Food without memory is just digestion

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Ukai: Tofu like you've never experienced.

It would be a very major mistake, Gentle Reader, to assume that the Ukai tofu restaurant nearby Tokyo Tower was ... well, a tofu restaurant. Because it is that, yet oh so much more. A refuge, an oasis, a quiet corner in this clattering city, a joy to enter and a savage anti-climax to leave. Its beautiful gardens are soothing and consoling, and the individual room layout always mean you and your guests get to concentrate on one another rather than the cacophony of the chattering classes.

Your Humble Correspondent is - obviously - quite taken with Ukai. One's week is not complete without manufacturing a reason to take in its serenity, beautifully accented by a course of washoku dishes that satisfy and transform a meal into an experience.
A note: Ukai - though quite good - is certainly not the height of Japanese cuisine, and one shouldn't be looking for the "best in Tokyo" in each of the courses. That said, Gentle Reader, there is no better place within walking distance of Your Humble Correspondent's daytime penitentiary to ... well, "zen" out.
The service is exemplary, discreet and individual. From the moment one arrives to the sad farewell, Ukai offers a reasonable (Y5,000), unique and fulfilling experience at visceral contrast with most other destinations. Very little indeed is difficult, and language is not an issue.
The Take course is the best option, with an appropriate balance of the number of courses with a sensible volume. It will start with a seasonal vegetable, and then launches immediately into the meibutsu dry-fried agedofu with freshly-chopped negi and a sweet miso sauce. Ukai calls this delight age-dentaku ... Your Humble Correspondent prefers "manna".
Next is the tsukuri, or seasonal sashimi, followed by the hassun (which actually refers to the size of the dish at 8 sun or 24cm). One moves on leisurely to Ukai's famous tofu soup, followed by the shokuji or rice dish signifying the end of the meal. Except for a delicate wagashi (Japanese sweet) and tea.
While reluctant to offer anything resembling advice, Your Humble Correspondent suggests you add this venue to your list of haunts. Your friends will thank you, and you'll really feel much better about the world afterwards.
Visit Ukai alone, with impressible clients, or with your superiors. And the shape-chaging tanuki-like denizen ... well, don't mind me!
The Japanese website is utterly better than the English one ...
Pip! Pip!
Ukai4-4-13 Shiba-Koen, Minato-ku, Tokyo t:03-3436-1028
Rating: Food: 7/10; Everyday-ness: 7/10; Service: 7/10; Ambiance: 7/10; Price-Performance: 7/10. Total: 36550 (3 Forks)

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Bistrot Quotidien - Anything but Everyday!

There is a reason, Gentle Reader, why Michelin introduced the "Bonnes Petites Tables" to Tokyo. Actually, 2 reasons: (1) the stated one ("introducing cosy and nice French restaurants to our dear readers"); and (2) further exacerbating Your Humble Correspondent's impecuniosity by introducing more restaurants he needs to frequent. In a previous life, one was fortunate to have an employer who thought it desirable - if not incumbent on me - that one should have a full and experiential knowledge of fine food in Tokyo. Alas, not so today...

It seems to me, at least, that frequenting "nice and cosy" French restaurants is a consumation devoutly to be wished, if not actualized. So it was with considerable anticipation that we toddled off to Bistrot Quotidien for a slightly celebratory dinner. And "nice and cosy" it certainly is.

Actually, it is rather nice and perhaps a little less cosy. All menus list as Prix Fixe, which is delightfully Gallic but slightly boring and perhaps inadventurous. One can understand Chef Ryosuke Sudo's thinking here, with an earnest desire to replicate the neighbourhood bistros one finds all over Paris. The desired goal is an intimate relationship between establishment and customer, with the time invested by both parties in the relationship rewarded with warm trust and a "reliability". To borrow a phrase, M. Sudo seeks to create joren (regular customer; regular patron; frequenter).

He has succeeded, at least with this humble diner. Bistrot Quotidien is not a sanatorium for OL; it is not beset by gaggles of giggles like so many other newer establishments in Tokyo. The table layout is relaxed and assured, and service model is designed not to encourage any greater capacity than exists at present. Every move is designed for calm efficiency, at least when requested in Japanese. Having opened the week before the tragic events of 3/11, one imagines there has been plenty of time to get things right while Tokyo got itself back on its feet.

