Food without memory is just digestion

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Lanterna Magica - Mangiare in Meguro!

One trembles, Gentle Reader, when invited to supper in suburban locations. Particularly by Texans. And that trepidation grows greater when one starts to wander along railway tracks and back streets trying to find the venue. Not that good restaurants can not be located in residential areas, but that happy circumstance is rare enough to make most faint hearts quiver. Your Humble Correspondent found himself trudging the Ebisu lane ways at the invitation of the gregarious Jim, on Shrove Tuesday.

But what a surprise awaited at Lanterna Magica [Map]! This is a very good suburban trattoria, which has somehow been strangely transplanted from Italy to Japan and is now snuggled in the back streets of Kami-Osaki near the drearily sarariman haunt that is Meguro. In fact, with Kitchen Cero, Argent, and Hiromichi [posting soon] beginning to light up this area we may be on the verge of drastically revising our opinions. At least it is inside the Maru.

There is an energy and bella vita atmosphere at Lanterna Magica that is at once refreshing and comforting. And the fact that tables turn quickly during the evening is manifest evidence just how popular this potential jewel is with the chattering crowds - reservations are highly recommended.

We each chose an antipasto, pasta, and secondi which were "split" onto two plates by the very friendly and highly knowledgeable floor staff. Said "splitting" is an excellent way for your Humble Correspondent to pretend that he is not sharing, as he is particularly poor at that odious practice. The first delights were the Antipasto Mista della Casa (Jim) and Asparagi Bianchi alla Bismarck (YHC). The Bismarck tag means it is served with an egg (famously, Pizza alla Bismarck) and apparently is a novelty that comes from the northern provinces of Italy. Both were excellent, and went wonderfully with the 2008 Vernaccia di San Gimignano Vino Sorelli (Y3,600!).

We then moved onto Passatelli in Brodo (Jim) and Tagliatelle con Fave e Pecorino (YHC). The passatelli at Lanterna Magica is almost certainly best-in-class for Tokyo, with the bravely cheesy dumplings standing well-separated in a rich and complex broth. That said, the bean and cheese sauce on the home-made tagliatelle was also a special discovery and the "winter" feeling of both these dishes suited the light freckles of snow falling outside.

It was time to turn our attention to a delightful Assisi Rosso (Y5,000!!) which combines the best of the power and the subtlety of the Umbrian wine terroir and is extraordinary value for the price. Our secondi were Scallopine alla Sorrentino (Jim) and Salciccie Casarecce (YHC). Perhaps it was the effect of the two wines we had enjoyed, but these dishes were perhaps the pick of the evening, and underline the dab hand that Chef applies to all the food here.

In your Humble Correspondent's even humbler opinion, the kitchen at Lanterna Magica is wonderfully focused on "hand-made" flavor combinations that seek to highlight and showcase quality ingredients alla rustica. And even less doubt that it is deliciously successful at said pursuit.

Enjoy Lanterna Magica with friends and family, and keep a watchful eye for a suspicious fat boy prowling the floor. Your forgiveness, too, if plates then disappear off the table ... we wouldn't want you to over-indulge, would we?

Lanterna Magica [Map]: 2-9-26 Kami-Osaki, Shinagawa Ward. t: 03-6408-1488
Rating: Food: 8/10; Wine: 7/10; Service: 7/10; Magic: 7/10; Price-Performance: 7/10. Total: 36/50.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Lauderdale - Savoy of Pancakes?

Tokyo has long needed a breakfast destination, Gentle Reader, that is more than a place to gather and chatter. Something redolent of the breakfast culture of Sydney, with freshly-brewed quality coffee, week-end newspapers, and lashings of bacon. A place where quiet anonymity is welcome, and where the rattle and clatter of a busy kitchen and floor team is louder than the BGM. A refuge and an oasis that sets one up to deal with the coming day, rather than trying to compete with the rest of the schedule. And we may have found that place with Lauderdale in Roppongi Hills.

