Whiter than white, cooler than cool

by Robbie Swinnerton

You can’t miss Rokko An. It’s the flash new place in Nishi-Azabu with the brilliant white concrete facade, on the left as you wend your way down toward Hiroo. From dusk till 4 in the morning it gleams out from a long, low picture-window right across Gaien Nishi-dori from (and totally in contrast with) the dark and decrepit whimsy of the down-and-out Wall building.

Until autumn that same window was mute and motionless, a still life showcasing the latest creations of Takeo Kikuchi. What you see now is a gleaming modern kitchen extending the whole width of the building, with a crew of white-toqued chefs busying away over their work stations.

Jars of pickles and croutons and bottles of gourmet seasonings line the windowsill. A capacious refrigeration unit facing out onto the street displays tempting seasonal produce and seafood. Along the counter on the far side of the kitchen, expensively dressed diners pick at expansively arranged plates, sipping their soaves and chardonnays. The room behind them, like the facade, is decorated white on white.

It’s the perfect showcase for the kind of designer dining you expect in this part of town, and because it is set precisely at pedestrian foot level, it draws your gaze right in. Despite yourself you pause and conduct a quick mental spot check of whether your own threads would pass muster in such surroundings. You also find yourself wondering if there’s any substance to back up such sleekness of style.

The good news is that they not only serve excellent food, they do so on a remarkably reasonable price scale (for this neighborhood). This should come as no surprise, since Rokko An is an offshoot of Rokkon, the classy (but accessible) neo-Japonaise establishment dedicated to the art of fine oden, in the basement of this same building. The chefs at both use top-quality ingredients (organic vegetables; happy animals; no additives) and certainly know what to do to them.

Rokko An is less a restaurant than a “dining bar” (the modern urban take on the time-honored izakaya concept) and one of the first in the city to marry the concept to pan-Pacific cooking that’s both creative and attractive.

Some people drop in to graze, nursing a bottle or a glass or two at the counter, along with a few dishes. Others settle themselves in at the plush banquettes (white, of course) along the back of the room for one of the set courses.

The standard 3,800 yen menu includes a plate of mixed hors d’oeuvres, a small bowl of consomme and a choice of fish or meat, followed by dessert. The chef’s 4,800 yen special menu is slightly more elaborate, and features both fish and meat courses.

The a la carte selections are not only more generous in size, they give Chef Ken Shoda greater scope to show what he is capable of. Since only one of the appetizers is over 1,000 yen (the abalone), and none of the main dishes is over 1,800 yen, this approach is not necessarily much more expensive either.

We began with deep-fried morsels of seafood (bream, shrimp and octopus) dusted with spicy cayenne and served with a spicy scallion sauce strongly accented with sesame oil; and a plate of sweet papaya wrapped in rolls of smoked salmon (carved freshly off a whole tranche), set on a long leaf of sasa bamboo, and served on a bed of shaved ice.

The soup of the day was an excellent cream of pumpkin, neither too sweet nor too creamy, adorned with thin round croutons topped with crab meat. We also ordered the salad of sweet ama-ebi shrimp, fresh tofu and pidan egg: This arrived on a base of lettuce and red endive, with a profound Chinese-influenced sauce derived from creamed sesame, chopped pidan egg, zaasai pickles, dried shrimp and star anise, all cooked down long and lovingly.

Our main courses were equally successful. The chicken was pan-fried with cashews in the Szechwan mode, scattered with crisp sticks of shredded fried potato, along with succulent sweet leeks and a dressing that owed a strong debt to Thai sweet chili sauce. The spicy duck steak was cut into juicy, well-cooked slices, topped with fragrant morel mushrooms, and placed on a bed of mashed potatos with an aromatic red wine gravy.

There are a score of wines on the list, all in the middle range, none over 10,000 yen, equally from Europe and the New World. They also have four available by the generous glassful: soave; Chilean chardonnay or merlot; Chianti Classico; and a highly adequate Chateauneuf du Pape that went perfectly with the fowl.

So the food is of a quality, the prices are right and the look is drop-dead cool. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. The main problem is the floor staff. They’re friendly and try to be helpful, but they don’t know what they’re doing. It’s not so much a teething problem as the absence of a mai^tre d’ho^tel in overall control. This results in uncertainty, misunderstandings and errors on orders.

The counter is the place to sit. You get to watch the cooking action, and also to see and be seen on the street.

Try to go for seats on either end of the counter, though, where the aromas from the open kitchen are least overpowering, and where you are farthest from the waitress station: They sing out their orders as if they were working at a hamburger joint.

If this kind of food appeals but the brash, bright setting doesn’t, you have a third alternative at this same address. Make your way up to the second floor to Rokko An, the Wine Bar, where the surroundings are far more discreet. They only serve a limited a la carte selection of foods, but the wine list is far more extensive.

Chocoholics rejoice: Valentine’s Day is upon us. That means plenty of opportunities to snaffle free samples from the department store displays. Every year the selection, both domestic and imported, seems to improve. Check out the ground floor of Hankyu (Mullion Building, Yurakucho) and upstairs in Kinokuniya (Aoyama), among other places.

And now, in a sign of the times, there are also several organic chocolates to tempt us. The idea of healthy chocolate may seem like a contradiction in terms, but there’s no harm in helping Third World farmers avoid undue exposure to noxious agrochemicals — as long as the finished product tastes good.

Until recently the only ethical choice has been the Fair Trade chocolate (85 gram, 350 yen) available through various natural food stores and ethnic goods shops. It’s very worthy, of course, but the flavor is coarse and cloying. Far tastier is the Newman’s Own Organics range — especially the Sweet Dark Chocolate (100 gram, 400 yen).

For diehard fans of European chocolates, though, there’s only one organic choice: Desir Noir, the top-of-the-range product from the French brand CeMoi (100 gram, 350 yen at Kinokuniya et al.). With a cocoa content of 74 percent, it’s aromatic, flavorful and as bittersweet as sin. Saint Valentine would surely approve.