear, except to say that it was better.

Restaurant Hiromichi has over 200 French wines for your enjoyment, although your Humble Correspondent has to admit to not trying them all (yet). The Sancerre we enjoyed was delightfully laced with the minerality of the terroir with a fresh acidic finish, and expressing all of the full character of the fruit.

Enjoy Restaurant Hiromichi with someone special, someone very special indeed. This is one of a handful of restaurants that will be best enjoyed as an occasional extravagance, rather than a casual stop-gap. Try not to visit more than, say, once a week.

And raise a coupe de champagne to the Shadow at the window. After all, The Shadows knows ...

Restaurant Hiromichi [Map]: Mita 1-12-24, Meguro Ward. t: 03-5768-0722
Rating: Food: 8/10; Wine: 8/10; Service: 7/10; Capability: 8/10; Price-Performance: 7/10. Total: 38/50

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Ten ways to ensure a successful dining experience!

Following on from my eccentric and perhaps pompous view of restaurants to avoid, Gentle Reader, it strikes me that one should make some suggestions about how you can ensure that your excursion will be successful. Of course, one could simply offer the observation that you should follow the advice in this blog - but that might be too self-promoting. Instead, permit me to proffer instead the following 10 point guide:

1. Planning Any decent dining experience demands planning. It may sound rather obvious, but one is always surprised at the number of people who start with location, and then consider what restaurant options might be available and who might be invited. Actually, your Humble Correspondent is not without guilt in this respect although I hasten to add that my location "frame" is generally only 'inside the Yamanote Line'. In my view, the hacks have it right when they run through the "Who, What, When, Where, and Why" routine. Take this approach and you'll find that the whole thing falls neatly into place.

2. Reservation Always make a reservation. Any restaurant that does not take reservations does evil at two levels - firstly, by not affording its patrons the appropriate degree of respect by ensuring that they won't be disappointed; and secondly by failing to understand that regular customers are much more valuable than fly-by-night-ers. If the venue does not take reservations, it is a sure sign that it is either it is far too busy for a quiet luncheon or dinner, or not busy enough to require them (and thus you should flee!). If curiosity is still nibbling at your mind, go by yourself and determine which of these alternatives is true!

3. Preferences Do your utmost to determine whether your companions have any dislikes or allergies - this should not impact your restaurant choice, as you are the host and by now you have already determined a venue. However it is important to make sure that you advise the Maitre d' or Chef if any special needs should be addressed. This is appropriately polite towards both your guests and the restaurant, and is simply a matter of good manners.

4. Directions One recalls with some fond nostalgia the days of formal invitations - which often came with a dress code, a set of directions, and occasionally even a map to the designated venue. In these more electronic days, this is sadly no longer a very frequent occurrence. But let this not deter you, Gentle Reader, from doing your guests the courtesy of providing advice and directions ... in a language with which they are both familiar and comfortable! This should include some indication of how formally or informally you will be dressed ... to quote the Bard, clothes maketh man and Hell hath no fury like a woman under-dressed!

5. Welcome While your Humble Correspondent is often guilty in the breach, one should refrain from long-winded speeches and scholarly dissertations at any gathering. It is tedious and - frankly - boorish. But at the same time, it is important to welcome people warmly to an event and introduce them to one another if necessary. It helps to establish the right relationships between people, provides boundaries for new relationships, and confirms one's own status as host ... and referee.

6. Menu Choices It is the height of impoliteness, Gentle Reader, to choose courses on behalf of your guests unless you have advised in advance that it is a set course menu (and you have followed my advice in 3 above!). However, when dining a la carte you have every right as host to share your experience (briefly! See 5 above) of both Chef's precocity and peccadilloes -and you should! After all, people are at the restaurant at your suggestion. At the same time, avoid discoursing about your preferences.

7. Wine The safest course when confronted with choosing wine is to rely on the sommelier, unless you have pre-arranged a selection matched to the food and you have advised your guests appropriately. Or when you have arranged the event to feature the wine ... and even then you should make sure the sommelier knows which wines will be served in which order. If guests are providing wine (always a splendid idea in my humble estimation), it is good form to ask for a brief introduction and an indication if and where other guests may acquire some of the same.