Don't imagine this venue seeks to compete on the "sumptuous brunch" level in Tokyo, for this space is famously filled by the wonderful Dom Perignon buffet at The Ritz-Carlton's 45 with its quaintly retro menu that shrieks the food equivalent of Art Deco and Roaring Twenties. Dare not to compare it with Suji's (where my question is more often "why?" rather than "what?"), the Tokyo American Club (Full Disclosure: I am a member), or The New Sanno (which brilliantly demonstrates the relative values of mass production and mass consumption). In the words of one young lady I know, Lauderdale is the "Savoy of Pancakes".

Your Humble Correspondent is, as ever, at a loss to understand this reference except to imagine that it refers to the glorious London icon now operated by The Fairmont Group. Or more accurately, not really operated but being renovated for a 2010 (re)opening. Some fascinating trivia for those of you who appreciate the Gilbert & Sullivan oeuvre... The Savoy was built by Richard D'Oyly Carte who produced the G&S comic operettas, and mostly funded by profits from the amazingly popular The Mikado. Its first well-known manager was Cesar Ritz (yes, the Cesar Ritz!) who arrived with Auguste Escoffier to put the Savoy on the way to becoming a legend. A quick aside: Titipu in The Mikado is present-day Chichibu.

But I digress. Lauderdale serves good breakfasts, and the pancakes are indeed special. So are the souffles, the smoothies (try the banana, strawberry, and acai version), and the omelettes. A small quibble on the bacon - not every customer prefers the wafer-thin American version cooked to the consistency of wooden shavings, and Lauderdale would do well to offer a "British" option sliced a little more thickly from the piece. Even Escoffier found it useful to adapt some of his dishes to a wider audience.

It would also do well to spread some newspapers around (may I suggest The Times, The Financial Times, The New York Times, and various other times) along with some magazines. These encourage the customers to return, knowing that there are precious few other venues offering a similar service. The coffee is fine as it is.

Your Humble Correspondent is looking forward to enjoying the balcony at Lauderdale in the Spring. So, Gentle Reader, you'd best pop along early and annex a good table. I promise the conversation will be ... well, Ritzy.

Lauderdale [Map]: 6-15-1 Roppongi, Minato Ward. t: 3405-5533
Rating: Pancakes: 7/10; Smoothies: 7/10; Service: 7/10; Ritz-iness: 6/10; Price-Performance: 6/10. Total: 33/50

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Hutong of Beijing - secret chef cabals?

Imagine you're at a 3-star chef talk-fest, Gentle Reader, and after a hectic day of celebrity chef-ing you are feeling a little peckish. All that talk of molecular gastronomy and the Elysian pleasures of fine dining. You venture:

"What ho, Heston! Hola, Ferran! Alors, Joel! Oi, Tetsuya! We're in the food capital of the world, so let's step out for some first-flight sushi or some delicate kaiseki".

Where do you think you would end up? Tsukiji? Ginza? No doubt you would be as taken aback as your Humble Correspondent if you learned that they actually went to Hutong of Beijing (only in Japanese) [Map] in the Azabu Juban area. If you had family history in the Boxer Rebellion like your Humble Correspondent, you would know that a hutong is a narrow street associated mainly with Beijing. Basically, one takes a group of siheyuan courtyard houses that share a well and build a wall around them to create a hutong. Which habit commends itself serenely to a restaurant name? But I digress.

On the wall on the way up the stairs at Hutong of Beijing, the more observant of my excellent readers will find a number of signatures which indeed belong to the demi-gods of gastronomy mentioned above, who visited Tokyo last year for the World Summit of Gastronomy 2009. What possessed them to visit this restaurant totally escapes me, save that it was to try the excellent siu mei style Canton Duck or epynomous Peking Duck, wonderful shrimp dumplings, and the tongue-tingling spicy fried rice. Your Humble Correspondent would surely have recommended these dishes, having enjoyed them perhaps 50 times, had he only had been asked.

The Once and Future Blonde rates this venue as a weekly "must go" restaurant, except when she's on the "diet" in which case poor Hutong becomes merely an excuse for breaking out. Like champagne. Frequented by the celebrity types who congregate in this part of town, Hutong is a busy and bravely non-decorous place which actually brings to mind its Beijing cousins through the very narrow layout, crowded kitchen, and steep staircases.

