One of Tokyo’s unique pleasures is being able to eat out in restaurants that are no bigger — and often considerably smaller — than your own living room. There are thousands of places around the city with kitchens the size of closets and counters that seat less than a dozen, but which nonetheless serve up meals of remarkable complexity.
The wonderful thing about this style of dining is that it’s intrinsically informal. Even at the plushest kappo-style ryoriya, there is a depth of interaction and spontaneity that is lost when the chef remains aloof in the inner sanctum of his kitchen. And this concept is every bit as successful when translated to Western cuisines — especially when the setting is as simple, chic and friendly as at Restaurant t.r.
The set-up is typical of so many of Tokyo’s hole-in-the-wall eateries: a single, L-shaped, nine-chair counter; a small table for four off to one side; an open kitchen at the back; and the cheerful, industrious husband-and-wife team who between them run everything.
But owner-chef Takashi Oguma and his wife, Reiko, have created their own distinctive, contemporary take on that timeworn template. Open four years now, they have managed to make their diminutive restaurant feel spacious but simultaneously intimate.
There is no clutter. The walls are bare and the ceiling ducts exposed, and there’s plenty of room to lean back and move around. The floor is carpeted and the low chairs are well cushioned and very comfortable. The only decoration is a large flower arrangement, but any more than that would detract from the focal point of the room — the wide counter lacquered a remarkable luminous Klein blue.
Oguma’s kitchen is partially screened off by a sheet of voile fabric that does nothing to stop the appetizing aromas of his food reaching your nostrils.
He cooks in the modern Tokyo idiom, unafraid to fuse Japanese delicacy and outside influences to French fundamentals. At lunchtime he keeps it simple, catering to the impatient office crowd. It is at dinnertime that Restaurant t.r comes into its own.
For such a small place, Oguma’s a la carte menu is extensive. But you are likely to skip it anyway, once you see what great value his set meals offer. For the basic 2,800 yen menu you get soup (there is a choice of four) plus a main dish; for 3,500 yen a plate of five mixed hors d’oeuvres is served instead of soup; and the 4,000 yen menu comprises all three courses. Tea and coffee are included, but dessert is extra (300 yen – 700 yen) — an arrangement that will not bother those who prefer to close with port or brandy anyway.
Madame Oguma, always attentive, will bring you oven-hot bread rolls with pork rillettes to nibble on as you settle in with a fino sherry or a glass of wine (they usually have six or seven bottles on the go) while your first course is being prepared.
The highlights of our hors d’oeuvre plates were the carpaccio of suzuki (sea bass) with shredded daikon and a gently piquant wasabi dressing; the tartare of chopped maguro; and the tranche of pate de campagne, rich with foie gras and pistachios. Honorable mention is also due to the ratatouille, in which the vegetables retained a good al dente texture, and had not lost their flavor to the usual overcooked mush.
For our soup course we passed on the clam chowder and the onion gratin soup. Instead we tried — and enjoyed — Oguma’s excellent take on borscht, featuring impressive amounts of beef, cabbage and spud, and not too heavy on the beet; and his soup of tender small mussels, in which the cream was well tempered by a light undercurrent of vinegar.
We did equally well with our main dishes. There are 10 or so to choose from, including fish, lobster, chicken, duck, lamb and wagyu beef (some of these dishes bear supplementary charges). But this was a last chance to try the cassoulet, a winter specialty that Oguma serves only through the end of this month. Served piping hot, the moist haricot beans were fortified with chunks of lamb, bacon, pork and confit of duck. Although it had lost rather too much moisture to be considered a classic of the genre, it still tasted hugely delectable.
We closed with some dark, moist chocolate ga^teau and a slice of the very good homemade tarte tatin — a great way to round off a very satisfying meal, and enough to make us wish we lived close enough to make this cozy but classy neighborhood diner our local.
Restaurant t.r is also good for a celebratory meal and so we were pleased to find the wine list has much greater depth than when we first visited a couple of years back. It now includes interesting denominations from the south of France (such as Chapoutier’s Occultum Lapidem), as well as more complex wines from even further afield.
But the good news is that they still allow you to bring your own wine (for a 1,500 yen corkage charge). That means you can spend an enjoyable half hour before dinner picking out a suitable bottle at Yebisu Garden Place — either from the inner cellars at Party, or at La Vinee (the successor to the Taillevent wine cellar) right next door.
One of the biggest disappointments of last year for us was the news that chef Jitsuhiro Yamada had closed down his wonderful Marche aux Vins after more than 10 years. A longtime favorite watering hole in Aoyama, it was one of the first and the best places in Tokyo to offer top French wines and superior bistro-level meals in a casual setting.
Much as we admire Harmonie, Yamada’s second and more upscale restaurant close by the Nishi-Azabu Crossing, the ambience is more formal. Obviously Yamada himself realized that too, which is why last month he opened a new incarnation of Marche aux Vins, just off Hiroo’s bustling shopping street.
With just 10 seats along a counter of expensive hardwood, it is not just smaller than its predecessor but also far plusher. Nor does the new Marche offer the same three-course meals that (if you avoided the minefield of supplementary charges) represented real value.
Yamada’s cuisine is even finer now — we had an outstanding moules marinieres, made with sweet, tender Breton mussels shipped in from Mont St. Michel — but it is also aimed at a more affluent demographic. For a light dinner, with two or three glasses of his good wine and a couple of dabs of his perfectly matured cheese selection, your bill will be around 10,000 yen a head. If you start to explore his outstanding wine list further, then you can expect to pay considerably more.
Marche Aux Vins 5-19-3 Hiroo, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 3441-9979. Open: 6 p.m. till midnight daily; most credit cards; Japanese menu; some French spoken. From Hiroo Station (Hibiya Line) follow the shopping street to the end, turn left, then take the first right. Marche Aux Vins is on the left after about 50 meters.