Let it be stated unequivocably and from the outset: The Food File is not a great fan of gastrodomes and flashy new mega-restaurants where style outweighs substance and quality is sacrificed at the altar of fleeting fashion. Nor are we enamored of restaurant chains, where menus — no matter how titillatingly tilted toward the fad for fusion — are decided by absentee executive chefs and implemented in the manner of fast-food franchises.
That said, we have to confess ourselves mightily impressed by the Ginza branch of Daidaiya. Part of the rapidly expanding Chanto Food Service empire (which now numbers some 25 upmarket outlets in both Kansai and Tokyo under the Ken’s Dining, Chanto and Daidaiya imprimaturs), it not only boasts a spectacular interior that outdoes just about anything produced during the overblown excesses of the bubble era, it also functions with a seamless efficiency and attention to detail that makes for a highly satisfying evening of prime restaurant theater.
You ascend a steep flight of stairs illuminated only by constellations of miniature lights. It is so dark that when you leave they show you your way down with a flashlight. But this only heightens the effect as you arrive into the spacious entrance hall and look down the corridor that bisects the entire 60-meter length of the restaurant, its course marked by a Milky Way of lights which ebb and flow in brightness, like the constant shifting of the celestial tides.
Daidaiya is huge, covering some 1,000 sq. meters and seating over 300 in the restaurant proper, with a further 70 or so in the dimly lit, glass-encased, humidor-enhanced cigar bar to your left. The space has been expertly broken up into a number of different “zones,” each with its own distinct seating arrangement, look and ambience.
The first area is a long rectangular counter built around a central well whose massive twin conical peaks and dangling wisteria-look lights evoke the spare environs of an ancient Kyoto shrine. Next to this there are alcoves with horikotatsu seating and a raised area with wooden floor, low tables and zabuton cushions, with wall motifs that whisper vaguely of the noh theater.
As you go down the central axis of the restaurant, there are intimate tables for couples, partitioned with red canvas netting; a private party room in Scandinavian cream and, at the far end, a large dining room decorated in Orientalist mode with bright brocade obi and samurai swords set into the walls and ceiling. But the piece de resistance is the spectacular sushi counter, long enough to seat 35 in comfort, for which the entire backdrop is a glass-fronted display, broken up into rectangular prisms, behind which japonica branches bloom as if in aspic with perpetual lifelike scarlet-paper quince flowers.
Behind the counter, the white-clad chefs remain in perpetual motion, turning out endless cuts of fish or rounds of sushi. The floor staff, dressed like bunraku puppeteers in chic black, are welcoming and attentive, promptly jumping to usher you to your seat, proffer fresh oshibori and help you with your menu choices.
As with the “Japonesque” decor, the food at Daidaiya is very much a hybrid. Styling itself as nouvelle cuisine japanaise, this is the culinary equivalent of Maurice Bejart’s kabuki ballet. It is a Japanese reinterpretation of the kind of fusion-Japanese brought by chefs like Nobu to eating audiences in New York and Beverly Hills. Everything is beautifully presented and well prepared, but with flavors muted and arranged sufficiently that they do not mar the enjoyment of the cocktails or wine (rather than sake or beer) you are drinking with it.
For appetizers we nibbled on fruit tomatoes wrapped with cured ham, served with a mixture of organic salad greens and a good, savory dressing; teriyaki-baked lotus root “steak” (in fact croquettes), topped with crunchy slices of deep-fried lotus and Italian parsley; and seafood cream korokke (Japanese croquettes), nicely crisped on the outside and topped with fresh sea urchin.
As main dishes we ate very tender chunks of wagyu fillet steak and fresh foie gras wrapped in a thin crepe skin, with a balsamico-based sauce as rich as treacle; and a large bowl of the day’s spaghetti, which featured kuruma ebi prawns and mixed “wild” Japanese mushrooms in a creamy gorgonzola sauce.
We tried a variety of sushi, of which the most notable are the inside-out California rolls and the huge seafood special laden with lashings of fresh uni. There is also a choice of charcoal-grilled sumibiyaki fish, lightly dried himono seafood or beef prepared over wide brown aromatic hoba leaves, which certainly looked very appetizing.
We drank Panna mineral water and a very drinkable 1995 Spanish crianza which was good value for just 3,200 yen (though the wine cellar also includes some far pricier bottles). We closed with a strange dessert that pairs mont blanc with tofu ice cream, the effect of which was definitely mongrel rather than cross-cultural progress.
But this last act was the only part of the entire evening’s entertainment that didn’t work for us. We left well amused, if not totally satisfied in gastronomic terms, having enjoyed ourselves far better than we could at Nobu Tokyo — and at a fraction of the cost. Without qualification, we must raise our hats: Daidaiya does what it does very successfully.
An even newer Daidaiya opened Nov. 1 in the recently refurbished Bellevie building above Akasaka Mitsuke Station, offering a similar menu but in more sober surroundings. Bellevie Akasaka 9F., 3-1-6 Akasaka, Minato-ku; (03) 3588-5087. Open daily, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; 5 p.m.-1 a.m. (last order midnight).
Major doffings of the cap are also in order in the direction of the good folks at the Wychwood Brewery in Britain — one of the most dynamic young beer companies in that nation of ale lovers — for deciding to site their first overseas venture in Tokyo. All credit too to their partner here, Mark Spencer, who instigated and is now running the brand new Hobgoblin Tokyo, which opened last week in the heart of Akasaka.
Rather than opting for the gloomy dark wood paneling and faux “old Dublin” look espoused by so many taverns here, they’ve given the place a spacious, cheerful appearance. They’ve also installed one of the best selections of beer anywhere in the city, with 10 varieties available on tap (with draught Hobgoblin arriving imminently), plus the full range of Wychwood’s premium bottled ales (they have a wonderfully rich, aromatic Christmas Ale that will certainly help to illuminate our holidays).
It’s not just about drinking, though. Spencer is a restaurateur by background, and he’s drawn up an extensive menu that ranges from superior pub snacks and English staples (fish and chips; pies; bangers and mash) to more extensive meals (Moroccan kebabs and couscous; Mexican chili and nachos; Indian curries; Thai fried rice). The roast beef curry brunches also promise to pack in the ex-pat community on Sundays. You can almost hear them on the phone already: “See you down the Hobgoblin . . . ”
The Hobgoblin, Tokyo Tamondo Bldg. B1, 2-13-19 Akasaka, Minato-ku; (03) 3585-3681. On the Web www.hobgoblin-tokyo.com and www.wychwood.co.uk From Akasaka’s Chiyoda Line Station (Exit #2) walk down toward Sotobori-dori; turn right at the yakiniku restaurant; the entrance to Hobgoblin is on left, just after the first alley. Open 11 a.m.-2 a.m. (or even later).