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Judgment by mojito-ability

by Nicholas Coldicott

Two of Tokyo’s one-time landmarks reopened last month: one literally rising from the rubble, the other sporting a little cosmetic trim.

Las Chicas was the first to reappear. The old Chicas had been a fixture on the Aoyama nightlife scene for 20 years. It was a bar, restaurant, bookstore, hair salon, art space and all sorts else in a three-story, open-plan facility. Binding it all together was an ever-so-trendy clientele and a staff that saw the customers as nuisances best ignored.

The place looked homey, but it was not the kind of home you’d want to live in.

Then, in February 2007, it closed, the building was razed, and the au courant nuisances sashayed off to Naka-Meguro or Azabu. Now Chicas is back, having reopened March 19, occupying the same footprint but otherwise unrecognizable.

The new Chicas isn’t homey — it’s grand, spacious and consciously stylish. A bar, restaurant and cafe share one vast floor space, impeccably furnished in a natural palette of stones and woods. Although Chicases old and new were the work of the same designer, Joseph Cali, the chap clearly had a dramatic change of taste in between.

The only remnant from the old design is the brick courtyard, speckled with black and orange patio tables, ready for summer. New Chicas has lost its upper two floors but gained a basement — though, judging by the opening night party, it’s not much of a gain. Yes, it’s unfair to review a venue just an hour after opening, but the Tokyo Salon lounge bar, at least this night, suffered from lousy:

* Music. Beginning with a whole album of Chipmunk-style Christmas songs — honestly — it then careened through opera, art rock and smooth jazz with the volume spasming between a whisper and something Spinal Tap would be proud of, sometimes within the same song. When the sound system was pushed to its limit by Grover Washington, Jr.’s “Mister Magic,” I left.

* Furnishings. It’s an Asian-fusion- hipster-hangout-slash-sports-bar-cum- lounge-with-a-dash-of-university-dorm- room, and it doesn’t make sense.

* Drinks. Our photographer remarked that the menu could have been stolen from a student disco. The cocktail list began with Kahlua milk. When I asked for a mojito, the bartender picked up the menu, looked it up and down and informed me that mojito was not listed.

Luckily, they can make a mojito up in the main bar, and if you ever find yourself in Tokyo Salon, walk upstairs to order one. Generous with the mint, sugar and rum, the bartender produced what might be the best mojito I’ve tasted.

In the past, squeezing a beer from a bartender at Las Chicas was a challenge; now I can order that most time-consuming of cocktails and the fella won’t even frown. As long as I’m upstairs.

New Chicas also offers a top-quality aged rum, seven beers — including Heartland and a Kirin stout on tap — and a couple of dozen other good reasons not to order a Kahlua milk. The place is already drawing customers who look like they’ve fallen off a catwalk — but until the staff are retrained to exude disdain, it’s a fantastic spot for a summer mojito.

As long as you’re upstairs.

Las Chicas, Urban Terrace Jingumae Building, 5-47-6, Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; 11 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday; (03) 3407-6865

A culture complex at Claska

Claska, on the other hand, can’t make a mojito. The boutique hotel in the Tokyo backwater of Gakugei Daigaku opened March 29 after a three-month refurbishing break, and they get everything so effortlessly perfect that it feels churlish to complain, but they serve mojitos with syrup in a separate jug and an instruction to “add to your taste.”

A mojito isn’t a coffee, though, and it’s damn hard to stir in a syrup after the glass has been crammed with ice, soda and straws. As the Las Chicas bartender could tell them, muddling sugar granules with lime brings out the oils from the zest. But above all, I want my bartender to bring me a drink, not the ingredients.

Luckily, everything else is pitch perfect — as it should be, since little has changed. At first glance, it’s hard to see what they were up to in their three-month hiatus. The lobby layout and decor is identical; the wait staff is new, but impeccable. For guests, there is a new floor of Japanese-style rooms designed, like most of the hotel, by Internationallies founder Shuwa Tei.

The biggest changes at Claska, though, are conceptual ones. Since it took over the shell of a dreary, bankrupt business hotel and metamorphosed into the kind of deliciously designer establishment that Wallpaper* magazine would swoon over, Claska was a favorite of Meguro-area creatives. In the lobby bar you’d probably find huddles of architects poring over AutoCAD designs while the event space upstairs hosted parties by hipster fashion labels and trendy magazines.

That crowd is already flocking back to Claska, but the hotel has matured creatively, now billing itself as a “cultural complex” and turning its main party space into a gallery and design store specializing in artisanal Japanese products. The launch exhibition features traditional crafts from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures, and the hotel promises lectures and workshops from the craftspeople.

Though Kiokuh, the lobby bar and restaurant, looks identical to its previous incarnation, the menu is all new and attests to the newfound love of local quality. Dishes such as whole-roasted Awaji onion, sea bass in buckwheat batter and brown rice risotto exemplify simple and wholesome dining.

Claska’s new food director, Kazue Ito, spent six years running Kuh, an organic joint in Aoyama that was a hit with the local health-and-beauty ladies. Ito has arrived at Claska with a selection of her popular recipes and a philosophy that embraces seasonal ingredients cooked according to Japanese culinary traditions.

Alongside the impressive food selection, the drink menu is disappointingly mundane, with an emphasis on bland megabrands. Whisky drinkers should be satisfied with the range of Scotch and Japanese malts, but the real character on the menu is the Youkihi no Mai nigorizake from Gifu Prefecture.

If daiginjo is the thoroughbred of sakes, the cloudy, white nigorizake is the pantomime horse, silly, fun and full of character. The milky color comes from rice mash — the stuff that is filtered out of more sophisticated sakes. As a result, nigorizake is much punchier and often more potent than its filtered brethren. The mash can impart a wide variety of flavors, but in the case of Youkihi it’s a tart, bitter jab to the tongue.

There’s nothing remotely delicate about the Japanese drink, but as the menu says, it’s delicious. And fun. Try it with Ito’s tempeh cubes, which are lightly fried, dusted with salt and oozing a rich nuttiness to temper the feisty white brew. It would have been so much easier for a designer hotel to choose an elegant, refined sake as the house specialty, so hats off to Claska for picking a quirky one instead.

1-3-18 Chuo-cho, Meguro-ku, Tokyo; restaurant open: 6 p.m.-10 p.m.; bar open: 10 p.m.-1 a.m.; (03) 3719-8121