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Cafe 104.5: The delicious upside to urban development

by Robbie Swinnerton

Onward and upward: Tokyo’s ever-changing skyline sprouts new high-rise buildings like bamboo shoots in spring. No complaints here, even if they are as massive as the new Waterras Tower, close by Ochanomizu Station — just so long as they offer eating options as hip and tasty as Cafe 104.5.

The name is misleading. Although drinks, snacks and cakes do form the main thrust of the menu during the afternoon hours, there is much more to the place than that. In fact, Cafe 104.5 is equal parts casual diner, easygoing beer bar and laid-back music lounge — with as much emphasis on the eating as the drinking.

Just as you’d expect, really, given that it’s the latest venture from Blue Note Japan. Food and drink have always been key components in between the music sets at the company’s music venues: The Cotton Club, the original Blue Note Tokyo and Motion Blue in Yokohama.

The man in charge of the kitchen is Takahisa Nagasawa. He first made a name for himself as chef at adding:blue, the contemporary bistro opened by Blue Note Tokyo a decade ago that for a few short years helped define the city’s cutting-edge culinary cool. Since then, he has gone on to oversee all of the group’s kitchens, including its French restaurant in Marunouchi, Resonance.

Cafe 104.5, though, is a very different type of operation — and not just because it’s a lot less starchy and a lot more affordable than the others in the group. The dinner menu is built around small dishes, many inspired by Spanish tapas, others versions of traditional Japanese favorites. All are intended to be shared.

Among Nagasawa’s specialties: a salad with succulent roast Yamakoshi beef (¥980); generous chicken brochettes (¥980) served with shiitake cooked over the plancha griddle; and oil sardines (¥880) prepared in-house and served over hot mashed potato.

The homemade fries (¥680) are first-rate too. Nagasawa uses small, flavorful Inca no Mezame potatoes grown on the Orikasa farm in Hokkaido, simply halving them or cutting them into wedges just big enough for a couple of bites.

And then there are the Bien Allstars. This mixed charcuterie platter (¥880) combines cold cuts of pork pâté, coppa ham and prosciutto, together with hot, piquant chorizo sausages. These, like most of the meat products, are from animals reared in natural conditions and processed without additives.

This is clearly food designed to be eaten with beer rather than wine. Riding the recent craft-ale trend, Cafe 104.5 boasts six taps, including an easy-drinking house special ale (¥590), Baird Rising Sun pale ale (¥790) and highly-hopped guest brews such as BrewDog Punk IPA and Jaipur IPA (¥840 each; both from the U.K.).

Tucked away from the main body of the tower block and accessible only by a dedicated escalator from the third-floor patio or via stairs up from the street on the Sola City side, the entrance is so well hidden that it feels like an achievement just reaching the front door. It’s certainly worth the effort.

In Kyobashi, another major tower project opened last month. And, like every high-rise worth its salt, the looming new Tokyo Square Garden boasts plenty of dining possibilities. The pick of the bunch has to be Basara.

It is a branch of the Michelin-starred restaurant of that name in Shiba-Koen — which itself is a sleek but casual affiliate of Aoyagi, a highly regarded old-school kaiseki restaurant founded in Tokushima Prefecture, though now with a branch in Tokyo.

“Casual” is a relative word of course. But the new Kyobashi Basara offers a minimum of formality. You can choose between table seats, private side-rooms or a seat at the counter that runs three sides of the open kitchen. And, at lunchtime at least, you can sample abbreviated versions of the complex, delicate, multicourse meals. There are also donburi rice bowls and takeout bentō lunch boxes.

The signature dish at Basara is tomato sukiyaki, a recipe dreamed up by Aoyagi’s dynamic head chef, Hirohisa Koyama. To Western ears this combination does not sound like anything out of the ordinary, but in orthodox circles it is still considered radically left-field.

In Koyama’s recipe, finely sliced premium wagyū beef is cooked up in a dark soy sauce together with onions, garlic and tomatoes, then garnished with basil leaf. As a further cross-cultural tweak, pasta is cooked up in the leftover sauce.

The sauce is way too sweet to eat on its own. But with the rich, marbled meat and the acidity of the tomatoes and eaten with white rice it is an inspired combination.

Basara: Tokyo Square Garden 1F, 3-1-1 Kyobashi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; (03) 5542-1938. Open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5:30-10 p.m. Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.