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The great outdoors — on a plate

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All it takes is the first hint of warm spring weather and we start thinking of the great outdoors. By that, we do not mean sea kayaking, a vigorous hike in the hills or a jaunt to some provincial onsen. For us, it is quite sufficient to salute the first blossoms and leaves from the vantage point of a well-appointed alfresco lunch table.

Good food, an open-air terrace and panoramic greenery with not a single building to be seen. This holy trinity may be hard to find in downtown Tokyo, but venture to Nakamachidai, an upscale enclave in the suburban sprawl of nearby Kanagawa, and that is precisely what’s on offer at the excellent Park Side Cafe.

The park in question is Seseragi Koen, a narrow strip of grass and trees where adults stroll or rollerblade while children paddle and fish for minnows in a tranquil brook. The pleasure of finding yourself in such an idyllic setting is only heightened when you discover that Park Side Cafe is housed in a modern steel- and glass-clad building that would not look out of place in Aoyama — and that the food is of equal sophistication.

Built by architect/designer Ken Yokogawa, whose studios occupy the upper floors (you can browse for furnishings in the shop on the second floor), Park Side Cafe wears its contemporary style sensibility with a casual nonchalance. The wait staff sport sharp uniforms of black and white, but everyone else is in their casual weekend wear, dropping in with children and dogs in tow.

Sitting on a shady terrace looking out onto a bamboo-covered hillside, we sipped on a glass of crisp Bourgogne Aligote and an Anchor Steam Beer while perusing the menu. There are four different brunch options, plus a number of a la carte offerings, featuring light, tasty dishes in an Italian vein.

Menu A (2,100 yen) opened with a salad of smoked chicken on pink grapefruit segments with a scattering of baby salad leaves and a cup of excellent minestrone, chock full of vegetables, morsels of ham, herbs and cheese. The main course was fillets of sawara (Spanish mackerel), grilled with a light coating of red bainiku (pureed pickled ume) and yellow citrus zest, served with soft-cooked eggplant and three perfectly blanched spears of green asparagus. Dessert — an excellent cappuccino-imbued syllabub — and Assam tea rounded off a most satisfying meal.

This is confident cooking, beautifully arranged on the plain white ceramic tableware and composed with creativity. This was exemplified by the carpaccio we ordered from the a la carte menu. Slices of sashimi-grade hirame (flounder) were topped with finely shredded daikon and cucumber, and lightly stained by a spectacular crimson sauce made from grated beets blended with a dash of French cidre brut. It tasted as good as it looked.

There were plenty of other items on the menu that we didn’t have a chance to sample. We are already planning a return trip for the grilled jidori chicken sprinkled with black pepper, the roast pork, and the otona-aji (sophisticated) creme caramel.

It is still too early for the doors to be left open at dinner time. But once summer arrives, it would be hard to find a finer, or more stylish, spot to spend a leisurely evening.

Even in central Tokyo, though, there are alfresco dining pleasures to be discovered — and one of our perennial standbys is the delightful little Nambutei. Tucked away at the far end of Hibiya Park, this old-school (since 1955) French restaurant is everything that Park Side Cafe is not.

It is a quaint, stand-alone house built in hybrid Japanese-European style and dwarfed by the mottled brickwork walls of the old Hibiya Kokaido. The ceilings are low, and the tables cramped together. The decor and tableware are fussy and chintzy, and the cooking is a competent but ultimately uninspired rendering of classics from the hotel school of Continental cuisine.

But what makes Nambutei such a treat, especially at this time of year, is its outdoor patio. There is just enough space for four small tables under a canvas awning, looking out over a charming, pocket-handkerchief-sized English garden complete with lupins, roses, an iron birdbath and even a friendly gnome.

Meals are not inexpensive (lunch courses start from 3,200 yen), but they have some reasonably priced wines, both French and Australian. Arrive after the lunch-hour rush is over, settle in for a slow, sozzled early afternoon, and after a few glasses you will hardly remember you are in the heart of the city.

Nambutei, 1-2 Hibiya-Koen, Chiyoda-ku; tel: (03) 3591-1023; www.nambu-tei.com; Open: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5:30-10:30 p.m. (last order); closed Sundays and holidays. Lunch courses from 3,200 yen; dinner courses from 7,000 yen; also a la carte.

Another place that has become a favorite at this time of year is the in-house restaurant at the Institut Franco-Japonais, in nether Ichigaya. This peerless setting, a lawn surrounded by trees, is unique in Tokyo, and we have extolled it in previous columns. The environs remain as beautiful as ever, but we went back recently and found changes — some for the better, others not.

An extensive area of new wooden decking means the outside tables are no longer placed directly on the grass, which could be soggy at times. At the same time, the long association with Bistro Bernard is over. The restaurant now calls itself simply Le Brasserie de l’Institut, and there has been an infusion of fresh staff.

The basic bistro style of cuisine continues. But dropping by for dinner last week we were disappointed. Apart from a robust and very tasty soupe de poisson, served with a hearty rouille, which was most satisfying, the rest of our 3,650 yen prix-fixe meal was mediocre. Coupled with the sad, dingy feel of the building itself, we cannot recommend Le Brasserie as a dinner destination.

At lunchtime, though, it is a different story — especially when the sun is out and you can dine en plein air. A plate of their rillettes with a glass of vin rouge, the wind soughing through the trees and spirited French conversation all around you — here is the finest advertisement we know of in Tokyo for the Gallic way of life.