Part of the mega-group Kiwa Corporation (361 venues under management, of which 285 are company-owned), Hutong of Beijing is one of those rare examples of a good idea, executed well with no pretensions. Long may it grace the Tokyo dining scene!

Go to Hutong of Beijing with good friends who appreciate getting down and dirty with good Chinese food. Provided you can elbow the celebrity chefs out of the way, you will find an hour or two spent at the long rural eating hall tables well worth the investment.

Hutong of Beijing: 5-19-19 Roppongi, Minato Ward. t: 03-5770-2280
Rating: Food: 8/10; Wine 5/10; Service: 6/10; Hutong-ness: 8/10; Price Performance: 7/10. Total: 34/50

Monday, 8 February 2010

Citabria - Much Ado about Nothing?

It had bothered me for some time, Gentle Reader, that a discussion of Citabria [Map] had not found its way onto these sorry pages. The difficulty for your Humble Correspondent was that it was painfully difficult to imagine just what one might say - Citabria has had its fulsome share of both laud and scorn. All of which one felt was totally justified, which ever direction it took.

A recent dinner there at the beckoning of the emerging public relations powerhouse Lewis Communications to discuss social media provided a thorny and querulous dimension to my dilemma - with the jumble of cuisines and the lack of a overarching structure to the menu ... exactly what is Citabria, and how does it strive to stand out in the survival-of-the-fittest jungle of Tokyo gastronomy?

The wretched Google leaves one no wiser on understanding what a Citabria might be, except perhaps a stunt aeroplane. Apparently, Citibria is "airbatic" spelled backwards which shows an appalling non-grasp of spelling fundamentals and is stunningly opaque as to how it might then grace a restaurant's nameplate.

The inevitable conclusion is that Citabria is a chimera, a pleasant sound masquerading as a name and much resembling the language one often sees decorating the chests of Japanese popsies. Like "Dick Swiveller" once made infamous by a tarento [Yes, I know it's a character from Dickens' The Old Curiousity Shop]. Or "Wanky" as a clothing brand name. (btw, both these examples come from Tokyo Tales.)

Make no mistake - the food at Citabria is remarkably good in an "ok" sort of way, and the service is amazing. Actually, the array of staff and their speed and precision is so good that it is frightening. The location is superb, and just far enough removed from major thoroughfares to be simultaneously convenient and serenely quiet. The wine list is complete, although pricey, and the sommeliers show extraordinary depths of knowledge about hitherto undiscovered wines.

At the risk of appearing to batter on about it, the problem is that it is impossible to put Citabria into some sort of basket without it escaping over the edge and sneaking off to visit another cuisine. There is no avoiding it - Citabria is a "fusion" restaurant with all the delight and derision that this title carries with it. All of which probably clearly explains the dichotomy evident since the first paragraph.

Citabria comes with my highest recommendations. It is a successful and often vibrant venue which has hordes of adoring fans, much like this blog (gag, choke!). In fact, it is probably the perfect place to dine when one can't really decide what one wants to eat. Eat there with business colleagues and visitors, and make sure you tell them I sent you ... then perhaps some-one will educate me on what the goodness is really going on there! When in doubt, leave it to The Bard of Stratford:

Much Ado about Nothing, Act II, Sc. III:
Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
[read Citabria] were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.

Citabria [Map]: 2-26-4 Nishi-Azabu, Minato Ward. t: 03-5766-9501
Rating: Food: 7/10; Wine: 7/10; Ambiance: 6/10; Fusion-ality: 8/10; Price Performance: 6/10. Total: 34/50

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Les Halles - Worth the hunt!

It was with considerable anticipation, Gentle Reader, that I scooted off to Gotanda with the Once and Future Blonde to an assignation at Les Halles [no website, this introduction courtesy of Pieroth] with our dear friends the Lord Schatzie and Her Excellency The Duchess of Piffle.

This restaurant has delighted Tokyo foodies for a number of years, yet was still on your Humble Correspondent's list of "must-visit" of restaurants. There is no sensible reason why I had not ventured out here, save that the venue is 200 metres outside the self-imposed Yamamoto Line boundary. One has to wonder why other acquaintances have never invited me to this wonderfully comfortable venue ... one settles into it easily like a well-used lounge chair, and the staff make one feel at once welcome and well-known.

