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Code kurkku: Kyoto-Italian cuisine in Yoyogi Village

by Robbie Swinnerton

Long before you sit down to dine at code kurkku, before you even glimpse its splendid glass-fronted facade, you know already you’re going to love it. How could you not? It has everything going for it.

First of all, it’s the central focus of the brilliant new Yoyogi Village development — or, more precisely, antidevelopment. This human-scale assemblage of low-rise, low-impact buildings is the absolute antithesis of all the monumental high-rise complexes that have come to dominate the Tokyo skyline over the past decade.

The contrast with the surrounding neighborhood is breathtaking. Leaving behind the nondescript Yoyogi backstreets, with their ramen counters and shabby student cram schools, you pass through a gateway set into a wall of glass and steel into this “village” of small shops, cafes and bars, all housed in converted shipping containers painted a brilliant white. Following the path as it meanders past a landscaped garden of exotic plants, you arrive at the impressive two-story building that houses code kurkku.

In the daytime it’s the architecture that impresses; but at night, illuminated from inside, it’s even more remarkable. The entire back of the lobby is a living wall of green vegetation. A staircase goes up to the VIP area, the only room on the second floor. To the left is a sleek, spacious bar. And to the right, past the open kitchen, is the restaurant, the reason (unless you’ve just come to gawk) you are here in the first place.

Code kurkku could be called a “dream team” tie-up. On one side there is kurkku, whose main restaurant and cafe in Harajuku (as reviewed in this column) have been open for six years now. Back then, its eco-friendly credentials were seen a bit as a hair-shirted oddity. Now its emphasis on sustainability and organic agriculture seems nothing but common sense.

So far so worthy. But it’s the other half of the collaboration that really excites us. Inspiring that gleaming kitchen with its chefs in well-worn white baseball caps is executive chef Yasuhiro Sasajima, whose Kyoto restaurant, Il Ghiottone, serves the finest Italian cuisine in all of Western Japan.

This is not Sasajima’s first appearance in Tokyo. But his small restaurant opposite the railway tracks in Marunouchi (in the Tokia Tokyo Building) has never had the same appeal as his charming headquarters in the old capital, hidden away in the shadow of the Yasaka Pagoda. Here in Yoyogi Village, though, he has a setting worthy of his name.

His cooking is as stylish and modern as the black-upholstered bleached-wood furniture. Sasajima won his reputation on the strength of the very Japanese touches he gives his Italian dishes. But at code kurkku, he dials back on the inflections of shōjin temple cuisine (much as he does at Il Ghiottone Cucineria, his more casual second restaurant in Kyoto). Even so, there are plenty of intriguing cross-cultural touches.

At lunch last week, the ¥5,000 prix-fixe menu opened with a superb dish of anago (sea eel) wrapped in filo pastry and deep-fried till crisp. This was draped over a fragrant asari-jiru, a clear broth derived from clams, containing plenty of mitsuba herb and a soft, freshly poached egg prepared in onsen tamago style.

Adding a final exotic flourish, ground sanshō pepper was scattered around the rim of the bowl, imparting its distinctive aroma without dominating the taste of the food. It was a wonderful way to set the tone for the meal that followed.

The next course was buri yellowtail, the slices lightly seared in tataki style, just enough to whiten their exterior but still sashimi-rare inside. These were paired with thin slices of apple and a small mound of baby leaf salad topped with a white foam (also with a faint apple perfume), and served on a delectable sauce of grated apple mixed with tangy karami-daikon radish, further spiced up with red peppercorns.

Sasajima’s pasta dishes are so fine they seem more akin to delicate sōmen noodles than to the hearty carbo-heavy meals served in the West. This was certainly the case with his spaghettini: Tossed with spring nanohana greens and plump, pink ama-ebi shrimps so lightly cooked they were almost raw, it was scattered with bright yellow bottarga (mullet roe) and just a hint of tōgarashi chili. Bursting with understated flavor, this more than anything else on the menu gives meaning to the term Kyoto-Italian cuisine.

The main course continued in the same excellent vein. A fricassee of Iwate free-range jidori chicken, rolled and pan-fried, then finally seared in the oven over sumi charcoal to give it a lovely golden skin. Carefully arranged on the plate with a colorful selection of vegetables — potato, button mushrooms, yellow squash, Brussels sprout leaves and scarlet kyō-ninjin carrots — it came with a swoosh of pureed broccoli and a creamy vegetable-based sauce that was surprisingly rich and satisfying for something containing no butter or dairy.

To round off the meal, we picked from a choice of desserts. A tiramisu made with jade-green matcha tea blended into the cream, served with ice cream flavored with hojicha (roasted tea); and a panna cotta packed with espresso, sozzled with a dark, boozy caramel sauce and topped with a simple milk gelato.

The verdict: excellent food; an interesting wine selection (all organic, biodynamic or sulfate-free); and all enhanced by that superb setting. As for the service, it’s churlish to complain but, friendly and well-meaning as they were, the wait staff were finding it hard to keep up.

This same menu is also served at dinner (it’s the simplest of the three set meals). So if you don’t have the luxury of time for a slow-food lunch, book yourself in for a leisurely evening, order a bottle or two, and just sit back and enjoy this excellent setting.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.foodfile.typepad.com/blog.