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GRAB BAG

A few more before we go

by Robbie Swinnerton

It’s always the same story: So many restaurants, so much great food, so little time. The Food File never has enough columns in a year to feature all of the excellent places we’ve enjoyed over the past 12 months. So, quickly, before we get sidetracked on pouring the mulled wine and carving the turkey, here are just some of the many dinners that we couldn’t fit into previous columns. And, as always, our warmest compliments of the holiday season to one and all. Good health and good eating in the year to come.

Opening of the year

With all due respect to the superb new restaurants by Alain Ducasse (Beige and Benoit) and Gordon Ramsay (eponymous at the Conrad Tokyo), the highlight of the year has to be Pierre Gagnaire’s arrival in Omotesando. Occupying the upper floor of the striking, new Minami-Aoyama Square Building, right opposite Prada, Pierre Gagnaire a Tokyo is intimate in scale, luxurious in feel and suitably weighty on the pocketbook. Open barely three weeks now, reservations are still at a premium, so we’ve not yet tasted for ourselves whether it is every bit as brilliant as Gagnaire’s Michelin-three-starred restaurant in the 8th arrondissement of Paris. That pleasurable assignment awaits — in fact it’s top of our list of New Year resolutions.

Pierre Gagnaire a Tokyo, Minami-Aoyama Square Bldg. 4F, 5-3-2 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 5466-6800; www.pierre-gagnaire.jp; nearest station: Omotesando.

Pero Muy Bien

Surely 2005 will be remembered as the year in which Spain, and specifically its emblematic tapas bars, finally gained widespread acceptance. There have been many false dawns over the years, so what’s changed this time? Principally, now that it’s legal to bring in premium jamon serrano, Tokyo gourmets are discovering how delectable it is, especially the hams of the semi-wild, acorn-fed black Iberico variety. Now Japan knows what the Spanish is for umami.

Case in point: The estimable Granada group (the fine people behind Sadler, Izayoi and the Isola chain of premium pizzerias) opened not one but two tapas bars this year. Pero, in Ginza, adopts the traditional approach, with hams (finest Iberico, of course) dangling from the ceiling and above the bar area; handsome tiles on the floor; a good selection of excellent sherry and Iberian wines, accompanied by very well-prepared tapas, both hot and cold. The ground floor is cheerful if cramped and noisy, but upstairs is much calmer; and there’s an open-air terrace on top that’s probably the finest place in Ginza to while away a mellow summer evening.

Things are very different at Muy. This ultra-contemporary bar is on the second floor of the brand-spanking-new redeveloped Tokyo Building (nicknamed Tokia), right behind the central Post Office in Marunouchi. Muy boasts a bar that runs half the length of the premises, commanding a brilliant view over the passing Yamanote Line trains. The decor is all steel and glass and polished wood; the clientele equally sleek in suits and designer frocks; the very capable head chef is the talented Hiroshi Ohshima (ex of Da Pasquale).

The cocina is remarkably good, from the albondigas meat balls and simmered tripe to the freshly made mini tortillas and ink-black paella. What doesn’t work? The high-volume Barcelona house music that pounds away incessantly. But once the spring weather arrives, we’ll be able to find respite out on Muy’s terrace and gaze up at the International Forum Building. This could well be the essential dining destination of 2006.

Bar de Espana Pero, 6-3-12 Ginza, Chuo-ku; tel: (03) 5537-6091; nearest stations Ginza (Ginza, Hibiya & Marunouchi Lines) and Yurakucho (JR). Open 5:30 p.m.-3 a.m. (Friday till 4 a.m.); Saturday noon-4 p.m. and 5-11 p.m.; Sunday and holidays noon-4 p.m. and 5-10 p.m.

Bar de Espana Muy, Tokyo Bldg 2F, 2-3-3 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku; tel: (03) 5224-6161; nearest station Tokyo (JR and Marunouchi lines); Open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. (Saturday, Sunday and holidays till 3:30 p.m.) and 5:30-10:30 p.m.; (Thursday and Friday till 11 p.m.; Sunday till 9:30 p.m.)

