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L’As: New French restaurant does things differently

by Robbie Swinnerton

It is always a pleasure to discover a great new restaurant — and even more so when “new” means a lot more than just “recently opened.” L’As is a small place with a young crew and a location that is easy to overlook. But since opening in early February in the backstreets of Minami-Aoyama, it’s been generating the kind of enthusiastic word-of-mouth buzz that bigger names in flashier areas would give their iPads for.

Like its short, punchy name — pronounced “laas,” it’s French for “ace” — L’As keeps things simple and uncluttered. What catches the eye is not what’s there so much as what has been pared away.

Tokyo has plenty of restaurants with a spare, clean-cut, Scandinavian-modern look and comfortable lightwood furniture. But few go so far as to banish all cutlery from sight. The only objects on your tabletop are a dark rectangular block — this is for your bread — and your linen napkin. Everything you need is in a drawer in the table cleverly concealed by your right hand.

When the chefs have a free moment, they come out and serve the tables themselves. Not only do you get to see the people who cooked your food, you get the chance to tell them what you think of it. And the bottom line is that it is very good indeed.

Owner-chef Daisuke Kaneko may look fresh-faced, but he’s a veteran of heavyweight French restaurants in Osaka (La Becasse), Tokyo (Cote d’Or) and Paris (Alain Senderens). After returning to Tokyo, he built up a strong following at Quand L’Appetit Va Tout Va!, the cult neo-bistro in Azabu-Juban.

Now finally in charge of his own kitchen, he cooks with a superb touch, assured but delicate, using premium ingredients to create colorful, creative dishes infused with flavor and imagination.

One thing about the menu: There isn’t one; at least not on paper. As at top Japanese restaurants, you leave it up to the chef to know what foods are in season and how they are best prepared. Lunch or dinner, everyone eats the same multi-course meal.

Kaneko changes the specific content of that meal every two weeks. Though there may be some carry-over, the first hors d’oeuvre is always new. One specialty is a serving of fragrant mozzarella, freshly (and laboriously) prepared in-house.

Or perhaps he will serve his delectable foie gras “ice cream sandwich,” a tranche of rich duck-liver mousse coated with savory pistachio paste, sandwiched between crisp wafers and served in sealed bags. Beat that, Haagen-Dazs!

Right now it is asparagus season. Kaneko has an outstanding recipe: He cooks the spears whole in the clear concentrated juice extracted from fresh tomatoes, imbuing them with the tart sweetness without affecting their pure white color.

He also does superb things with fresh bamboo shoot. Simply sliced lengthways and browned, it is simultaneously soft and crunchy, sweet but with that distinct earthy under-flavor. Recently he was serving this on soft patties of pork-trotter meat simmered down in red wine and topped with a parsley sauce. An inspired combination.

In all there will be seven courses, including soup, fish and meat. All are unfailingly excellent, such as the fillets of lamb baked in a salt crust we had earlier this month. Cracked open, the blackened casing revealed the perfectly pink, delicately rare meat inside, which Kaneko then sliced and served on sauteed wedges of kabu turnip with a rich, meaty red wine reduction sauce.

Dessert is no afterthought either. In fact, you get two of them: First something light, perhaps fruit tomatoes in a basil-infused syrup. Then something more intense, such as a deconstructed cheesecake topped with rhubarb; or rich, unctuous chocolate under a crisp, nutty tuile cookie.

Long before you reach this stage, you will have grown accustomed to the way L’As works. The intimate layout, the interaction with the chefs, the relaxed demeanor of the staff and the confidence with which sommelier Kouichi Tanabe guides you through his compact, well chosen and honestly priced wine list.

For some, though, the most remarkable part of dinner (or weekend lunch) at L’As will come at the very end. The check for this extended tasting menu (including the coffee) is just ¥5,250 all in.

By paring away all the superfluous details and focusing on what is really important — great food and wine; a dining room you can relax in; service that is never fussy — at a price that seems barely credible, L’As sets a new benchmark for dining out in Tokyo.

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