The winter solstice is hard upon us; the days of wassail, mince pies and figgy pudding close behind. As is our custom, the final Food File column of the year is a tightly stuffed Christmas stocking of musings over 12 months of dining out. But before settling back and sifting through the fragrant lees of 2007, we would like to wish all Japan Times readers a very happy holiday season: Good fortune, good health and good eating!
One meal that stands out above all others this year was a superb dinner of modern Austrian cuisine at K.u.K. (that’s pronounced something like “Kah unt Kah” and is the abbreviation for kaiser und konig, or “emperor and king”).
Award-winning masterchef Shingo Kanda trained in Vienna, assimilated the classic recipes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918) and brings them up to the minute at his sleek restaurant close by the Tameike crossing and a short stroll from Kasumigaseki.
Most people associate Austria with hearty schnitzel and strudels: forget all that — or rather imagine those same preparations and flavors refined and elevated to the standards of contemporary haute cuisine, and matched with wines (all Austrian, of course) of equal depth and complexity.
This is first-class fare, prepared and presented with equal parts gravitas and panache. K.u.K. is certainly worthy of a Michelin star, though it remains unjustly overlooked. It also deserves a full-fledged review in this column, something that will be rectified in the course of the coming year.
K.u.K., 1-4-6 Akasaka, Minato-ku; (03) 3582-6622; www.shingokanda.com. Open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. (Wednesday to Saturday) and 6-9 p.m. (Monday to Saturday); closed Sundays and holidays.
The worldwide buzz among foodies is all about Tokyo as the top gourmet city in the Michelin estimation. But before we get too carried away, a reality check is in order. The proliferation of new high-rise developments has spawned an epidemic of spinoffs, branches of reputed restaurants that have been enticed to open offshoots inside cavernous malls such as the Tokyo Midtown complex. Highly professional they may be, but the food is often soulless — call it the curse of sleek mediocrity.
The Shin-Marunouchi Building, in front of Tokyo JR Station, garnered significant buzz for its three restaurant floors, almost entirely populated by spinoffs. Our favorite there is the branch of Kanda Shinpachi , which manages to maintain the earthy izakaya feel of the parent shop while offering the same range of excellent sake backed up by sakana (sake cuisine) of commendable delicacy.
One floor up and significantly more swish is Salt , the first overseas venture by star Aussie chef Luke Mangan. We loved the decor, especially the glam love-seat banquettes and dramatic artistic photographs on the walls. The windows look down over the Imperial Palace grounds. The wine cellar is a who’s who of Aussie wineries. And the menu? Well, it’s eclectic and quite hit or miss.
Mangan’s recipes, here delivered by chef-in-residence Shannon Binnie, can be excellent. His raviolo of Western Australian prawns is sheer simple brilliance, and we heartily enjoyed the Tasmanian blue-eyed cod wrapped in pancetta and served with miso sauce and Dijon mustard. But the obligatory starter, a soft-boiled quail’s egg dusted in brown sugar and thyme, tasted like the worst kind of fusion — and cried out just for a little dash of . . . plain salt.
The most pleasant corner of the entire Shin-Marunouchi restaurant complex is the open-air balcony on the 7th floor. You can grab a drink at the aptly named So Tired (it’s run by the same people as the hip Bowery Kitchen in Komazawa in the western ‘burbs) and look down on the redbrick facade of the station. The best place to sit and relax in the whole area.
Kanda Shinpachi, Shin-Marunouchi Bldg. 5F, 1-5-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku; (03) 3287-3688; www.kanda-shinpachi.com. Open daily 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4:30-11 p.m.
Salt, Shin-Marunouchi Bldg. 6F; (03) 5288-7828; www.pjgroup.jp/salt. Open daily 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. and 5:30-11 p.m.
So Tired, Shin-Marunouchi Bldg. 7F; (03) 5220-1358; www.heads-west.com. Open daily 11 a.m.-3 a.m. (Sunday and holidays until 11 p.m.).
Continuing the theme of ridiculous names, don’t be put off by the awkward sound of Pleasaurant. This simple, casual diner serves honest bistro fare that’s mostly Mediterranean in inspiration, but with plenty of Asian and homegrown Japanese touches. If you’re in the Yoyogi-Koen area, it’s well worth tracking down.