8. Witty Conversation Your primary function at this event, Gentle Reader, is to act as host - it is therefore important to maintain at least a facade of sobriety and to gently guide conversation both towards and away from entertaining topics of conversation. Your contributions should thus be engaging rather than definitive, and you should take pains to ensure that all parties at least have an equal opportunity to participate. Above all, be tasteful and witty - and avoid the loud "parade ground" volume that is a feature of your Humble Correspondent's vocal range.

9. The Account Some may call me stuffy, Gentle Reader, but it is only polite that you meet the costs of the feast unless you have a pre-arrangement with your guests or you have advised them of the approximate cost beforehand. This helps avoid the embarrassing shuffling of credit cards at the conclusion of the meal, or a look of surprised consternation when you ask for a king's ransom to pay for your extravagant choices at 6 and 7 above!

10. Thank You's Regardless of how you assess the success or failure of the event, it is obligatory to thank a number of parties. First and foremost, your guests - not only does this indicate the respect and esteem in which you hold them, but it also has the salubrious effect of providing a demure and sensitive way to bring proceedings to a close. Do not fail to thank the chef and the restaurant staff (in that order), as well as any individual that may have made a notable contribution to the evening.

One hopes that these suggestions help you ensure your next excursion is a success. If so, then it is solely due to my efforts. If not, then - on the contrary - it is solely due to your own desultory performance.

Pip Pip!

Monday, 5 April 2010

Bonne Femme - A little saucy for some!

One begins to intimately understand the fancies and foibles of friends, Gentle Reader, when one is engaged in this foodie blogging thing. Some like it hot, some like it slow, others prefer gentle, and still others look for urbanity and sophistication. While there's no accounting for it, people's tastes really are quite varied. And in the humble opinion of this Casual Observer, there is not much profit in trying to satisfy all.

We ventured as 16 brave souls of the Tokyo Darkside recently to Bistro Bonne Femme in Tameike [Map]. It had come strongly recommended by none other than Gourmand Eric Dahler [Eric's Wine Prosperite] as a venue particularly suited to our formidable gathering of illuminati, and we were all looking forward to re-visiting this bastion of diplomatic dining located as it is so conveniently to the Embassy quarter.

Your Humble Correspondent was very pleasantly surprised by the technique and flair demonstrated by the kitchen at Bonne Femme. It is no mean feat to serve cuisine classique to 16 diners simultaneously. The five courses (Amuse, two entree, a main course, and dessert) served to the Darkside were all turned out neatly with the highest standard of presentation. The sauces were a feature of the meal (note this point for later reference). The ingredients were excellent, definitely not like the variety served below stairs that one would expect at the price (Y5,000).

The house wines which we enjoyed in considerable volume are also exceedingly well-priced (Y3,500) given the above-average quality. Combined with friendly and accommodating service, this makes Bonne Femme a good choice for events between 12-16 ne'er-do-wells as well as an appealing venue for quieter tetes-a-tete.

So you can imagine my surprise, Gentle Reader, when I received a post-dated comment from someone we shall just call 'Joe' to preserve anonymity: Chef could "do just as well cooking in a Massachusetts roadside diner ...", and calling for a chef whose "idea of French Food isn't sauce, sauce, sauce.....". A quick survey of other attendees indicates that 'Joe' is rather in the minority on this, and that many Massachusetts roadside diners could definitely benefit from this sort of improvement.

Oh, and cuisine classique is my favorite style of French, based on the work of Escoffier and made famous in the legendary restaurants of Europe like the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo and the Savoy in London. We have it on good authority, Gentle Reader, that Escoffier never visited Massachusetts. Unless it was Massachusetts, Monaco.

This revolution in the kitchen with the introduction of chef de cuisine brought about the replacement of service à la française (serving all dishes at once) with service à la russe (serving meals in courses), as well as the formalization of the preparation of both sauces (Bigod! Fancy that ...) and complex dishes based on Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire.

For your Humble Correspondent it defines the pinnacle of haute cuisine: sinfully and delightfully distinct from cuisine bourgeoise, the quick and working-class cuisine of bistros [the word bistro likely comes from the Russian быстро bystro meaning "quickly"], and the (blessedly!) bafflingly delicious array of French provincial cuisines.