The wine list is similarly well structured, stepping one through the main appelations with a welcome clarity of purpose and no complicated journeys into dead ends or cul-de-sacs. In fact, for amateurs like Your Humble Correspondent the journey here is familar and free from dragons. We enjoyed a pleasant little Champagne, some mouthsome Sancerre and a Chateauneuf-de-Pape that added immediately to the atmosphere.

The cooking is what you expect from a venue with these sort of ambitions, and the Gagnaire influence is strong. We thoroughly enjoyed every course, served with relish and alacrity, and loads of happiness and warmth.

Visit Bistrot Quotidien when you need some comfort and friendliness. Do please become a joren, because then we'll meet more often ....

Pip! Pip!
Bistrot Quotidien2F Azabu Juban 3-9-2, Minato-Ku, Tokyo t:03-6435-3241
Rating: Food: 7/10; Everyday-ness: 7/10; Service: 7/10; Ambiance: 7/10; Price-Performance: 7/10. Total: 36550 (3 Forks)

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Ambigram: A little Toni?

One imagines, Gentle Reader, that the last thing the Hiroo area needs is another Italian restaurant. Actually, any sort of restaurant. With establishments good, bad, and indifferent on almost every corner Your Humble Correspondent would argue that discretion might in fact be the better part of valour. Apparently not. Ambigram might in fact be more properly described as being located in Tengenji-bashi, down a romantic lane way from the temple itself. Might, but for the roadworks and incessant construction. Still, one digresses ...
One Chef Izawa is seemingly insufficient for Ambigram. Twin brothers (Koji trained as a chef in Italy and Kazuaki a patissier ex France ... which twin has the Toni?) rule the Ambigram-inal roost. The place has an energetic and lithesome feel, and while one shouldn't go overboard on the pot-rattlers it seems to work remarkably (fraternally?) well.
A quick look at the menu will suffice to reassure you, Gentle Reader, that the Brothers Izawa have resolutely picked the eyes out of "standard" Italian fare to ensure that you won't be disappointed. But one should really take the time to closely examine the daily menu for little gems - like burrata, the delightful Puglia version of yuba; or osso buco; or splendid little seasonal vegetable numbers.
It may be their relative youth but the Izawa fratelli have seemed to be on the top of their game whenever Your Humble Correspondent has darkened the doorstep, with one exception on a relatively simple veal option which seemed to be over-wrought and aiming for frippery rather than simplicity. One should also add the Once and Future Blonde was also disappointed - but in a spirit of generosity and forgiveness we should overlook these little peccadilloes.
The wine list is authentically Italian, reaching even to San Gimignano verdecchio which is one of Your Humble Correspondent's favorite tipples. Tuscany and other famous DOC are sprinkled here and there, while prices are particularly reasonable.
One area where Ambigram excels is the happy and thoughtful service team. Despite having been opened for about a year, they dance the tables seamlessly and skilfully meaning that even the most demanding guest departs sated and happy.
It is slightly difficult to classify Ambigram but it seems best suited to friends and energized colleagues rather than the place for a formal outing. And should you see a slightly puzzled gnome with trace of yellow burrata staining the napkins - well, raise a glass won't you!
Pip! Pip!
Ambigram106-0047 Minami-Azabu 4−12−4 Plachina Court Hiroo 1F, Minato-Ku, Tokyo t:03-3449-7722
Rating: Food: 7/10; Izawa-ness: 8/10; Service: 7/10; Ambiance: 7/10; Price-Performance: 7/10. Total: 36/50 (3 Forks)

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Alladin - Always a delight! [Redux]