Pleasaurant, Maison Theobroma, 1-14-13 Tomigaya, Shibuya-ku; (03) 6411-5400; www.pleasaurant.com. Open 11:30 am-2:30 p.m. and 6-11:30 p.m.; closed Sunday.
But our award for the most bizarre name has to go to the wonderful Lav. You’ll find this self-styled Semi Organic Lounge Bar just around the corner from the lively Ebisu 17-Ban bar (and next to the non-PC-named Chibikuro [Little Black] Sambo).
Lav may have an iffy name, but the fare is certainly righteous, featuring brown rice and organic veggies, and the highly quaffable organic Samuel Smith’s lager.
Lav, 2-3-10 Ebisu-Minami, Shibuya-ku; (03) 3713-3700; www.val-up.com. Open 2:30-5 p.m. (cafe) and 6 p.m.-1 a.m.; closed Monday.
One lingering memory: The most remarkable dish we tried all year was a dessert like none other. A single frozen apple, served whole on the plate, its color a burnished bronze-red, decorated with a twirl of solid chocolate. With one tap it breaks open to reveal a powder that turns to apple-pie-flavored caramel in the mouth.
Entitled the Minus-196 ° Candy Apple, this was the final brilliant flourish of our dinner at Ryugin , the wildly innovative postmodern Japanese restaurant in Roppongi run by young chef Seiji Yamamoto, whose creative take on his native cuisine deservedly won him two stars in the recent Michelin Tokyo guide.
Ryugin, 7-17-24 Roppongi, Minato-ku; (03) 3423-8006; www.nihonryori-ryugin.com. Open 6 p.m.-2 a.m.; closed Sundays and holidays.
Movers and shakers keep hungry Tokyoites on their toes
Change being the only constant in this city, many of our longtime favorites have moved, closed or even reopened.
Hiroo’s sidewalk cafe-bistro Cafe des Pres has morphed into a more stylish incarnation now called Cafe Pourcel. It doesn’t open onto the street any more (though there are a few curbside tables) but at least it still remains dog-friendly. Besides a selection of delicate cafe fare on the ground floor, it also boasts a basement bistro that appears to be a casual “second restaurant” for Sens et Saveur, the high-rise, high-tab French restaurant at the top of the Marunouchi Building, both of which are parts of the Hiramatsu group.
Cafe & Bistro des Freres Pourcel, 5-1-27 Minami-Azabu, Minato-ku; (03) 3448-0039; www.hiramatsu.co.jp. Open daily 10:30 a.m.-midnight (bistro: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 6-10 p.m.).
Before the arrival of high-end pizza a few years back, the fabled Savoy was turning out premium pies from its wood-fired oven in the Naka-Meguro backstreets. The original eatery finally bit the dust this year, but has reincarnated just across the same alley with a curious retro look and calling itself Seirinkan. Owner Susumu Kakinuma, Tokyo’s original pizzaiolo, remains as antifashion and nongourmet as ever, resolutely producing only two varieties: marinara and margherita. They’re still just as excellent.
There’s a small counter on the ground floor where you can see him at work, or head up the cast-iron spiral stairs to dining rooms with funky secondhand furniture and retro-Soviet decor.
Seirinkan, 2-6-4 Kami-Meguro, Meguro-ku; (03) 3714-5160; www.seirinkan.jp. Open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-9:30 p.m. (or when the pizza dough runs out); Saturdays from noon; Sunday and holidays till 9 p.m.)
Cult-classic Mexican cantina Salsita made the move upmarket this year, abandoning its hole-in-the-wall digs in Ebisu for much roomier, if less atmospheric, premises in Hiroo, around the corner from the National Azabu store. Chef Koji Moriyama’s authentic tacos, enchiladas and quesadillos are a long way from the tired Cal-Tex-Mex cliches.
Salsita, 4-5-65 Minami-Azabu, Minato-ku; (03) 3280-1145; www.salsita-tokyo.com. Open daily 11:45 a.m.-2:15 p.m. and 5:30-11:30 p.m.