Cuisine classique has been criticized for heavy sauces, silly names for dishes, and very involved preparation. Yet cuisine as an art form needs a formal component, and a chef who has mastered the disciplines of cuisine classique is better equipped thereby to venture other pathways.

Sadly, more restaurants today focus on nouvelle cuisine and cuisine du terroir which offer better margin performance for the wretchedly money-minded restaurateur. Suitable perhaps for San Francisco, which is not in Monte Carlo either. Mind you, neither is Tameike come to think of it but it is close to a palace.

But cuisine classique is - well - classic. And therefore suited to fat boys, and unrepentant followers of la belle epoch. Just the thing for the more saucy among us. Like moi... but not 'Joe'.

Bonne Femme [Map]: Akasaka 1-3-13, Tameike Suzuki Bldg. 1F. t: 03-3582-0200
Rating: Food: 7/10; Wine: 7/10; Service: 7/10; Sauciness: 7/10; Price-Performance: 7/10.
Total: 35/50

Saturday, 3 April 2010

La Terrace, Hong Kong

It is a little far to travel, one supposes, to Hong Kong to visit a neighbourhood French restaurant. Surely more appropriate to enjoy the splendid Chinese cuisine on offer, what ho! And we had, at a splendid Yum Cha luncheon washed down by a refreshing quaff of Australian Sauvignon Blanc (one wonders if that should be Sauvignon Blanche). It was also Spring, when a fat man's thoughts turn to ... well, food.

Your Humble Correspondent was indeed in the Pearl City for other reasons, but ever vigilant in pursuit of your dining pleasure we visited La Terrasse in Soho for a splendid meal at the suggestion of the redoubtable Colin. In the time-honoured tradition of this random collection of mutterings, Colin is not Colin's real name but it is remarkably easy to remember and one in which he seems to revel. He also has a well-developed love for good wine, which is a singularly endearing characteristic. Surprisingly, Colin is sans wine-pimp and relies on the normally unreliable off-licenses which in true HK fashion are perfectly reliable. Hmm, seems like an opportunity for an enterprising young man ...

The Soho area in the Mid-Levels of Hong Kong is probably one of your more favourite haunts, dear Gentle and Well-Travelled Reader, but for your Humble Correspondent and The Once and Future Blonde it was a revelation. Colin informs me that there is often more mediocrity on offer than mastery, often exacerbated by an influx of restaurant entrepreneurs perhaps more focused on margins than on the dining experience. But happily this is not the case at La Terrasse, which has delighted patrons for many years and relies exclusively on word-of-mouth rather than crass publicity.

You will no doubt be surprised to learn that we were seated on the very pleasant terrace at the rear of the restaurant. This showed estimable foresight by Chef Rene, as it meant that we were located in such a way as to feel suitably honored yet at the same time we were unable to frighten away any other potential patrons.

A word to the wise - avoid pastis as a pre-dinner drink. More accurately, avoid a surfeit of pastis as pre-dinner drinks. Actually, avoid very large quantities of pastis (think barrique).

It was scrumptious, mais oui, but left one considerably light-headed and with a resounding after-taste of aniseed. Of course this effect could possibly be put down to quantity rather than quality, but one was en vacance after all! In fact, it is now apparent to me why so many French bohemians became ... ah, bohemian. Pastis could quite likely induce aberrant behaviour in even the most-level headed of Correspondents.

But we digress. With The Don and Bride, we let ourselves be gently guided by Colin and Mrs Colin into a selection of entree and main courses that would test most kitchens. Do try the roasted heritage tomatoes topped with fresh mozzarella - a very interesting and successful variation on Caprese. The Sea Bass and Scallops was delicious, and was sauced prettily with a magical combination of butter and chives. Entrecote is somewhat of a speciality at La Terrasse, and given the satisfied faces of my companions you can safely assume it was entirely up to scratch. Do not give in to the siren call of the house-made bread ... well, at least try to avoid over-indulging.

Chef Badu is passionate about sourcing quality produce, which virtue results in a focus on precision in preparation and an admirable lack of fuss in presentation. La Terrasse is good at simplicity, and offers the visitor a guarantee of quality dining without the trappings of celebrity status.