Piffle and Schatzie are long-term regulars at Les Halles, and we four were undercover scouting potential venues for Tokyo Darkside. There are no finer partners for dinner, and the table was loud and warm with companionship and humour. It should be a natural for TDS.

A word to the wise - ask your driver to place you somewhere in the vicinity of Les Halles, rather than try to navigate you to the door. Be especially wary of any sound he makes that resemble "Huh!?!". Our good man burst upon the area, and "Huh!?!"-ed the Car-Navi with rather a sharp-pitched squeal. Only a tight pull on the reins saved us from the ignomy of roaming around Nishi-Gotanda forever.

Owner/chef Chihito Uchida has created a warm and pleasant environment at Les Halles, and glad we were to get inside on a cold wintery night. But a glass of champagne and a glance at the carte were enough to return a sparkle to the eye. Uchida-san offers a number of "courses" that can satisfy even the most discerning customer and the menu shows more than a hint of classical training and considerable experience standing behind the dishes on offer.

We all chose Course A @ Y4,800, with the Countess and The Blonde choosing the venison and Shatzie and your Humble Correspondent settling on the Roast Pork. Sweetly poached oysters served as a stunning appetizer, followed by a delightful soup course, and the pork was stunning.

Uchida-san is that type of chef, Gentle Reader, that you could trust with your social life and your wallet. Cooking is as much part of his life as breathing, and with his young assistant he makes light of even the most demanding request while delivering a quality dining experience that feels like it could be in one's own home. The food at Les Halles is classique francais, and classic Tokyo in terms of quality and price-performance.

The wine list seems well matched to most pockets - with reasonable quality at the low end, some bargains in the mid-range, and a welcome lack of greed at the higher end. We settled on a pleasant Chablis at Y5,900 and followed this with a very satisying Pinot Noir at a little more. Our bill, for four, came to a little over Y30,000 including drinks and wine.

Les Halles is a place to visit with friends and family, rather than colleagues or business visitors. Find a place in the diary, Gentle Reader, to visit Les Halles - it deserves your support and you deserve its warm welcome and gentle insistence on relaxation.

And if you happen to see a table for four that seems a little noiser than most, send over a jug of claret please. I can promise we'll appreciate it!

Les Halles: 8-1-13 Nishi-Gotanda, Shinagawa Ward. t: 03-5437-1271
Rating: Food: 7/10; Wine: 7/10; Ambiance: 7/10; Price: 7/10; Yamanote-ness: 7/10. Total: 35/50

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Restaurant J, Hiroo

One has learnt to be very wary, Gentle Reader, of companies that choose to use initials only in their names. TGIF is apparently ancient Sumerian for "very bad food with too much grease", Kentucky Fried Chicken paled to a shadow of its former self when it became KFC, and FCUK appears to be an abbreviation for that company's intentions with one's wallet. Even the iconic Louis Vuitton seems to have been transformed into a Latin version of "lump(en)" with its metamorphosis into LVMH.

But all that is now a faint and distant memory after a recent foray into the back streets of Hiroo to dine with my Stern friend at Restaurant J [Map], perched happily above Enoteca in the Arisugawa West building. Reviews - see this by Robbie Swinnerton at the Japan Times, [or RS @ JT?] - have been blushingly gushing about Restaurant and Bar J (should that be RBJ? If so, I'm all the way ...). This is a very fine contemporary restaurant, and deserves every ounce of that praise.

Chef Masahito Ueki has been freed from the chains of the Sabatini group to return to his first love Restaurant J, after earlier fighting free of Global Dining (where he starred at Tableau and Stellato). The first Restaurant J was located off Omotesando, but closed when Chef flitted off for 4 years to Massa's in Karuizawa (whereby the Sabatini connection). But the time in Karuizawa certainly has not been wasted, with Chef returning to his roots - fresh, organic vegetables. Your Humble Correspondent feels it fey not to forgive him for the dalliance, given the splendid results it seems to have delivered.

