First impressions are everything — and at Convivio they are distinctly underwhelming. The elevator entrance, just off a busy main street in brash Shinjuku, is right by the service counter of a KFC outlet, the stern glare of the Colonel seeming to reproach you for aspiring to loftier sustenance than legs and wings.
Second impressions too. Once you’ve disembarked, straight into Convivio’s fourth-floor dining room, the ambiance seems flat and low-key. Could this really be the new Italian place with the hot young chef that’s generating such a groundswell of interest?
But it’s the impressions on the plate that really count. From the very first mouthful of chef Daisuke Tsuji’s cuisine, all doubt dissipates and you know you are in exactly the right place — and in for a grand meal.
If you can secure a reservation for lunch during what’s left of this month, then your initial taste of Tsuji’s cuisine will be his superb ribollita. He is not the first chef to elevate this traditional Tuscan farmhouse winter soup to greatness, but you are unlikely to taste better, at least in this city.
He cooks the vegetables down without added water, slowly concentrating sweetness and flavor. The white beans are so soft they melt to a puree in your mouth. The all-essential cavalo nero, a coarse but flavorful long cabbage from Tuscany, adds flecks of fragrant dark green. And underlying all is a deep umami savor. It really sings, the first of many highlights that unfold during the meal.
The next course, a platter of antipasti morsels, is just as impressive. A slice of prime akami tuna, simply marinated and garnished with a pesto of Italian parsley; brioche topped with ricotta and chestnut-flower honey; polenta biscuit with prosciutto; radicchio salad with odako octopus; foie gras with red-cabbage “chutney”; and a roll of thin chestnut-flour pancake stuffed with ricotta, pine nuts and almond.
You can tell already: Even at lunchtime, Tsuji pulls out all the stops. There are six courses (plus coffee and sweet tidbits at the end), a slow-food feast that unfolds over a span of two hours or more.
There will be one dish of fresh-made pasta, and another of “dry” (from the packet). Next a light palate cleanser of crisp, raw vegetables — much of the produce is sourced direct from a market farmer in Chiba who is the brother of another up-and-coming Tokyo chef. Then a main of true substance: a hugely tasty tagliata, with slices of beef you can really sink your teeth into. And finally a light but complex dolce: a compote of apple and celeriac, with a smooth but tangy zabaglione custard and celeriac brioche.
Tsuji himself often comes out to help serve tables. He may be still in his fresh-faced early 30s, but he has paid plenty of dues already. After five years in Tuscany and Milan, he returned to Tokyo in 2006 as sous-chef at the excellent Volo Cosi in Hakusan. But it was his three-year tenure in charge at Biodinamico, a tiny, impossible-to-book boutique ristorante in the Shibuya backstreets, that won him his spurs and a growing legion of fans.
Since he opened Convivio in November, those same fans have followed him to the unfashionable heart of Shinjuku. Why here, rather than Aoyama or a more chic part of town? First, he says, because no one else is doing this kind of cuisine here; and second, because lower overheads allow him to hold his prices down.
Tsuji also achieves this by cutting back on unnecessary frills and offering only a single multicourse set menu each month, with no variations or a la carte options. On the face of it, the ¥3,500 lunch seems the better option. But the ¥7,000 dinner is a cut above.
While there is some overlap between them, dinner is considerably more elaborate and substantial. From the outstanding scallop antipasto to the generous meat course of ezojika venison roast on the bone with polenta and juniper berries, it’s a series of winners.
Two of those highlights are the pastas, which at dinner are both made fresh. One will be Tsuji’s trademark version of the classic fettucini cacio e pepe, made with shavings of Grana Padano cheese and black pepper. The other is currently agnolotti, a stuffed pasta filled with minced lamb with sage and rosemary, over which he pours a wonderful chicken broth infused with basil, dried tomato and saffron.
There is an excellent selection of wines — as at Biodinamico, almost all natural or organic — by the glass, so you can match each course, plus some premium grappas to round things off. And while Convivio may not be quite romantic enough for Valentine’s Day, the small private room that looks right onto Tsuji’s kitchen would be ideal for long, leisurely meals with family and friends who appreciate the taste of very good food.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.