The wine list at La Terrasse is more than adequate, with an above-average range of vintage and chateau at reasonable prices. While this is no doubt due to the enlightened move by Government to remove the tax on wine, it also encourages experimentation and indulgence - qualities that are your Humble Correspondent's forte. We sampled a Sancerre and two vintages of a sterling Bordeaux, and despite a slight tang of aniseed (see above) these quickly evaporated by the glassful in the pleasant Hong King spring weather. As did my memory of their labels. However, my companions assure me that I enjoyed them immensely. And the champagne ... Champagne? We had Champagne?

The floor team at La Terrasse are both efficient and friendly, a combination that seems strangely rare in Hong Kong. All of this makes for a very pleasant dining experience, for which we are all suitably grateful to Simon ... oops, Colin.

La Terrasse is such a pleasant combination of all of the things that go to make a "keeper" that it comes as somewhat of a surprise that it is on such a cruelly steep hill. Surely Rene could have managed it better! Thighs ache and chests heave if you approach from Staunton Street. The cost of the Sherpa team can be prohibitive. But follow the second option in the directions below and you should find it relatively easy.

Visit La Terrasse with friends and locals you wish to impress, but whose company you intend to enjoy. Like Colin. And smile sweetly at the fat boy in the back with the oxygen mask; after all, I'm the one who recommended the place!

La Terrasse [Directions]: 19 Old Bailey Street, Mid-levels, Central, Hong Kong. t:(852) 2147 2225
Rating: Food: 7/10; Wine: 8/10; Service: 7/10; Terrace-ness: 7/10; Price-Performance: 7/10.
Total: 36/50.

Oak Door - Something Amiss in Happy Land

It has been difficult to resist the temptation to write about The Oak Door [Map] at Roppongi Hills. This has not been for a lack of material, having visited it more than twenty times. No, the problems arises from wildly erratic performance. So let's step out of Humble Correspondent character for a bit to go over my irritations. Comments would be welcome.

There have been times when the food has been very good indeed, and times went it has been very average. Truthfully, on the average side of average. There have been occasions when the house specialities were whisked over to the table with a flair and a finesse that delivered on the menu copy, and occasions when these have not been available (huh?). Or instances when the floor staff have gladly fetched the wine list from the French Kitchen, and other instances when they have insisted this was impossible and that I must drink Californian wine. Not with their lips! [Disclosure: Actually, I'm a bit of a fan of some Napa wine].

On its good days, The Oak Door delivers well-prepared dishes that are both delicious and satisfying. The menu is a haven for comfort food for travellers - as a hotel restaurant, this is completely understandable and perfectly acceptable. One might quibble at the prices, which seem a little higher than other similar style restaurants in the Roppongi Hills complex. But there is little doubt that - on its day - the kitchen has a firm grasp on technique and finesse.

The establishment has a very pleasant aspect, and generally the ambiance is good. Summer outside is a joy. There are times when one feels that the lighting inside is a little too subdued, and on cloudy days it can get a little dark. The floor staff are generally polite and well-briefed, except when we are engaging in a wine list "conversation".

On its not-so-good days, The Oak Door finds it difficult to decide whether it is a bar or a restaurant. The strange juxtaposition of these two roles is unusual in Tokyo, particularly with so little differentiation between the two spaces. More particularly when the hotel actually has a bar (Maduro) on the 4th floor. But whatever the purpose, dividing the 6th floor space with the mesh curtain somehow just doesn't make the grade.

And perhaps that's it. Perhaps it's the schizophrenia of the dual purpose space, and the effort to reach up and down to two different categories of clientele. Perhaps it's just me, and I've just become too fussy. Up to you to decide.

I think that something is askew at The Oak Door. Not sure entirely what it is. It may well be the restaurant equivalent of A Beautiful Mind. But something is amiss. Let's not embarrass each other with a rating.

The Oak Door [Map] @ Grand Hyatt Roppongi Hills
6F, 6-10-3 Roppongi, Minato Ward t:03-4333-1234

Tanger - Mediterranean Merriment

One seems to be making a habit, Gentle Reader, of navigational odysseys into suburban Tokyo with geographically challenged Texans. Your Humble Correspondent believes, of course, that any time spent with a frontiersman will be amply rewarded - most especially when the frontiers thus confronted are intellectual rather than topographical. And this was certainly the case when we recently visited Tanger [Map] in Takanawa at Jim's suggestion.

