|

Taverna Rondino: Kamakura’s most excellent cucina

by Robbie Swinnerton

Now that summer is finally past its punishing prime, it’s time for the beach. September is the finest season down on the Shonan waterfront: The sun and water are still plenty warm enough; the teenybopper crowds have dissipated; and the rip-off beach houses have packed up and gone, taking their dubious yaki-soba and construction company connections with them.

And here’s one more compelling reason to head down to the Kamakura Riviera: It’s a whole lot easier at this time of year to book a table at Taverna Rondino, our favorite ristorante, bar none, on the entire coast. Remarkably, this old favorite has been going almost 20 years now; even more amazing, it still does everything just as well as ever.

Here’s what makes it so special. First there’s that prime location overlooking Shichirigahama beach and across the sea to Izu. It’s got a great terrace (if you can screen out the sight and sound of the busy coastal highway in front). Access is easy by road or rail, whether from Kamakura or Enoshima. It consistently produces excellent cucina that rivals any in the prefecture — and many of Tokyo’s better known names as well. But we like Rondino best because it combines its expertise with a refreshing absence of formalities.

The main dining room is small, with just 11 tables that are close together without feeling too cramped. There are a couple of small windows giving glimpses of the lapping waves, but the main visual action comes from behind the glass screen of the open kitchen. The decor is sober white, apart from a jaunty array of hand-painted Italian plates (each from a different restaurant in Italy) on the wall behind the counter.

The important thing is they really know what they’re doing. The manager and maitre d’ have been there from the early days.

All the staff are trained in (or at least have visited) one of their associate restaurants in Rome or Venice. So that means waitresses who can talk knowledgeably about the menu, and a young kitchen crew that is enthusiastic and adept in all departments.

There’s little in the way of a dress code, least of all at lunch time. Sleek yuppies who have climbed out of their Ferraris sit alongside affluent besso owners down from the city. Kamakura intellectuals rub shoulders with bleach-blond wind surfers in shorts and T-shirts. Older women come to dine solo or with gaggles of friends; families bring infants in strollers.

At Rondino they’re quite amenable to the idea of people just dropping in for, say, a plate of tagliolini, some salad and a glass or two of wine (there’s a choice of five “house” wines).

But they warm visibly to anyone who starts exploring the a la carte menu and the well-balanced wine list in greater depth.

There are those who make regular pilgrimages here expressly to revisit the antipasti misti. The primi piatti are also seriously good, especially their own hand-crafted pasta. The potato gnocchi (with a sauce, perhaps, of broccoli and homemade sausage) are not to be missed. And the lasagna we sampled recently was memorable: Stuffed with finely minced octopus, squid and carrot, and served with a sauce of sweet ama-ebi shrimp and fresh tomato, it incorporated just enough melted cheese to give it a texture that was superbly creamy, but not in the slightest way gooey.

We have never been let down by any of the meat courses — such as braised lamb alla cacciatora; involtini of veal and mozzarella; ox tail simmered in red wine; or the excellent tripe dishes. If anything, the seafood is even more satisfactory, be it their grilled scampi; the pan-fried suzuki (sea bass) with clam sauce; or their baked fish of the day — which is often likely to be isaki (the only English translation for which is “grunt”) stuffed with rosemary and garlic, which arrives moist, tender and aromatic.

In fact, you can’t really go wrong with anything that comes out of Rondino’s oven — from the cubes of focaccia which form part of your bread ration, to the brilliant pizza bianca, with a crisp crust, topped with fresh rucola and tomatoes, and seasoned merely with a drizzle of olive oil and salt: simplicity approaching perfection.

If you feel you deserve greater decorum, Rondino also has an upstairs dining room, where set dinner courses run from 3,500 yen to 6,000 yen (and about half that for lunch). Although it feels rather more cramped and isolated from the kitchen, this is compensated for by the better perspective over the ocean.

But the best strategy at this time of year — especially if you’re coming straight from the beach with sand between your toes — is to take over a veranda table, and spend some quality time over a bottle or two, listening to the surf (just filter out that traffic noise), and scanning the horizon for sailboats, the distant lights (too late now for fireworks displays) or the glow of the sunset over Fuji-san. On those long summer evenings, when the breeze drops and the moon starts to rise, it really doesn’t get much better than that.