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Anis: Chef brings kitchen flair from Lyon to Hatsudai

by Robbie Swinnerton

Hatsudai has a lot going for it. This quiet low-rise residential neighborhood just minutes west of Shinjuku boasts a friendly traditional shōtengai (shopping street) and a lively annual Awa Odori dance festival. Now add to that a really outstanding restaurant.

Anis opened in early August to considerable buzz among the Tokyo cognoscenti. And with good reason: Susumu Shimizu is one of Tokyo’s hottest, most accomplished new-generation chefs, with an impressive CV in both France and Japan. And here he is striking out and setting up a place of his own.

But there has also been a certain degree of surprise. Firstly, that he should have moved outside the Yamanote Line loop, so far from the usual bright lights. And secondly that Anis feels so simple and casual.

After all, since 2009 Shimizu had been executive chef at L’Art et La Manière, a swish Ginza place with starched tablecloths and no shortage of airs or graces. And before that he’d spent seven years in France, working his way up from a bistro kitchen in Lyon to triple-Michelin-starred restaurants La Maison de Marc Veyrat and then Arpège.

Anis is a very different kind of operation, both in scale and style. You enter through a tent-like canopy, which will soon enclose the terrace tables once chilly weather arrives. Inside, the feel is warm and organic, with plain wooden tables and chairs with comfortable rounded backs.

But it’s the big open kitchen that sets Anis apart. Not from the numerous Japanese restaurants in Tokyo, of course, with their counters looking straight in at the cooking action. But from expectations of the way in which high-end French cuisine is generally served.

And make no mistake, Shimizu’s food is top drawer. He offers complex multicourse tasting menus (¥5,500 and ¥9,500 in the evening, ¥3,800 at lunch; he also does a special ¥1,500 two-course quick lunch on weekdays), using premium ingredients, prepared with subtlety and plated with precision.

Pride of place in the kitchen — and on the menu — goes to the meat course. This is Shimizu’s specialty. Not only was he head of meat cooking during his stint at Arpège, he also put in time working at a top Paris meat merchant, Hugo Desnoyer.

That’s the name on the red button adorning the blackboard hanging in front of Shimizu’s workspace that tells us what the day’s special will be. Pork, chicken, turkey or lamb: I’ve tried them all and they taste superb the way he does them.

The technique is one he’s developed himself. Instead of using a direct flame or oven, he works only with a plancha-style stove-top griddle. And rather than cooking individual portions, he prepares the meat as large joints, whole fowl or even entire sides, cooked on the bone.

After first carefully searing the outside, he lets the meat cook gradually, giving it as much as five or six hours on the stove-top, much of it propped up vertically away from direct heat. He finally carves just as much meat as is needed, as each order goes out. The flavor is remarkable.

The meat may form the peak of the meal, but there are plenty of other highlights, from appetizers — such as the superb tagliatelle-style ribbons of daikon with fresh uni (urchin), bottarga (roe) and grated mimolette cheese — through to the desserts.

Vegetables feature prominently, whether steamed, cooked on the griddle or as wonderfully vibrant, colorful salads, which are served in large wooden tubs along with dispensers of vinaigrette that you can spray on yourself. The young leaves and herbs, kept fresh in paulownia-wood boxes inside the fridge, are intentionally bitter, to cleanse the palate and reset your appetite.

Shimizu’s meals are substantial, but he keeps them light and uses very little dairy food, although a large box of cheese is brought around before dessert (there’s a supplementary charge). The closing course is likely to be a simple confection of fresh fruit.

From your vantage point at the beautifully smooth beech-wood counter, you watch it all being put together in front of you, a master class in meat cooking and carving. You also get sudden whiffs of savor from the kitchen that keep your senses fully stimulated as the meal unfolds.

To match each course of the set menus, manager and sommelier Kimihiro Yamashita has put together some excellent wine pairings: ¥4,000 and ¥5,000 at dinner; ¥3,000 with lunch.

And best of all, as Shimizu or his sous-chef delivers your plate to you, explaining briefly what each course comprises, you also get that sense of direct interaction that makes dining out like this so satisfying in Japan.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.