Tanger describes itself as a Mediterranean restaurant with a French base and Moroccan influences. It is certainly that, in a remarkably eclectic way, yet manages to present well-fashioned food at reasonable prices with considerable flair and eclat. One notes the review by the lithesome Dominic [here] - a little harsh methinks, and perhaps written with a dash more more bile than guile.

Your Humble Correspondent was still deep into a Lenten observance when we visited, but the menu is robust and pleasingly simple with a single page of selections enhanced by a daily specials chalkboard. Tanger lacks pretentiousness, which fact is reflected in its friendly and knowledgable floor team and the pleasant ambient noise level. The sound of fellow-customers enjoying themselves should be taken as a positive, Gentle Reader, and Tanger succeeds well in having patrons relax and engage without imposing themselves on others.

We worked our way through Grilled Vegetables with anchovy dressing - light and delicious even for this anti-anchovy activist - and very toothsome Italian salad with Strawberries and Parmesan, before moving on to Salmon Quiche and a Lamb Tangine. My Texan companion fulsomely praised this last offering, suggesting that the spices were subtle and tasty without dominating. Chef seems to be comfortable in his metier here at Tanger, and the deft finish he applies to the food provides an interesting counterpoint to more classic French establishments that seems to dominate your Humble Correspondent's appointment book.

A word on the wine list - good, without the facile decorative effect of high-cost / high-maintenance tired wines that put more emphasis on chateau rather than terroir. Pricing is surprisingly good, and we were able to enjoy a Premiere Cru Meursault (?) for Y6,000 and some excellent Alsace Riesling by the glass for Y800. For those looking for a decadent dalliance, pair this wine with the Tree of Life date and chocolate cake or the nougat glace confectionaries.

Taxi drivers and Texans seem to find Tanger difficult to locate, but a quick glance at the map should be enough for more resourceful types. Aim for the Peacock supermarket at the foot of Gyoranzaka, and tootle off down the laneway at the rear to arrive at Tanger on your left. Do have a quick look around for caftan-ed roues, and if you see through my disguise - perhaps you'd be good enough to send over a glass of that lovely Riesling!

Tanger [Map]: 1-5-8 Takanawa, Shinagawa Ward. t: 03-3449-4166
Rating: Food: 7/10; Wine: 7/10 (cheap!!); Service: 8/10; Morocco-isity: 6/10; Price-Performance: 7/10. Total: 35/50.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Restaurants to Avoid

There has not been a day in the last five or more years, Gentle Reader, when your Humble Correspondent has not had your culinary interests uppermost in his mind. While the days have increasingly been spent "in trade", the evenings and days of rest have not been similarly frittered away. Over that period, we have visited perhaps a thousand restaurants - very few of which we have judged to be up to your standards. But we have learnt the telltale signs of places to avoid.

Your Humble Corespondent would be the first to praise high-brow cooking — and, indeed, silver service — if that is the dining task at hand. Unfortunately, though, there are many venues where ambition and delivery are strangely akimbo and the collective result is either corrosive pretension or stunning failure. Some signposts on this slippery road:

First Impressions One expects the front of house staff to be welcoming - after all, your cash is what keeps the restaurant in business. But you should shriek and flee, Gentle Reader, if they ignore you for what seems like an eternity. More often than not, you can safely assume that the same treatment will continue once you are seated. Similarly, be wary if you are treated like a long lost relative - either they haven't seen a paying customer for a very long time, or they have mistaken you for someone else.

Dress-Ups Jackets are important items of clothing when one is grousing on the moors or watching the jumps at Royal Ascot on an autumn afternoon. Otherwise, these straighteners are the invention of impecunious tailors and pot-bellied ne'er-do-wells. And impede one's flailing arms when attacking some delicious morsel with gusto. Stay away from venues that insist that "Sir" wear a jacket ... unless it's the Tiffen Room at Raffles.

As for ties, which were devised in medieval France to prevent the infrequently laundered shirts from getting stained ... don't get me started!

Detours You may think me slightly fey, Gentle Reader, but if one was looking for a drink or cocktail then one would go to a bar, not a restaurant. The Maitre d' foxtrot that takes you via the lounge or bar is how a less reputable establishment will try to pad the bill (remember, beverages are much more profitable for restaurants than food). It also helps dull the palate, so that one does not notice that Chef has a hang-over.

