Food without memory is just digestion

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Riva degli Etruschi - Live like a Lordling!

Back in the days of our betters, Gentle Reader, it was the want of the heirs to aristocratic fortunes to spend some time travelling to the Continent after the rigors of Oxford and Cambridge in something affectionately known as the Grand Tour. While the routes and ramblings of the Tour were as wide and varied as the participants, one of the "must-sees" of the journey was Florence (that gem of Tuscany!). 
And as befits the English colonial mentality, this led to hordes of Englishmen settling in and around Florence from the start of the 19th Century. While one expects that this resulted in a calamitous reduction in the collective IQ of the City of Leonardo and Michelangelo, it likely also gave rise to much more appropriate levels of sarcasm, pomposity, and general spontaneous gaiety (as shown in this portrait of Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland). Yes, those Spencers - including Winston, and Diana. Seems all together logical really ...

Happily, it also brought about the birth of bistecca Florentina (T-Bone steak) as said lordlings would demand their pound of flesh (and pay handsomely for the privilege). What they didn't realize was that the beef was actually only a by-product of the leather industry and they could have had it for the price of offal...

All of which is apropos of nothing except that Riva degli Estruschi has become part of Your Humble Correspondent's piccolo Grand Tour of Tokyo's Italian restaurants. And the name translates as "The Hills of Tuscany".

Housed in a purpose-built facility in the quieter back streets of Minami Aoyama, Riva is at once a joy and a rather imposing sight where those of my ilk wonder whether we're "right" enough to win entry. But after one battles through the admittance procedures, the dining spaces are bright and airy and redolent with Tuscan motifs and accouterments. Service is suitably Italian bipolar, hovering between genuine joy and sullen resentment but always prompt and correct.

The cooking at Riva degli Estruschi is superb. Simplicity is paramount in the Tuscan culinary practice [see this excellent article], which characteristic endears it to Your Humble Correspondent. Riva makes this simplicity into a virtue, and brilliantly highlights seasonality together with some sprezzatura to make the arrival of each dish a small discovery and a wholesome joy in its own right. Spencerian really ...

As befits an area so saturated with glory, Tuscany is home to some grand DOC including Chianti, San Gimignano, and Brunello - and of course the Super Tuscans. So the wine list at Riva is extensive, ebullient, and expensive. But grand, in the best Medici fashion.

One fears, Gentle Reader, that it is best to dine at Riva on somebody else's credit card. It is therefore appropriate to go with colleagues and visitors... or an English aristocrat.

And should you happen on a chortling little fat man, perhaps with a cigar and glass of bubbly, do the right thing and send over a bottle of the best!

Pip! Pip!

Riva degli Etruschi: 3-15-12 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo (t: 03-3470-7473)
Rating: Food: 7/10; Tuscaniness: 8/10; Service: 7/10; Ambiance: 7/10; Price-Performance: 7/10. Total: 36/50 (3 Forks)

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Monkeying around at Saru

Time, Gentle Reader, to update you on Saru. Your Humble Correspondent (YHC) is loathe, however, to tell you too much for fear that you will love it as passionately as he and it will then become impossible for this anti-social Fat Boy to get a reservation. As the new "go-to" option for oneself and The Once and Future Blonde, this would be tiresome. Nevertheless, ... sigh! Once more into the jaws of death ...

The art in "mine-host"-ing, Gentle Reader, is to ingratiate your venue with a certain group of customers (oft referred to as the Punters) by virtue of relentless focus on one of four or five factors: (1) extraordinary cooking; (2) extraordinary (or unusual) ingredients; (3) extraordinary service; (4) extraordinary ambiance; or - how crass - (5) price. Factors 1 to 3 will get you a Michelin star or two - ambiance is not part of Bibendum's calculation. A discussion about price for Michelin is so... well, cheap.

Zoning in just on Factor 5 is a McDonald's experience ... again, ambiance is not part of the calculation.

In Your Humble Correspondent's even humbler experience to date, an 5F performance is a very rare experience, a consummation devoutly to be wished. In a stupefying career involving more than a thousand restaurants, YHC has perhaps had two or three 5F's. Saru is not quite 5F, but it is on the journey and should be encouraged via your custom. 

Quibble not at the view from the street ... Saru comes from humble beginnings and is proud of them. Nor quail at the two communal tables inside (the pleasant summer balcony becomes a covered deck in the colder months and has two tables for four) each seating ten. After all, feasting is a benison best shared and has the pleasant benefit of permitting intrusive stickybeak-ing in the interests of friendliness. There are also four seats at the counter, but balancing has never been Your Humble Correspondent's strong point.

The menu presents as a simple "carte", but YHC counsels close study before committing to an order. The focus is on centemporary with a capital "C".  Each dish features delightful eccentricity, making the most of some amazing ingredients carefully selected from all over Japan and showcased by a very skillful chef. Serving are fulsome, and even the most valiant trencher-man will come away sated after choosing three dishes. The Bagna Cauda is excellent, and the Lotus Root and Sakura Ebi Pancake has been known to bring braver men to their knees.

Charcuterie seems to be a specialty, and everything is (of course!) hand-made en place. Fruits and vegetables are given as much attention as meats, and the cheese selection (while limited) is excellent. In an excellent sort of way ...

It should come as no surprise that the wine list is similarly peripatetic,and offers incredible value. No grand labels or chateaus here, but almost every option shows refined insights into mariage and a better palate than mine.

Saru keeps its Punters happy and lubricated, and you will never want for attention. The floor team at Saru is informed, impassioned, and infused with energy. English is de rigeur and the people are genuinely pleasant. For those as impecunious as YHC, Saru is remarkable value - remarkable enough to be a weekly habit. Think a tenner for two.

So do toddle along, but perhaps choose a day early in the week to leave space on the dance card for this humble servant of gastronomy on le weekend. And if we happen to hang our coats on the same evening sometime, just smile and forgive!

Pip! Pip!

Saru: 3-49-1 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo (t:  03-6450-4836)
Rating: Food: 8/10; Regionality: 8/10; Service: 8/10; Ambiance: 7/10; Price-Performance: 9/10. Total: 40/50 (4 Forks)