Who’d have thought it? Vegetables have become hip. Forget those premium cuts of chu-toro tuna and gourmet meals of beer-pampered wagyu beef: The really happening restaurants these days are those that can offer bespoke produce shipped straight from the farm.
Inevitably, there’s lots of potential for pretense. In the glitzy parts of town, some establishments even boast certified vegetable sommeliers. Out in Naka-Meguro, however, attitudes are considerably more relaxed, as demonstrated at the excellent new N _ 1155.
This friendly diner/restaurant, which opened back in July, occupies the bottom two floors of a new building, with racks of farm-grown vegetables arrayed outside the front door, each box identified by the name of the prefecture and the farmer who supplied it. Owner Yousuke Kikuchi sports jeans and a sweat shirt, and the serving staff wear black T-shirts emblazoned with that acronymic name, N _ 1155 (N stands for natural, of course; the numbers are the address; and it’s pronounced, as in English, “eleven-fifty-five”).
This is a two-tier operation, with a casual tapas-style bar at street level and a restaurant upstairs for more structured, leisurely meals. The ground floor is fitted out with salami sausages and garlic dangling in front of the open kitchen, with a Spanish ham and half a large wheel of Parmesan arrayed on the counter. Clearly this is not a vegetarian establishment. However, closer inspection of the glass display case reveals not fish or meat, but a colorful display of root and leaf vegetables.
The ground floor menu (a basic English translation is available) covers a range of tasty dishes inspired by the tapas ethos but given a strong Italian flavor by chef Noboru Murakami. This approach works perfectly with the good selection of wines, all of which are produced to organic or biodynamic standards.
We liked the tuna “jerky,” prepared in-house and served in delicate slivers adorned simply with salt, pepper and rich extra-virgin olive oil. The salads are good, and their exact composition varies from day to day. There are also cuts of various smoked foods, including chicken and seafood, which are prepared inhouse. Amusingly, since lighting up is not allowed indoors, these are listed under the category of “smoking.”
One of the main specialties here is a range of cocotte dishes, prepared in small ceramic pots and served bubbling hot straight from the oven. These range from tomato and shrimp to chicken gizzards and anchovies — actually very tasty with N _ 1155′s home-baked French bread.
Less successful, though, is the so-called Spanish omelet, which is also cooked in the same kind of oven-finished cocotte dish. Unlike any tortilla we have ever had in Spain (or here for that matter), it is cooked to order and served still half-moist, sweetened with rather too much sugar.
The second-floor restaurant strikes just the right smart-casual balance, with comfortable seating, intimate lighting and a relaxed ambience. Here you can order either a la carte, a dish or two at a time, or as one of a range of set meals. These are excellent value, at ¥3,500 for five courses (appetizer, pasta, fish, meat and dessert) or an even more reasonable ¥2,800 (as above, but with just one main course).
Our meal kicked off with a brochette of tasty grilled smoked chicken, with flavorful negi leek. Our pasta was a piquant penne arrabbiata featuring chunks of deep-fried eggplant, which left our palates tingling.
For the main courses, you can substitute the house-special grilled vegetable plate for either the fish or meat. This comprises half a dozen kinds of vegetable seared on a grill — unfortunately not over charcoal — and anointed with a little olive oil, with a miniature bottle of balsamic vinegar and a salt container on the side. The moist eggplant and peppers were delicious just as they were, but the cabbage leaf and the dry, starchy slice of taro root definitely needed that extra seasoning.
Our meat course was juicy Yambaru pork from Okinawa, nicely oven roasted with bright yellow spuds. We closed with a slice of caramel pudding and a cup of Darjeeling tea (organic, of course).
There’s no ideology at work here, but a good deal of enthusiasm. Every Wednesday this month, Kikuchi will be taking his staff off to help harvest the crops at one of his supplier farms. And as much as possible, he says, he wants to source his produce from within Tokyo, to reduce the carbon footprint involved in shipping them. We’ll raise a glass (of “bio wine”) to that.
Sad news for those who love their Buddhist-Vegetarian cuisine: Gesshinkyo, the long-running shojin ryori restaurant in Harajuku, is to close at the end of this year. Few who have tasted Chef Toshio Tanahashi’s very individual take on traditional temple cuisine are likely to forget it. For those who have not, a mere six weeks (till the end of December) remain. Reservations will undoubtedly be at a premium.
Gesshinkyo, 4-24-12 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; tel. (03) 3796-6575; Open: 6-8 p.m. (last seating); closed: Sundays. Nearest stations: Harajuku (JR) and Meiji-Jingumae (Chiyoda Line)