Laid-back island style

For casual eating out, one of our happiest finds this year was Tahiti. It’s a sister operation to Adan, the ever-popular, ever-hip drinking/dining/chilling spot in back-street Mita. Tahiti shares a similar mix of expertise and friendly, laid-back ambience, but here the Hawaiian-Okinawan influences are replaced with Southeast Asian flavors. The chef, who goes simply by the name of Chap, wears an aloha shirt and produces great Thai food — some of the tastiest in Tokyo, we’d say. He may be Japanese born and bred, but he lived and worked for 10 years in Phuket — hence his Thai nom de guerre. Unlike the basic hawker fare doled up at most of the Indochinese eateries around town, his cooking adds subtlety and depth to those distinctive spicy flavors.

You will find Tahiti in a freestanding, folksy-looking wood-clad building just down the hill from the Nezu Museum in Minami-Aoyama, hidden behind Time and Style. Despite, or perhaps because of, the neighborhood atmosphere engendered by this off-mainstream location, it attracts a well-dressed crowd that likes to linger over their exotic cocktails till the wee hours.

Tahiti, 4-27-17 Miniami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 5467-4677. Open 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. (Saturday noon-2 a.m.; Sunday noon-midnight)

Post-industrial ramen

Our favorite ramen shop in 2005 was our top for last year too. But it was so good, and always so busy, we felt we just had to hold it under our hat. Fans of old-school greasy-chopstick noodle joints can stop reading right now. Afuri does wafu ramen for the new generation who prefer quality, flavor and a certain finesse.

The broth is light, made with dashi stock and spring water from Tanzawa. The noodles are adorned with thick slices of juicy cha-shu pork that are grilled to order over charcoal; half a soft-boiled egg, with a healthy golden yolk; and fresh mizuna greens. Our favorite options are the yuzu-shio ramen, with a heady citrus fragrance; and the special winter tsukemen served with a separate savory miso-based dip.

But this is no gourmet restaurant. The decor is monochrome concrete. A flat-screen monitor plays rock videos or flickering anime movies. You buy your ticket from an ancient machine at the door, and then wait (inevitably) to be shown to a small stool at the long, 20-seat counter. Ramen can never be called “slow food,” but here they give the noodles a little extra care and attention.

Afuri, 1-1-7 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5795-0750; nearest station: Ebisu (JR and Hibiya lines). Open daily 11 a.m.-4 a.m.

Standing to attention

We’ve been closely following the burgeoning tachinomi (“stand bar”) boom this year. Now it’s time to plug one of our favorite places to belly up to the counter. Towers is a hole in the wall, barely big enough for 10 at a time, but it’s a great place to know if you find yourself thirsty on the Kyobashi side of Ginza. Publican Yasushi Sato still has a day job, but his real love in life is fine beer. That’s why he stocks half a dozen of them, some imported, some local brews — and all on draft. It’s obviously a popular policy, as most evenings it’s hard to squeeze in the door sideways.

Towers, 2-8-10 Yaesu, Chuo-ku; tel: (03) 3272-8488; www.towers-beer.com; nearest station: Kyobashi (Ginza Line). Open 5-11 p.m. Monday to Friday.

Tapping the draft

Shibuya is such a zoo, it’s always a relief to know that respite is close at hand in the comforting gloom of The Aldgate, an Anglophile pub devoted to good beer and (mostly) British rock music. When the Aldgate had to leave its longtime basement premises in the summer, not only did it move even closer to Center-gai (above Recofan), owner Hanaka-san and his stalwart cohort known to one and all as Doctor, decided to upgrade their beer selection.

Now they boast 15 different beers on tap — including two of our local favorites, Yona-yona Real Ale and Baird’s deep-dark Stout — and the same number in bottles. The pub grub is authentically English — i.e. hearty and plain, but vegetarians are well catered for. And no one with a shred of culinary curiosity will want to miss the Toad in the Hole or English Hooligan Mash Potato.