Anyone with the nose, the nous and the drive to become a certified sommelier has our respect. But to gain that certification in Italy — in Italian, when your native tongue is Japanese . . . That demands the greatest admiration.
Wataru Takeishi did that and more. He returned to Tokyo not just with a knowledge and passion for fine Italian wines but with the desire to present them with cuisine to match. The vehicle for this is Incanto, his stylish little osteria close to the Tengenji Crossing in Hiroo.
Like so many excellent restaurants in this city, Incanto is polished and discreet, with no sign at street level to indicate its existence — let alone that it’s one of the best Italian places in the neighborhood. Open for three years now, it’s also become one of our firm favorites.
The first and most obvious reason for this is that Takeishi has assembled a great cellar. Visible behind glass in the dining room, it holds some 1,500 bottles, encompassing all the major wine regions of Italy, as well as many more that are known only to hardcore enthusiasts.
Second and even more important is the food: It’s fantastic. Chef Noriyuki Koike has a brilliant touch; his dishes are subtle and understated, and he takes no short cuts when it comes to using quality ingredients.
Koike was working in Umbria when he and Takeishi first crossed paths, but here he does not limit himself to a single regional cuisine. He’s assimilated just about all of them, from Piedmont across to Friuli and all the way down to the distinctive dishes of Calabria and Sicily.
Each month he changes the set dinner menu (¥6,800) to feature one specific part of the country. In May, the focus was Lazio and the area around Rome; this month it’s Genoa and the Ligurian coast. This is a brilliant idea, one that makes us want to come back regularly throughout the year so we can eat — and also drink — our way vicariously around Italy.
Koike also offers a more extensive chef’s tasting menu (¥8,500). But some of his best dishes are found on the a la carte pages of the bilingual (Japanese and Italian) menu. Deciphering it can be laborious — the other day it took us a good half hour to place our order, even with the help of the excellent, attentive wait staff — but it is worth the effort. We constructed a meal for ourselves, sharing each dish between the two of us, to perfectly match our mood for a modest celebration.
After a couple of amuses to whet our appetites — a thin bruschetta topped with fragrant sausage meat and a warming little soup of carrot accented with cumin — the first of our antipasti arrived: a carpaccio of sashimi-fresh ishigakidai (striped parrotfish). Mixed with slivers of blanched fennel bulb and shreds of orange and grapefruit, and garnished with bottarga and fennel fronds, tt tasted as beautiful as it looked.
And so did our next dish, a superb terrine of duck with a rich core of foie gras (also duck), served with lightly pickled vegetables and a dab of homemade mostardo, a sweet preserve of quince, which as the name suggests included hints of mustard.
Pasta is one of Koike’s specialties. Every day, there’s a choice of 12 different kinds, all made in house and each served with its own distinctive regional sauce. Some are simple and light, others chunky and rustic, and two or three will be exotic forms of ravioli, such as capellacci (stuffed with pumpkin) or cjalzons (filled with smoked ricotta spiced with cinnamon and mint). Samples are brought round on a tray to help you decide.
Don’t miss the wonderful agnolotti, a Piemonte style of ravioli stuffed with rabbit and served in a herbal fond-de-veau butter sauce. We also shared (and loved) the lorighittas, chunky Sardinian pasta rings, which came with a ragu of lamb flecked with tomato — interestingly, the only glimpse of tomato we saw all evening — and perfumed with saffron.
This was so substantial we were glad we hadn’t ordered a main course each. Instead — gratefully accepting Takeishi’s suggestion — we shared another of Koike’s signature antipasti, the superb panada di grongo. This small, round, UFO-shaped pie stuffed with inky-black mushrooms and slices of anago eel, is presented with a heady red-wine reduction sauce made from Cannonau, the Sardinian version of Grenache.
This flexibility — the freedom to have a dish when you want it rather than when the menu or the chef decrees it — is another reason we like Incanto so much. This is what we expect (though too rarely find in Tokyo) at an osteria.
So too is the great selection of wine. There’s no need to wade through the hefty tome that is Takeishi’s wine list. Nor is there any pressure to order full bottles. He keeps dozens open, to pour by the glass. And throughout the meal he will bring five or six to the table, so you can pick out something to match whatever course you’re eating.
Incanto is not a place for those stinting or reining in the budget. It’s certainly special enough to be worth dressing up a bit. But it still has a neighborhood feel. There’s a small counter where you can comfortably dine solo (even so, you should still call ahead to check there’s room), whether it’s for a full meal or just pasta and a glass of of the excellent vino.
And even after the kitchen closes (at 11 p.m.), on weekday evenings Incanto stays open for a couple more hours as a wine bar — Takeishi can also offer a great selection of premium grappas and Italian brandies too.