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Cork: Meals start from the wine list at this L’As spinoff

by Robbie Swinnerton

As we gallop into 2014, how better to start this Year of the Horse than with a toast? Sake may be traditional on this auspicious day, but wine is just fine — as long as the setting is as bright and shiny as this brave new year, and if there’s great food to match. Cork fits the bill perfectly.

Opened in late November, this stylish, well-groomed wine/food bar is a very new face on the Tokyo block. But the people there need no further introduction to readers of this column — or to regulars of the ace little restaurant known as L’As.

After less than two years in their chic premises off Minami-Aoyama’s Kotto-dori, chef Daisuke Kaneko and his front-of-house partner Kouichi Tanabe have moved to a residential area at the far end of the neighborhood. More than just an expansion — though that was needed, given the continuing popularity of L’As — it is also an evolution, and it arrives with a separate new project added on: Cork, a wine bar with a difference.

Minimal, affluent and very Aoyama, the restaurant has a concept as simple as it is beautifully executed. At L’As — which is adjacent and connected but has its own entrance at the back — Kaneko continues to serve his inventive, great-value multicourse tasting menus, with wine pairings selected by sommelier Tanabe. At Cork, it’s the other way around.

First you pick your wine from the various bottles Tanabe has assembled that week. Your food, all prepared by Kaneko and his team, will be matched with your choices. It is not quite as arbitrary as it sounds, but there’s definitely a frisson of anticipation as you wait to see what dishes are placed in front of you.

Not that you need to worry about your final bill. There are just two fixed-price menus: three courses with three glasses of wine (¥6,300), or six courses and wines (¥10,500). Champagne with a light appetizer is an extra ¥1,450.

The starters when I visited, like the whites offered with them, were excellent and plated with precision: a fillet of lightly-smoked mackerel on a puree of cauliflower; and a gorgeous 3-D swirl of blanched zucchini “tagliatelle,” served with oven-baked zucchini flesh and a sprinkle of freeze-dried olives.

The second starter will be constant throughout the year: Hungarian foie gras served on a crisp rusk, paired with a glass of unctuous dessert wine of the same nationality, Tokaji Aszú 3 Puttonyas. A wonderful, wicked combination.

For the red wine course, my dining partner and I were asked to pick the same bottle, as we’d be sharing the same dish. It turned out to be braised pork and giant shimeji mushrooms, in a rich, vinous reduction sauce garnished with chickpeas and crunchy hazelnuts.

At L’As, Kaneko’s genius is his ability to create modern cuisine that looks special, while keeping it affordable. At Cork, the same formula applies: good food, well-chosen wine and Aoyama style without the sticker shock. I’ll raise a glass to that.

4-16-3 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 090-6008-4069; www.cork-minamiaoyama.com; open dinner only (closed Tue. & sometimes Mon.); nearest stations Gaienmae, Omotesando; no smoking; price ¥6,300 per head with drinks; Japanese menu; English spoken.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.