We opted for the second course option (6 courses @ Y6,500) and the Wine Flight which features a Champagne, two whites, and three red wines. All were delicious, and carefully chosen. Strange to relate, our dinner conversation suffered resounding silences as each course was delivered. We were stunned by the superb Organic Vegetable Soup, left in awe by the Poisson Frites, and dazzled by the Chitogenton Pork. Indeed, I confess to briefly forgetting my Stern companion for an awkward lacuna of time rhapsodizing over the Bavarois of Winter Radish with Tasmanian Pepper Berry Sauce.

Chef Ueki's food is graced with both delicacy and firm flavor directions, and there is no doubt that Restaurant J will be pushing for Michelin consideration as the rating season picks up in ferocity through Spring. The floor staff are very attentive and highly skilled, although there is a tendency to serve courses a little quickly thus putting the kitchen's convenience ahead of the customer's. But one quiet word sufficed to put this to rights, and the rest of the evening was an elegant minuet through a broad palette of tastes and textures that reminded your Humble Correspondent why he first got into this food blogging game in the first place.

The "J" apparently refers to both jeu and joie, play and joy in the noble Frankish tongue. This seems to be a very apt description of the relationship between chef and diner at Restaurant J. Make a reservation to dine a deux with lovers, or with clients and colleagues you really want to impress.

And should you see a furtive figure peering in from the balcony, please ask me to come join your celebration. I won't eat much, I promise!

Restaurant J [Map]: Arisugawa West 2F, 5-14-15 Minami-Azabu, Minato Ward. t: 03-5798-9070
Rating: Food: 8/10; Wine: 8/10; Ambiance: 7/10; Vegetarianism: 8/10; Price: 7/10. Total: 38/50.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Kitchen Cero: "Beneeixi a les Dones"

If an online translator is to be trusted, Gentle Reader, then the title above means "Bless the Ladies!" in Catalan. Having thrice dined now at Kitchen Cero in Meguro, your Humble Correspondent happily adds his name to the choir roster. This is a rambunctious and pleasantly happy establishment, where staff and patrons mix in happy communion amidst a bouquet of aromas and a symphony of kitchen bustle.

Advice from my betters suggests that there is a strong tradition in Catalonia of eating establishments run and staffed by women, particularly in and around the markets. Said betters advise that this is the essential premise behind Kitchen Cero as well. Well and good, I say, but you mean that there were only women there? My (feigned) failure to notice comes from the extraordinary bonhomie that Kitchen Cero generates, and despite (or in spite of) the counter-style model one finds the venue strangely intimate and perfectly relaxed.

The menu at Kitchen Cero is a sort of tapas-plus affair. Pray do not imagine I mean the normal finger-foodish small portions of indigestibles that many faux-Spanish restaurants offer here in Tokyo. That line of thought pays more attention to the bottom line than the waist line, and bears no resemblance at all to what one might enjoy in Spain itself. The "tapas" reference points more to serving size - at around two thirds of a "standard" Tokyo serve - rather than being used as an excuse for kitchen chicanery.

At Kitchen Cero, there are more than fifty choices along with daily specials, and enough variation to satisfy even the most demanding customer (no sniggering please!). The food comes across as simple and even rustic, but there are subtle flavor nuances that show a very deft hand indeed in the kitchen. The joyous mix of cuisines that typifies Barcelona food is plainly evident, and there is a very satisfying balance of tradition and experimentation.

The wine list changes frequently, and features little known labels from Japan, Spain, Italy and France. Your Humble Correspondent noticed a pleasant little bottle of Chateau Neuf-de-Pape which was served for less than Y6,500 ... although my companions swear that the bottle must have had a hole in it, and no they didn't drink while I was away from the table.

Wander off to Kitchen Cero with friends rather than colleagues, and perch up at the counter rather than choosing one of the two awkwardly situated tables. And do ask the "belles dames" where the noisy fat boy is ... perhaps I'll toddle over and raise a glass with you.

Kitchen Cero: 2-13-44 Kami-Osaki, Shinagawa Ward. t: 03-5791-5715
Rating: Food: 7/10; Wine: 7/10 (even with holey bottles); Service: 8/10; Barcelona-ness: 8/10; Price: 7/10. Total: 37/50