A breeze ruffles the surface of the pool next to my table. A canvas parasol stirs above my head. I sink back into my rattan throne, a cool microbrew in my hand. On a hot summer evening in the center of Tokyo, it really doesn’t get much better than an outside table at Cicada.
It’s been eight months since Tokyo’s favorite Mediterranean restaurant left its old location, between Hiroo and Nishi-Azabu, and made the short move over to Omotesando. From the get-go it has been hugely popular. But even so, Cicada has taken a while to really settle down and grow into its expansive new premises.
That’s understandable. After close to 10 years, Cicada was so well embedded in its old site — so comfortable in its own skin, you might say — that any move was going to be a major upheaval.
There have been growing pains too. It’s not just bigger, it’s now also one part of an impressive, low-rise complex that includes a separate all-day cafe and bakery — all owned and operated by Cicada’s parent company, TY Express.
The biggest drawback over the first months, though, was Tokyo’s climate. The most impressive feature about the new Cicada is all the outdoor space, but during the long winter that potential remained unfulfilled.
No worries at all, now that the summer heat is upon us. The external bar area, windswept and bleak earlier in the year, is now one of the coolest places in the city to sip craft beer. There are six to choose from, all on draft, all from TY Harbor Brewery. It’s the current seasonal special, a tasty Belgian-style Saison, that I’m cradling in my glass.
But I’ve dropped by to see how hard it is to get into the restaurant without prior reservation. The ladies on the reception desk look concerned. It’s a Tuesday evening and there’s not an empty table in the house. The place is well and truly buzzing.
Not that it feels too busy or cramped. Instead of a single dining room, it is laid out with unexpected corners and semi-private nooks. Nor is it particularly noisy, least of all out on the terrace. These are the hot tables right now. With the overhead awning and sides open to the breeze, it feels like the dining room of a resort hotel. The city seems a long way away.
Before I finish my second pint, a couple of seats free up at the inside bar. It’s a smaller counter than at the old place — just about the only aspect of Cicada that has shrunk — but I’m not bothered. I know that no matter where you sit, inside or out, you get to order off the same menu. I also know exactly what I want to eat.
The Cicada food DNA has been fixed since the very start. Mediterranean means anything from tagines (fish, lamb or beef) at the Moroccan end, to hummus and Lebanese mezze and kibbe at the other, with Greece, Sicily, Provence and Spain all represented in between.
As always, the starter nibble is a basket of flatbread warm from the griddle. Seasoned with olive oil and aromatic herbs, it is addictively good. Don’t fight that craving. Order another round, along with a mixed plate of dips: hummus; a rich tapenade of Kalamata olives and semi-dried tomato; and the excellent eggplant baba ghannoug.
What else is good? The “spicy” (well, gently piquant) Moroccan crab cakes are as attractive and tasty as ever, and so is the calamari stuffed with prosciutto.
And being a creature of habit, I invariably order the kefta (called kefte on the menu), a couple of small brochettes of minced lamb spiced with a little cumin and coriander, which are served with a sauce of tzatziki, a refreshingly tangy Greek-style yogurt dip.
By Tokyo standards the menu is also quite vegetarian-friendly. Besides the mezze-style dips and pan-fried haloumi (made in Tokachi, Hokkaido), there are enough vegetable plates and pastas to put together a full meal.
As reliable and comforting as the food is, it is just part of the package that makes up Cicada. There’s a substantial wine list, predominantly Spanish, but with France and Italy well represented. And the floor staff hit the right note of easygoing, friendly professionalism.
Bottom line, though, what really makes Cicada is the location. Settle back at one of those prime tables in the outside lounge. Spacious, calm, surrounded by water, they’re a little island of resort-like luxury.
Until the mainstream beer gardens start serving craft beer, Portuguese frango chicken and spicy patatas bravas spuds, the garden at Cicada is where you’re likely to find me this summer.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.
Don’t leave if you can’t get a table
Even if you can’t get a table at Cicada, there are a couple of very good fallback positions, right on the spot. There are usually seats available at the outside bar, where you can still order from the main Cicada menu.
Alternatively, the next-door cafe-bar, Crisscross, also has a plenty of outside deck space. The style is “casual dining”, meaning soup, salads and sandwiches at lunchtime, more substantial mains in the evening, and pancakes and craft beer all day long.