Where does the food on our plates come from? Who grows it and how does it reach our tables? It’s almost impossible to know, even when we’re at home cooking for ourselves. Eating out in restaurants is a far greater leap of faith.
No such worries at Roppongi Nouen. This is one place where you can trace what you’re eating right back to the very source, and even look at photos of the farmers’ faces and fields. Drop in on the right day and you might get the chance to meet them face to face and chat about the merits of organic agriculture.
The idea of hanging out with farmers in the heart of the city — and even chilling with a cocktail in hand by the side of a produce plot — seems improbable at best. To do so in one of Tokyo’s main nightlife districts is verging on the surreal.
But Roppongi Nouen (it’s Japanese for “farm”) is no gimmick or branding exercise. The connection with the soil is genuine: It is actually run by people from farming families, who are proud of their rural roots and hope to make the Japanese countryside seem as chic as, say, Tuscany, Dordogne or Napa.
Nouen is only a minute’s walk from traffic-clogged Roppongi-dori, but it lies at the end of a peaceful cul de sac in a low-rise, free-standing house that looks more like someone’s home than a restaurant. You know you’re in the right place when you spy the red field-tilling machine — still with residual mud on its tires — on its pedestal outside the front door.
Until a couple of years ago, this was an upscale French restaurant, but apart from the staircase by the entrance, there are few vestiges of that earlier incarnation. The first thing you see is a handsome rough-textured wall created from bands of hand-packed mud in varying colors, made from soil sent from all over Japan.
Beyond that is the dining room, with its simple furniture, whitewashed walls and glimpses of the open kitchen. It’s simple but sophisticated, compact and comfortable and, as likely as not, filled with a warm, happy buzz of conversation. If all the tables are taken, as they often are, you may be shepherded downstairs, where there are further private rooms and even a small bar area, all with the same rustic-sophisticated mud-wall look but perhaps a bit too claustrophobic for summertime.
And then there is the Farm. That’s the name given to the spacious deck at the back where half a dozen giant glass-sided cubes have been stacked up. Initially, this was intended as an urban farm, and the cubes contained crops cultivated by individual farmers. Some still serve that purpose, though currently the crops (mustard greens and negi leeks) have been allowed to run to seed, while others are being used as showcases.
Two of the enclosures were later converted into private dining rooms with zabuton cushions and low kotatsu-heater tables (and hanten jackets for when it’s really cold). This outside area also has a row of tables enclosed in plastic — where you dine as if in a vegetable hothouse — and also serves as a standing bar when the evenings are warm enough.
As with the decor and (lack of) dress code, so with the food. The cooking is best described as “country-casual,” well put together and basically Japanese in inspiration though with a few inventive flourishes. There is a basic English menu, but it is worth checking (and even printing out) the illustrated online version ahead of time.
The easiest option, of course, is to order one of the set meals. The basic Horoyoi (Tipsy) Course (¥3,800) is a light meal comprising snifters of vegetable and fruit juice; a plate of raw “welcome veggies” with dips; a selection of appetizers; a nabe hot-pot (also vegetable-based); plus rice and dessert. It’s colorful, varied and filling, and a good way to get a feel of what the kitchen has to offer.
The larger ¥5,800 Houbi (Reward) Course is recommended if a) you are not in any hurry; and b) you are fans of hot-pots, since it includes two of them. The first is a sukiyaki of naturally produced beef (that is to say, raised without hormones and commercial feeds) from Toyama Prefecture. The second is a seafood nabe, currently featuring hamaguri clams cooked in a vivid-green seaweed-based soup.
But there are also good reasons to order a la carte, high among them the venison jerky, which we nibbled on with great enjoyment as we scanned the wine list. In the low light the fine print is hard to read, but it includes a substantial number of Japanese bottles.
Here are a few dishes to look out for: We enjoyed the grilled green asparagus spears rolled up in bacon; better yet was the grilled Kishu Umedori chicken skewered with chunks of negi onion (this would be called negima at a yakitori shop) and seasoned with citrus-spicy yuzu-koshō sauce and piquant miso.
Given the care lavished on the vegetables here, the mixed salad is as good as you might expect. Ours had fresh herbs mixed in with the usual salad greens, plus tomatoes of three different colors: juicy red chunks; one-bite orange cherry tomatoes; and, also whole, slightly larger purple-black Toscana tomatoes fresh off the vine.
We enjoyed the German-style farmhouse sausages, simply pan-fried and served with grain mustard. We are also fans of the grilled Miyaji pork: This is first marinated in salted koji (the same kind of cultured rice used for preparing sake or pickles), then cooked, sliced and presented on a chunky slate-gray platter.
We were unimpressed by the thick, Korean-style chijimi pancake made with grated (and still raw) yamato-imo yam. A far more memorable combination of flavors was a nabe of hamaguri clams with bamboo shoots and asparagus spears cooked in a stock with freshly harvested green tea leaves. This is definitely recommended if you spot it on the menu.
A final thumbs-up is due for the chicken curry. When we dropped in for Sunday lunch earlier this spring, we had to linger a while before a table freed up. It was worth the wait for the curry, which is reassuringly spicy and came topped with a pretty array of spring vegetables, including bamboo shoot.
Last spring, when we first discovered Nouen, it was at the peak of its popularity, and the staff seemed overwhelmed. Now that things have settled down — and that there is an overspill area on the Farm deck — it has come into its own. This is just the kind of rural oasis the city needs.