Classic restaurants - like classic art, Gentle Reader - seem to get better with each visit. A recipe polished here and there; a deeper relationship 'twixt host and guest; an ever-so-slightly warmer welcome burnished by knowledge of both preferences and peccadilloes. It is both a joy and relief to slide easily into the comfortable, and a knowing smile replaces surprise and affectation.
Thus Alladin in Ebisu. Chef Kawasaki has refined his art over the years, as if charged with the pursuit of a culinary perfection that is both elusive and Elysian. Simple, classic food with a laser focus on quality produce and technique sharpened by repetition and refining. Food fashions come and go, fortunately. But chefs like M. Kawasaki always take you back to the roots of your love affair with food, and challenge your interpretation of technique with hints and whispers that delight the senses and ease the mind.
Mind you, you need to know your stuff to appreciate what's going on at Alladin. With only the slightest tinge of irony, Your Humble Correspondent recommends other venues if you seek steak frites or a quick Greek Salad. Chef Kawasaki is not your man. But if, like this blithe spirit, you feel up to the challenge Gentle Reader - then tally ho and damn the torpedoes.
Your Humble Correspondent visited Alladin again after a hiatus of some years, rekindling a relationship with a well-known foreign advertising identity. For the occasion, we revisited the meal we had at Alladin all those years ago (blogged here in 2006): fresh asparagus in a delightful butter sauce; chicken delivered that morning all the way from Brest; a Tarte Tatin that is the best in Tokyo, if not the entire world.
Exquisite and competent service, in a quiet and helpful way. Not needing to detail every ingredient, and lacking inappropriate theatre and unnecessary pomp. 
A coupe de champagne to toast and a demi of white to highlight the delicate flavors of the main course. Life at its best, lunch at its finest ...
Please visit Alladin soon, with friends and lovers rather than colleagues. Time at Alladin should be spent engrossed in companionship, not measured in minutes and billed in quarter-hours.
Pip! Pip!

Alladin: 1GFL, 2-22-10 Ebisu, Hiroo Riverside, Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo t:03-5420-0038
Rating: Food: 9/10; Magic: 8/10; Service: 8/10; Ambiance: 9/10; Price-Performance: 8/10. Total: 42/50 (4 Forks)

Salle a Manger - A Silken Touch

We seek him here, We seek him there
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere
Is he in Heaven, or is he in Hell
That demmed ... elusive ... Pimpernel!
"The Scarlet Pimpernel", 1903, Baroness Emmuska Orczy

Yes, time for a return.

There is some debate, Gentle Reader, about the origin of the word "bouchon" used today to describe some 21 establishments accreditted by the Association for the Preservation of Lyonnais Bouchon. Seems a little too self-absorbed for personal preference, but delightfully Gallic and likely useful as an argument starter.

Your Humble Correspondent would fain join the debate, but notes with no little delight that the tradition of the bouchon has spread even to these Sakura shores in the form of a number of establishments that preserve the two essential elements: a focus on the cuisine lyonnais  and overwhelming hospitality and bonhomie. Some examples worthy of your exalted custom include Le Lion in Ebisu and the superb Lugdunum in Kagurazaka.

And now, Salle a Manger lately relocated to Ginza and pleasantly packed with happy punters ... although few looked like they were silk weavers or dyers, and most seemed to have bulging purses. 

Our guide was a wonderfully urbane Japanese gentleman practising in the law, whose company had showed remarkable foresight in despatching him to la belle France for some two or three years as a young solicitor fleeing the prison of a career as an enginer (deliberate). During this sojourn in Paris, he developed a penchant for Foie Gras in the French style. Why, then, Lyonnaise is still a mystery but Your Humble Correspondent shares this secret shame and was delighted to toddle along.

The entree course was fulsome and "authentique", and YHC added a Pate en Croute to the Foie Gras and Salade Gatronomique chosen by one's fellow revellers (although the Andouillette and Pied de Couchon were also extremely tempting). My main course was a delightful Cuisse de pintade farcie au foie-gras (Thigh of Gineau Fowl, boned, and stuffed with Foie Gras and forcemeats) which was moist and mischeviously beckoning, likely adding an inch to Your Humble Correspondent's already bulging waistline.

Unusually for a bouchon, the dessert list is interesting and complete - demanding attention and frivolous discussion. The wine list is exquisite, and we enjoyed a beautiful Sancerre as well as a lovely Rhone  as well as (mais oui!) some Sauternes for the Foie Gras. One had little choice but to finish with a Calvados nearly as mature as YHC.

There are some who dismiss Your Humble Correspondent as foppish and vague but he promises Salle a Manger will be a very welcome addition to your carte of inner-city refuges far from the madding crowds of bankers and lawyers. And should you spy a lurker at the door ... why, please invite me in! I promise I won't eat much...

Pip! Pip!

Salle a Manger: B1, 7-2-8 Ginza, Takaya-Ginza, Chuo-Ku, Tokyo 104-0061
t:03-62 80 64 81

Rating: Food: 8/10; Bouchon-osity: 8/10; Service: 8/10; Ambiance: 9/10; Price-Performance: 8/10. Total: 41/50 (3 Forks)