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Arossa spreads Antipodean goodness

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Ever since it opened, the Food File has been a major fan of Arossa, the Aussie-specialist wine bar and restaurant out on the leafy fringes of Shibuya’s Shoto district. We like the modern styling, the extensive cellar of Antipodean wines and the sophisticated food menu. But there is one area in which we’ve always felt it’s lacking — it doesn’t have any tables outside.

So when we heard that a second branch of Arossa had opened in Setagaya Ward, complete with a terrace, it didn’t take us long to investigate. After all, what better way to spend a mellow evening than sitting outside in the warmth of late summer, gazing out at the sunset or up at the stars and quaffing a bottle of good chardy or shiraz?

Well, that was our fantasy, anyway. If the new Arossa doesn’t quite live up to it, that’s because it lies in the built-up back-streets of Sangenjaya, not overlooking Sydney Harbor or the St. Kilda waterfront. It’s far enough from the main drag (Route 246) that the traffic noise is little more than a background hum. But, hemmed in by looming apartment blocks, this is not a scenic spot — so it matters little that the outside seating is virtually enclosed and offers little in the way of a view.

In terms of atmosphere, though, Arossa II (our terminology, not theirs) exhibits plenty of the casual, easygoing style we associate with the Land Down Under. The interior is warm and homely, with yellow-cream walls and dark green tablecloths. Appetizing aromas waft out into the dining room from the open kitchen. The staff are young and friendly. And, out on the terrace, they have installed a barbecue in one corner, which they fire up for brunch on the weekends.

The wine list certainly lives up to expectations. It doesn’t have the same depth as at the flagship restaurant, but it’s still a fine selection. Arossa’s owner, Takuo Takeshita, is a huge enthusiast of Australian and New Zealand wines and, naturally enough, they make up the bulk of the list, although California and Portugal are also represented. He always keeps at least half a dozen bottles open at any one time for pouring by the glass — not just basic plonk but wines of serious quality, too, depending on his whim or that of his other staff.

The pricing policy is straightforward: You are poured a sixth of the bottle for a fifth of the full-bottle price.

This makes it a great way to sample a wide range of contrasting wine types. However, be warned: You have no way of knowing how long any particular bottle has been open or how well it has lasted. In the heat of summer, the best rule of thumb is always to choose the fullest (or most recently opened) bottle — or, as we did, order by the full bottle.

A crisp, fruity Riesling made the perfect foil for our starters. The menu — which they promise will be available in English soon — is a stripped down version of that at Arossa I, and features several of the same specialties, including the delicious roast Inca-no-mezami potatoes, small but intensely flavorful spuds the size of table-tennis balls. Our cold salad of shrimp and couscous was attractive if bland, the shrimps enlivened only by the colorful daubings of pesto and dried tomato sauce. Our next dish, summer vegetables with sauteed slivers of tsubu gai clams, was far more flavorful. The vegetables, especially the green beans, broccoli and red peppers, were fresh and crisp, contrasting nicely with the soft, chewy texture of the clams.

In keeping with the casual feel of the place, the cooking here is not as polished as we have come to expect at the Shibuya restaurant. Our pasta — linguine with surume-ika (cuttlefish) in a tomato and herb-driven sauce — was good if unmemorable. Ditto for the main dishes. The lamb chops (Australian, of course) were grilled to just the right degree of light pink, lightly sprinkled with herbs (panko-yaki on the menu). And the roast hinadori chicken was perked up with a good seed-mustard sauce. But overall, the verdict for this establishment is highly competent rather than brilliantly inspired.

Hanging out in the balmy evening air, with glasses of good Cabernet Sauvignon (Wynn’s Coonawarra Estate) and Pinot Noir (Wignals, from the south coast of West Australia) to help it all down, who could complain? We rounded off the meal with hot gateau a chocolat, full of oozing molten chocolate, and a glass of ambrosial pudding wine (Rutherglen Tokay).

There are several reasons why this new Arossa scores well in our book. Top of the list is the casual, no-dress-code ambience — shorts and T-shirts are clearly acceptable here, whereas they’d be sniffed at in the main Shibuya restaurant. Then there’s the weekend barbecue brunches — large brochettes of meat (kangaroo or Tasmanian beef) or mixed seafood (shrimp, squid and fish), along with salad and a drink, which can be supplemented with the regular lunch menu of pasta, pizza and their tasty Caesar salad with prosciutto.

And for those that like to sit outside, that modest terrace is definitely an added bonus. As they say Down Under, “No worries.”