Ambiance Art Deco and chandeliers are all very fine in their place - like perhaps my Humble Abode - but in a restaurant act as a sure sign that more attention has been paid to decoration rather than degustation. Noise should be your guide, Gentle Reader ... the human animal vocalizes when it is enjoying itself, much like a cat purring. Abject silence, in fear of either reprimand or the bill, is like a garish neon sign that says "Flee!".

Lighting One imagines, Gentle Reader, that harsh lighting schemes are important for laboratories. Similarly, singles bars and brothels probably benefit from subdued lighting. Neither is suitable for a restaurant. You should be able to read the menu and the wine list, but not feel like you are treading the boards at Drury Lane or on Broadway. A suggestion - prepare to run if you find yourself reaching for either the Raybans or a candle.

Glassware This is counter-intuitive, but if your hostelers have been too cheap to provide appropriate stemware and instead slander the wine with jam-jar cheap glasses you should feign a mild heart attack or suddenly remember that you have Dengue Fever - and leave as quickly as possible. Any libation tastes better out of crystal, and can soar when paired with an appropriately designed bowl and stem combination. Only make an exception to this rule when the establishment agrees to the embarrassing proposition that you will BYOG ... bring your own glassware. Actually, belay that - if the restaurant agrees with this proposition, it is a headline screaming "gentlemen thieves".

Floor Staff Children are given first names so that parents can readily distinguish between them, not in the hope that they grow up one day to serve others in restaurants. The overly familiar "I'm Corey, and I'll be your server" is not only too much information, but also a plain effort to ingratiate oneself with diners to fatten the tip. Run, Gentle Reader, and hope that you can hide.

Service Your Humble Correspondent is not aware of any proper university that offers a doctorate in Waiter so it is unlikely to be rocket science: the art lies in doing the minimum (take the order, lay out the right flatware, bring and remove plates, answer questions without scrambling off to conspire with Chef, and smile at the right times). It is also important to avoid anti-social behavior like commenting on the selection ("Oh, good choice Sir" likely means you have chosen a high margin item), manically topping up wine glasses (see Detours, padding the bill), and asking if everything is all right (if it wasn't we would tell you).

Bill of Fare A good menu is more often than not simple, and an excellent one is matched with both the season and the availability of quality ingredients. There should be (in order) soups; chilled and warm entrees (Appetizers); a reasonable choice of fish, fowl, and meat; and a sample of small desserts. Decorative leaves to indicate "vegetarian choice", and a list of side-dish vegetables should raise the hackles, Gentle Reader. Otherwise Chef is having you do the thinking for him or her, and trying to justify charging you Y1,500 for a potato.

You should also avoid places that need more than four pages, Gentle Reader, or offer a bewildering range of set courses. Culinary masturbation is best kept in the kitchen or the confessional, and artifice is a poor substitute for technique.

Amuse An elegant restaurant will often offer an Amuse Bouche, which is supposed to be a prelude to the meal ahead. It should be interesting and fit with the rest of the menu. An inelegant restaurant will often offer an Amuse, which is generally either an attempt to make inappropriate use of some left-over ingredients, or a way to make customers feel better about an inflated bill. Avoid the second type of establishment.

Contemporary Art It is said, Gentle Reader, that the eye is the introduction to a good meal. One tends to agree, except when the kitchen spends more time over-working the plate than on getting the flavors right. Effort spent on decoration instead of deglazing is generally wasted. If it looks too good to eat, it probably is - art is meant to be enjoyed at galleries, not at restaurants. When confronted with a decoration Zealot, you could try escaping by either inventing an imaginary art critic friend and loudly discussing post-modern composition with her, or pretending that you have Tourretes. Either way, be sure to leave. By feigning sympathetic madness.

Leaving It is self-evident that restaurants should not be trying to chase one out the door. Unless, of course, you have just indicated that you lack the financial wherewithal to meet the bill. By now it is obviously far too late, but one should also avoid establishments that insist you pay at the table ... as if either you or they should be embarrassed by the act of payment. If the entrance is too narrow to accommodate both departures and arrivals, then they should relocate the cash-box.

Finally, every meal is a feast - and should both start and end with a smile. Join me then, Gentle Reader, in banning every venue that refuses even this smallest of courtesies!